Creating a climate of trust between science, policy and the wider public will be essential if we are to survive the global challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Establishing the trustworthiness of the various experts we encounter can empower us to sort misinformation (containing unintentional errors) from disinformation (intended to deceive). Trusting experts is something we all have to do to make informed decisions about our lives.
We cannot, as individuals, be expert in all things. We need others in areas where we are not expert. Of course, we can be discerning in how we approach expertise, and in who we trust.
In February 2020, I joined an EU-funded project (PERITIA) to investigate public trust in scientific expertise. The associated group of scientists, philosophers and social scientists sought to support citizens and policymakers in identifying trustworthy expertise and to understand issues that affect trust in science.
Little did we know how important this issue would become in the months and years that followed. As relatively simple measures such as mask-wearing during the pandemic became contentious, I became more concerned with how scandals and controversies have impacted on our trust in science – including scandals from before the pandemic.
Many of the same scientists who denied the truths around smoking have denied there is scientific evidence showing the harms of acid rain
These are the subject of a six-part podcast series I’ve made – The Trust Race. Understanding how trust is established, absent, or broken is essential if we are to do better when faced with global challenges including climate change, biodiversity loss or public health emergencies.
Masks as political wedge issue
Choosing to wear a mask and engage with other public health measures during the Covid-19 pandemic became a contentious issue. This was seized upon, if not driven by, those with political motivations.
When Covid-19 arrived we knew relatively little about the virus. The associated public health advice on issues including mask-wearing evolved as scientists learned more about how it spread. The advice on masks moved from “they won’t work” to “you won’t wear them properly” to “you should probably wear one” to “you must wear one, and it should be made from a very specific material”.
The changes led to uncertainty, and for many people, confusion. In a society where scientific advice and expertise had previously been presented to governments and the public as complete and definitive, the evolving mask situation meant trust was harder to establish.
Our Government has been slow at establishing a public inquiry to understand our response to Covid-19. One area it might examine is the dynamic between experts, policymakers and the public during the pandemic. How can expert-informed policy manage evolving scientific knowledge? How can it do this in such a way that governments don’t look like they are losing control of things by constantly changing their advice? What roles can “trust proxies” such as journalists and other media play in establishing trust?
Inaction during AIDS/HIV epidemic
In the 1980s, at the height of the Aids crisis, governments sat on their hands. They did not fund research into cures. They did not really provide healthcare either. This was because Aids was primarily affecting people in the LGBTQ+ community.
When HIV emerged, government inaction meant people had to fight for their lives to get access to medication and clinical trials. In her book, Let the Record Show, author and humanities professor Sarah Schulman describes how activists from Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) forced those in positions of power to fund the science and healthcare to ease the suffering of those affected.
Policies excessively focus on people taking individual action, while large polluters go unchallenged as they perform greenwashing
It is still the case that activism drives research and healthcare for many in underrepresented communities. I think it’s fair to ask, how does this affect the relationship those communities have with research? How does it impact on their trust of scientists? Scandals such as this underline the importance of science and scientific policy being carried out, and informed by, diverse groups of people who are conscious of their biases, if science is to be trusted by all.
Scientists helped tobacco companies seed doubt
Despite the harmful effects of smoking on human health being known since the 1950s, tobacco companies managed over the years to slow down and prevent public health measures from being implemented. Historian of science, Prof Naomi Oreskes, has documented the many ways in which scientists helped tobacco companies to manufacture doubt around the dangers of smoking. Incredibly, many of the same scientists who denied the truths around smoking have denied there is scientific evidence showing the harms of acid rain, of a hole in the ozone layer, or of human-caused climate change.
As a scientist, I am very fortunate to work in a profession that is trusted by the public. It is essential, however, that we work to maintain and deserve our trustworthiness. There will always be bad actors, but we can mitigate the corrosive effects of their actions on our trustworthiness by investing in institutions that build and maintain community.
Learned societies, professional organisations, peer-reviewed research, well-funded public universities, places where the public and scientists can interact: using each of these, we can work with and for each other, growing public trust in what we do as scientists, and holding one another accountable.
The distribution of vaccines for Covid-19 has been inequitable. Citizens of rich countries are far more likely to have received multiple doses and boosters of mRNA vaccines than citizens of poorer countries.
In March 2023, Nobel Prize winner Josef Stiglitz condemned this inequity. Together with many current and former presidents and prime ministers, other Nobel Prize winners and former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, he called on governments to “never again” allow “profiteering and nationalism” to trump the needs of humanity during a pandemic. A 2022 study published in the journal Nature suggests more than 1 million deaths would have been prevented in 2021 alone if vaccine distribution had been more equitable.
Science as an academic pursuit for knowledge and science as for-profit industry are quite different. I have no problem with companies working to make money, but I do find it challenging when those profits are based on publicly funded research, as was the case for Covid vaccines.
It strikes me too that public trust in science can be a victim of the complex relationships between publicly funded and privately funded science. Publicly funded science is, in part, trusted because it is seen to be done for the common good. We must work to ensure this research is used for the common good and not for “profiteering and nationalism”.
Our responses to climate change are setting us on a course for disaster. Policies excessively focus on people taking individual action, while large polluters go unchallenged as they perform greenwashing, deny basic scientific realities and seed doubt around climate change and our need to respond.
Through talking and listening, can we find the common ground and establish the trust we so desperately need?
Many aspects of the scandals and controversies described above are also found in the issue of climate change. Poor communication between scientists, policymakers and the public has made climate a polarising political issue. Climate activists are now commonplace – many of our children have taken to the streets to voice their frustration and anger.
Far too many scientists are too close to big polluters for them to be objective, acting in the public good. The principles of climate justice are all too often absent when dealing with climate-related disasters or formulating policies to reduce emissions.
To me, these scandals represent a failure of leadership on many levels. Without leadership and a sense of solidarity, it will be impossible for us to meaningfully respond to climate change. Establishing trust in expertise will be essential if we are to succeed.
And so I wonder, how might things be different? Might we embrace the power of community to change the narrative? Might citizens’ assemblies that hear expert views and lived experiences offer hope? Through talking and listening, can we find the common ground and establish the trust we so desperately need?
On May 23rd last, this newspaper reported on a scientific study that said: “Life on Earth is entering its sixth mass extinction.” A week earlier, we read of a World Meteorological Organisation warning that “there is a 98 per cent likelihood that at least one of the next five years will be the warmest on record”. The frequency of reports such as these is increasing. The time we have left to do something is running out. The trust race is under way.
Dr Shane Bergin is a physicist and assistant professor in science education in UCD. He is the host of The Trust Race podcast (produced by Shaun & Maurice)