Can public trust in science – and scientists – be restored? : Information Center
Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank says mistrust jeopardizes the country’s future as an economic powerhouse.
When University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank was five years old, he found his father’s science fiction magazines featuring images of bug-eyed monsters and moonscapes. This was the start of Frank’s love affair with the stars and science itself.
“To me, it was an almost spiritual thing,” Frank says. “I felt this powerful sense of awe and sacredness about the vast sky, and the fact that I was just one story among endless stories.”
Frank wishes everyone could look at science with the same kind of awe and wonder. But given the public’s growing distrust of scientists, he knows it’s a tall order, with economic ramifications.
“The nation that controls the science highlands controls the future,” says Frank, confident that public trust in science will return, but it will take time.
Q&A with Adam Frank
What does it mean to be a scientist?
Franc: People get into science because they have intense curiosity. Every child is fundamentally a scientist; they like to push things to see what happens. Luckily, we can turn that curiosity into lifelong work. If you loved observing ants when you were a child, you become an entomologist. If you liked gazing at the stars, you become an astronomer. Being a scientist also means being an engineer who likes to build things to see if they work. A scientist is just a person who is willing to stay with a question for hours, days, weeks, or years. You fall asleep at night and can’t wait to wake up and get back to the problem you’re working on.
So, what attracts you the most? The question, the search for an answer or the answer itself?
Franc: Whatever answer I get, I just move on to the next question, so it’s the inquiry — the absorption into the question — that counts. When I’m working on a math derivation, I lower my head and go for it, and then suddenly five hours have passed and I haven’t noticed anything at all. You simply disappear into the work. I think the same thing happens with musicians and artists. And there’s this feeling, especially with the deeper questions, that something amazing is waiting to be seen just on the horizon. So for me, it’s the journey that’s so engaging.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have about science and scientists?
“Sowing mistrust in science is a very dangerous and slippery slope.
Franc: I remember seeing a poll a few years ago that showed the public trusted scientists more than people in other professions. But in the same poll, the public said scientists don’t have feelings like everyone else. They apparently got this idea from watching TV shows where scientists were portrayed as Mr. Spock on star trek. This is, of course, the biggest misconception. Scientists fall in love, we get excited when our baseball teams win (the Mets, thank you very much), we’d throw ourselves in front of a bus to help our kids – there’s basically no difference between a scientist and anyone else. ‘other.
According to a Pew Research Center survey published in February 2022, the American public’s trust in scientists has declined significantly over the past two years. What do you think explains this?
Franc: It has a lot to do with the COVID pandemic. Because the data was new and constantly changing, scientists couldn’t always get it right at first. But then, very quickly, they understood that, which is why we had a vaccine in less than a year. On top of that, the pandemic has become politically polarized, with experts like Dr. Fauci being vilified. Moreover, some very well-funded people have led efforts for years to subvert the public understanding of science. This is especially true for climate science, as it threatens the bank accounts of people working in the oil and coal industries. But sowing mistrust in science is a very dangerous and slippery slope. You can’t just point to a scientific field and call it a hoax. This will spill over into other areas of science. And the problem with that is that science is a central pillar of this country’s success. Now, all of this misinformation and scientific denial is being spread for purely political purposes, and we’re going to pay a heavy price if we don’t fix it.
Some skeptical scientists have cast doubt on the COVID vaccine because it appeared to have been developed too quickly. How do you respond to this concern?
Franc: The problem is that they don’t understand that the technologies behind these new vaccines have been in the works for years through government-funded research. We were lucky that these developing biotechnologies easily turned into COVID vaccines. The problem is that most people don’t understand how research works, how scientists as a community work together for years to establish what they know and what they don’t know.
What do people need to understand about the scientific research process?
“People used to be humble in the face of their ignorance.
Franc: More than being able to cite the facts of science, what we really need is for people to understand its methods. I like to talk about the 3 “S” of science: spitballs, supertankers and stadiums. Consider the question, “Is coffee bad for you?” Every couple of days you hear news of a research study showing that it’s bad for you or, not to wait, it’s actually good for you. But each research paper is just a little spit that is tossed on the supertanker of science. It takes seven miles for a supertanker to turn around. This means that all of those spitballs must line up on the same side for the supertanker to change course. In other words, any individual research study does not mean much on its own. Finally, who runs the scientific supertanker? Everybody ! — the equivalent of a stadium of scientists. A consensus must develop in the scientific community before it can be said that science “knows” something. What does this tell us about coffee and health? This tells us that science doesn’t know yet. When you see all these reports going back and forth, it tells you that the science is undecided. It’s the opposite of something like climate change where all the studies have been saying the same thing for about 30 years. When scientists argue, it’s about things on the edge of research, about questions that haven’t been answered yet. It takes time to solve these kinds of questions.
What is the price we pay for scientific misinformation?
Franc: The implications are very simple. The nation that controls the science highlands controls the future. Before World War II, Germany was a scientific power. It is, after all, the birthplace of quantum mechanics. With the Nazis it was clear that the nation was heading towards authoritarianism and much of their scientific talent left for the United States. So if the United States continues on this path of science denial, the best and brightest in the world will not come here. It’s really about our nation’s ability to be an economic powerhouse.
What’s the best way to gain the trust of skeptics?
Franc: I think they need to understand how science works. We don’t gain their trust just by telling them about the results. They must understand how scientists know what they know. Skeptics should also be encouraged to imagine life without science. They should think about the robotic hip replacement that lets their grandma walk around again. It’s not like a special version of science is used to study the climate and another is used to do hip replacements; it is the same science. The same process is used in research that leads to medical devices, cell phones, computers, vaccines and understanding climate.
It seems that science deniers have been able to use social media and sound bites effectively. How can you counter this?
Franc: Maybe in time we will become savvy consumers of media, but right now we are in the throes of madness.
But there is another problem that goes even deeper. People used to be humble in the face of their ignorance. I don’t know a lot of things, but I won’t flaunt them. If I don’t know something, I admit it. But somehow, we’ve gotten to a point where ignorance has become a mark of pride. And it’s a social issue. You wouldn’t want to fly in a plane piloted by some moron who had no experience but gloated about the fact that “he didn’t need experts to tell him what to do”.
Do you hope?
Franc: I’m still hopeful, because what’s the alternative? But we could be in for a tough time over the next few decades as we try to fix this problem. There are people who are reaping both economic and political benefits from all this polarization, and they are bringing science into the mix. These are the forces that will take time to develop.
Adam Frank astrophysicist
A self-proclaimed “science evangelist,” Frank writes regularly and talks about topics such as intelligent life forms in the universe, high energy density physics, space exploration and missions, climate change, and more.
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