Faith in science is a topic we covered here last month, but a new HuffPost/YouGov poll provides some numbers on this problem.
- 78% of people assume that scientific results are often or sometimes influenced by political ideology.
- 82% of people assume that scientific findings are influenced by their funding source.
- 87% of people have some level of trust that what scientists say is accurate and reliable.
- 69% of people have level of trust in that information when it comes from journalists.
Some of these results are heavily influenced by political party affiliation creating a nearly 30 point spread in people placing a lot of trust in scientists. Belief that scientific findings are often influenced by political ideology has a 25 point spread. Overall, people who identify as Republican are far more likely to distrust scientists and assume that scientific findings are distorted based on political ideologies.
Since so many people believe that scientific results are influenced by the funding source, it is worth noting that the vast majority of peer-reviewed science is publicly funded. It is unclear whether this concern is because privately-funded research can be aggressively commercialized and pushed into the public sphere or if people are unaware that their tax dollars are paying for so much science. Many privately-funded studies are eventually subject to peer-review, but some are published directly on companies’ websites, bypassing the peer-review process.
You can read a summary of the poll here with the complete results and tabulations available here.
One of my favorite science questions came in a phone call that went something like this:
“The power went out and the freezer thawed. When we opened it up, the freezer had flies in it. How did they get in there?”
The answer was a bit unnerving, but it provided an opportunity for a brief lesson on spontaneous generation.
Credibility in science is dependent on a process of peer review. Scientific studies and their conclusions must be written, submitted to a journal, reviewed by peers, and deemed valid and worthy of sharing with the community. There is a lot of pressure on reviewers to critically evaluate the work to ensure that only legitimate studies with matching conclusions are published. This creates an inherent difficulty when work does not jive with previously published data, since it creates a larger hurdle to overcome when convincing reviewers of the legitimacy of the new work. As with any field, there is also preference given to work done by someone who is already well known (call it street cred) or to someone who has friends at the journal. Occasionally, a poorly controlled study will slip through the cracks or an unforeseen variable crops up afterward. The peer review process isn’t perfect, but it is worlds beyond anecdotes and conclusions drawn from people lacking a scientific background.
Science requires some level of faith. Coming from a scientist, this position of the faith of science often takes people by surprise, particularly when they have accepted science as an unwavering truth. After some explaining, the intricacies of this position become clear. Taking the child’s approach, if you ask “why?” often enough, you will eventually run out of answers, despite your certainty of “that’s just the way it is.” In 1979, Niklas Luhmann1 proposed that faith in the knowledge of a third party was necessary to apprehend the complexity of the world. Faith in the knowledge of experts is becoming even more crucial to accepting science as our combined scientific knowledge becomes increasingly complex. Since faith is fluid and open to change (such as what happens in a life-changing event), an individual’s adherence to science also adopts a fluid state. When scientific results oppose one’s ideological beliefs, faith in that area of science or in those experts conveying the results is shaken. When other science is offered (regardless of rigor or peer-review), the individual whose beliefs have been shaken is now receptive to an alternative concept that better supports their ideology. This process is not scientific in that, scientifically, when a hypothesis (proposal or belief) is shown to be invalid, the hypothesis should be dismissed or reworked. In this circumstance, however, the data is dismissed in favor of any data supporting the original, discredited hypothesis. Science requires some degree of skepticism for progress to occur, but this skepticism sometimes collapses into pure distrust.
A scientist, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a person learned in science and especially natural science [or] a scientific investigator.” While the phrase “a person learned in science” could refer to anyone with a science education, I prefer to think of a scientist as anyone who uses the scientific method to better understand their world. The act of collecting knowledge through experimentation to test the boundaries of our world drives progress. When we are content with what we know, we stop learning and stop progressing; this is not the mindset of a scientist. A scientist seeks out new information and questions its validity, using newfound knowledge to continually test the boundaries of their understanding.
Scientists are open-minded skeptics. We learn to accept that anything is possible, no matter how ridiculous it may seem, but at the same time we must also acknowledge that few things are probable. This approach means that there is always a chance that my hypothesis or opinion is wrong, but until there is evidence to the contrary, dismissing a hypothesis is disingenuous. Keep an open mind, but think critically. The world of possibilities is sometimes muddied with a world of pseudoscience, misleading data, and poor judgement; critical thinking is often the only way to tell truth from fiction.
Citizenship is a personal obligation of each member of a community. Some of you may have recognized this duty as coming from my Scouting background. This obligation extends to the scientific community, of which many of us are members at some level. I take this challenge seriously, and will do my best to maintain trust, honesty, and scientific integrity in all of my work. For the purposes of this blog, I will try to stay away from expressing unfounded opinions outside of this first post, and I will make sure to substantiate my explanations as best I can. If, for any reason, anyone feels that I have not sufficiently explained a topic or you feel that I have wandered away from substantive explanations, then I invite you to comment appropriately and call me out for my transgressions. The peer review process is rarely perfect, but it encourages a higher standard and usually catches the oversights that may otherwise be perpetuated.