Where does the current widespread distrust of science come from?

17 November

It’s important to note first that scientists are still trusted. If you look at the lists of which professions the public do trust, scientists are well up there.

But currently there’s a tide of mistrust of authority and experts which is a relatively new thing – or certainly the current wave of it is. Nobody wants to be told what to think, and that’s how science can come across to people. We’re presenting knowledge, or as close as we can get to it. Essentially we’re trying to tell people “this is the way it is, this is true, this is more important than your opinions.” So it’s kind of understandable that people might not like that, especially when we’re in a post-truth era, when people are getting more and more distrustful – rightly, in many cases – of what’s being told to them by politicians, or people in authority in general. 

This can be harmful of course. The example that’s always rolled out is in vaccination, because vaccination requires mass uptake to work. It’s particularly insidious if mistrust of the science spreads because it only needs a relatively small minority to decide they don’t want to take part in it for the whole system to fail and put everyone at risk. It’s a very easy to sow mistrust for vaccination because people’s desire to protect their own children is very primal. It’s easy to play on that by talking about risks.

“People are actually saying ‘empiricism is old hat,’ And that’s going to result in the end of the world – really”

The other one we always talk about is global warming. There’s such an industry out there debunking the science – and in fact undermining the trustworthiness of science entirely. People are actually saying “empiricism is old hat, you can’t trust this way of finding out knowledge any more.” And that’s going to result in the end of the world – really.

However, when you tell people that undermining science is often done on the part of vested interests, it doesn’t seem to get you to any satisfactory place. When you look at the “information” that climate change deniers are putting out, they use exactly those tactics. They say “look where the scientists are getting their funding, it’s in their interests to talk about climate change”. So I tend to think the only way you can argue this is from an evidence-based approach. Just bang on about the actual science and the actual evidence, and don’t try to get into these people’s motivations. That’s murky territory and plays into the hands of people who like to see conspiracies.

“A lot of climate change deniers don’t want to believe in climate change purely because the implications would go against their personal politics”

It’s also tied up in politics, of course. Real action on climate change requires government intervention. We tend to find people who are left-leaning are more likely to agree that climate change requires government action. Libertarians and right-leaning people tend to think that either the markets will sort it out or it’s not a problem, because that’s what they tend to think about the world in general. So those kinds of thinking will very often dictate people’s views about science.

There are a lot of prominent climate change deniers who don’t want to believe in climate change purely because the implications would go against their personal politics. Once again that undermines their faith in science as such. And on a much more basic level, politicians will simply echo what people broadly think matters. If there’s no public will to make – possibly very expensive and disruptive – change, then politicians won’t support the science.


These are good points!

There is also an issue about communication of risk. Scientifically proven ≠ certain, but this is not a message anyone is keen to pass to the public. Scientists are not keen to push it as they don't want everything they say questioned. Politicians want to use scientific certainty as a backstop to policy decisions. And the media like both the certainty (x is now proven!!) and the big reveal U turn (Y is dangerous after all!!). All parties collude in the misrepresentation of risk. The public too, as they rarely want to dig deep into how the sausage is made, makes eating the burgers / driving the cars / whatever else too difficult.

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