It’s the trust, stupid

Trust in science (and politics and media) is eroding. Politics and media try to draw on the remaining trust for science thus eroding the foundation of trust even more. Communicators can help re-establish trust with transparency.

There’s a new buzzword in German politics: “Lügenpresse” (mendacious press). Many people show growing distrust in the traditional media, some even believe in a big conspiracy scheme. (This holds true for many people all over the world, just read the great piece of Dave Eggers in the „Guardian“ on a Donald Trump rally.) Conspiracy theories are not limited to the political realm, more often than not science or scientists, sometimes pseudo‐scientists, are involved: anti‐vaccine movement, so‐called climate skeptics, GMO advocates and anti‐GMO people, animal research, or, on the more ludicrous side, the proponents of “chemtrails”. It’s not always pseudo‐science that fuels the debate. The lines between pseudo‐science and real science are blurred. Where does advocacy start, where does science end? Take, for instance, Gilles de Séralini and his skewed study on rats growing tumors after being fed GM corn (see, for instance, here and here for references). Another example is Björn Lomborg, political scientist and author of “The Sceptical Environmentalist”.

Polls show a general decline of trust in many institutions and professional groups, especially in media and politics. Scientists are still amongst the most trusted people. However, the systems of science, politics, and media are closely intertwined; be it through funding, through scientific backing of political decision‐making or through selling attention. Even more so, I think that media and especially political organizations (eg. parties, NGOs, Think Tanks) try to boost their waning credibility through using science and scientists as a source of trust.

Some scientists leave the scientific system to advocate for certain causes, be it for ethical reasons or money or political or personal career. Worse: Some scientists stay in the system but start to advocate. What they do: They stay nominally in the scientific system but they are actually acting outside the system. Cheating means leaving the system. Misinforming means leaving the system. Withholding information, eg. the sources for funding, means leaving the system.

We should look at the intertwined system from a communication’s point of view. What binds the system together? Trust.
Traditionally, the system comprised several clearly discernible players, with specific roles, who all knew about each other and trusted each other. First of all, the scientists working in the labs or offices coming up with new ideas and putting them to test; then the peers reviewing it and the journals publishing it. Finally came the media outlets picking up on published and peer‐ reviewed work. Alongside went the politicians or funding bodies responsible for securing financial support, relying on reports, peer‐reviews, and media coverage.

This system is being eroded from many sides. Highly politicized (or heavily marketed) science leads to public claims and counter‐claims on many different issues, be it GMO, climate change, or the promise of certain therapies, eg. stem cell therapies, and nutrition (what will give you cancer and what will prevent it). Another area of growing distrust is the role of big scientific publishing companies with their pricing and quality claims opposed to open access and open science. Especially the high‐impact journals are attacked because there’s only one thing that strongly correlates with impact factor, and that is the retraction rate (see here for a  study by Björn Brembs on the subject). Then, there’s the diminishing expertise in media companies due to budget cuts. And there’s the growing marketing skills of scientists (and their communication departments) to “sell” their projects to funding bodies (with counter‐claims made by those who did not get funding). All of this has nothing to with the internet as such, and yet, it is the internet that makes all those fights and jealousies easily accessible and visible, thus eroding the foundation of trust.

So it’s about trust. Where does trust come from? Reputation and transparency. Reputation stems from quality. Who is to judge quality in science? Peers. What about the public? Lay people can hardly judge the quality of science, yet, they rely on science one way or another (there’s an interesting paper on the subject by Dan M. Kahan).

Non-scientists need secondary indicators such as (i) high‐impact journals (as I said, those are under attack and not widely known), (ii) media coverage (also under attack by budget cuts and by general distrust, “Lügenpresse”), (iii) brand names (Stanford, MIT, Max Planck, Nobel Prize), or (iv) transparency. Science communication can actively influence transparency. It has some influence on brand names and, to a certain extent, on media coverage.

The fact that science communicators in Germany recently called for quality control or guidelines is telling. It comes down to the fact that many actors in science communication are aware of the growing distrust. However, it is not only distrust in our communication efforts, but a far more widespread distrust in the system of science, publication, and funding. An example from the US is the Flint Water Crisis.

Those who call for quality control and those who want to follow the guidelines are not the problem. The problem are those who are not aware of any problem as they are convinced of their own credibility (or the quality of their brand name). The most important point I see where professional communicators can fine‐tune something is transparency. Traditional institutional science communication was about controlling the message. Now it’s managing communication channels. We need to address scientists, fellow communicators, politicians, and media alike to resolve the crisis of trust. It’s about lifting the veil to re‐establish trust.

Please note: I prepared this paper for a retreat of the Siggen Circle.  I added the links afterwards.

tl;dr: Trust in science (and politics and media) is eroding. Politics and media try to draw on the remaining trust for science thus eroding the foundation of trust even more. Communicators can help re-establish trust with transparency.