In a short but thought-provoking piece in Science this week entitled America’s Crisis of Faith in Science (apologies, subscription required), Todd Pittinsky discusses the role that faith plays in the public’s reception of science. Strangely, this is not so different on how the public responds to religion. The idea is that the public has faith in an establishment that is supposed to be authoritative and better placed to impart “truthful” information.
There are a few ways this predicament can be rectified, as laid out by Pittinsky. I select the two most important:
(1) Journalists should be given access to data and plots to report in the public sphere. The plots usually represent the most important contribution to any experimental paper, so should be made more widely accessible.
(2) Science education for the public should be taken more seriously. This will enable the non-expert public to understand the plots published in newspaper or magazine articles.
The Economist does a good job of presenting data and plots to illustrate their points in a clear and understandable manner. This should be more widely adopted practice, especially in science journalism. It is difficult to enact change such as this, but Pittinsky does at least bring to light this important problem.
As long as these kinds of changes are not widely adopted, it will always be difficult to convince the public on an issue that faces a large resistance from a powerful profit-driven sector in the economy. This is because the public intakes science on faith. When there is an opposing “authority” presenting a different viewpoint, it is difficult for the public (including scientists not in the field) to understand what is factual.
Historically, this has proven to be the case on the issues of cigarette addiction and leaded gasoline usage. Although the scientific consensus was able to prevail in the public domain in both these instances (at least in most places in the world), it was only long after the scientific research had been conducted. Hopefully, in the near future we can shorten the time from scientific consensus to public acceptance.