Why We’ve Stopped Trusting Science

The 1950s was the apex of scientists and scientific credibility. My parents, like most of their peers, were taken in by heroic media depictions of Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, and the outpouring of scientific ingenuity in the cold war race to the moon. Like many of the children of this doctor-knows best generation, I was formula-fed, fully vaccinated and dosed with antibiotics at the first sign of sore throat.

Only one of these health prescriptions-vaccination-is alive and well today, though recent claims by Jim Carey’s wife Jenny McCarthy on Oprah that vaccination caused her son’s autism have some parents running scared. At the same time, Australia’s efforts to halt climate change have ground to a halt. In the wake of errors in the report by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the ‘climategate’ email row-which saw British scientists accused of massaging climate data to disguise falling temperatures-public distrust of climate science is at an all time high. Such scares and scandals, writes Hannah Devlin in the Times Online, have “worrying implications… for the integrity of scientific research…and for the credibility of the scientific method”.

The scientific method provides a way of knowing that, like democracy, may be the worst way of knowing things, except for all those other ways that have been tried. Scientists are people who know how to use the method, and understand that only those claims that survive it can be called “facts” or “true.” The rest is just conjecture. If we want the most reliable facts available about the world available, science is our method, and scientists the go-to boys and girls.

But we don’t trust science-and revere scientific authorities-like we once did, who is to blame? The bone is usually pointed at the media, which does bear some responsibility for the problem. This is seen most clearly in the climate change debate, where the standing given to the contrary position of denialists gives them credibility that as mostly non-scientists, they haven’t earned.

Climate change deniers are largely funded by conservative think-tanks that are, in turn, backed by some of the biggest and wealthiest carbon-emitting corporates on the planet. In one study, 78 per cent of books denying the reality of climate change or the need to act on it were linked to conservative think tanks. Few of these authors had a PhD, even from less-than-relevant scientific disciplines like biology.

Despite this, the “balance” requirement sees climate change deniers regularly trotted out and given equal standing on the podium with scientists with relevant expertise, or allowed to fly solo in extended media interviews. When Lord Christopher Mockton, the 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, British business consultant, policy adviser, writer, columnist, puzzle inventor and climate change denier was in Australia recently, he appeared in the media 455 times. In contrast, when scientist James Hansen touched down at about the same time-Hansen heads NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University-he gained only 61 media mentions.

But the power of capitalist marketing and longstanding media modus operandi are not solely to blame. Scientific researchers, the businesses that commercialise and market their work and those who barrack uncritically for them from the sidelines, also bear some responsibility for declining levels of public trust in science. Vaccination is a classic case. Public health programs to support childhood immunisation rely on public trust that the jabs children are getting are both safe and effective. The health bureaucracy, medical doctors and community-based organizations vigorously promote vaccination as part of what they see as their broader remit to lionise evidence-based medicine over unproven cures.

All well and good, except when real problems arise with vaccination, and such groups go to ground. Just last month, the Australian government was forced to suspend the national flu vaccination program for children under five after adverse reactions by hundreds of children around the nation, some requiring hospitalization. Media reports soon raised the possibility that a “too cosy” relationship between the vaccine manufacturer and the government may have corrupted decisions about its use, and that parents had been told to give it to their kids before adequate safety and efficacy testing and a proper risk/benefit analysis had been done.

For example, Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert from the Australian National University, told the ABC that before vaccines were approved and recommended for use by government, better studies and risk/benefit analyses were needed. “Before we roll out a vaccine to millions of people…we need to do studies of thousands of people over a period of time to make sure we are always going to do more good than harm with the vaccine…[Currently we don’t have] enough data to know how effective [the vaccine is] going to be.”

In the wake of the problem, and issues arising at around the same time with a childhood pneumococcal vaccination, researchers at the Telethon Institute for Child Health have made urgent calls for a whole-of-life immunization register to help evaluate the safety and effectiveness of vaccination programs.

Such claims would no doubt be shocking to many Australians, who may have assumed that those who tout the importance of evidence, actually practice what they preach. Australians who might have assumed that the medical interventions their government pays for and their doctors promote are supported by a rigorous and fulsome evidence-based: otherwise why would they support them? That these assumptions may be false can, and should be expected, to have a predictable effect-the undermining of trust in science.

We will never go back to the days when science was the new religion, and men in white coats were expected to cure all the ills of the world. Nor should we. Reverence for authority should always be tempered, and no institution or profession mucking about in the real world can remain on a pedestal long. But by claiming the respect they deserve, and striving to ensure they deserve it, science may be able to get the public trust it needs to survive and prosper back.

Publication history

Why We've Stopped Trusting Science  The Sun Herald