"Stop the gravity conspiracy!’ cried anti– gravity activists Citizens for a Weightless World as they plunged from the top of the UN building in New York…”
This is not a newspaper report you are likely to read. No one seriously doubts that Isaac Newton was right about gravity. Besides, a belief in gravity will not force you to reassess any other belief you hold dear. This is not true of all scientific theories, including evolution by natural selection, man-made climate change, or even, with regard to our sector, that the chemical compounds synthesized by researchers are not inherently less safe than those found in ‘nature.’
A recent survey found that less than a quarter of western Europeans have a high trust in science, and this is consistent with such surveys across the world. One well publicized example of this is falling rates of vaccination, apparently based on the false view that vaccination is dangerous and/or an industry conspiracy. Another is the view that some chemical compounds found in cosmetics are dangerous at any level of exposure, despite the fact that there is no supporting evidence for this whatsoever.
Social media gets much of the blame for low levels of trust, perhaps rightly. The propensity of social media to promote ‘bubble filters’ – where people do not engage with contrary opinions and seek content which reinforces their own view – is well documented, as is the fact that disinformation spreads more quickly on the internet than the truth. False beliefs gain respectability in numbers.
Science is a challenge for some deeply held views or prejudices because, as former US Vice President Al Gore observed, it sometimes generates ‘inconvenient truths’. That is not to say all science is beyond reproach. Some scientific findings are contentious among scientists themselves. There is currently a ‘replication crisis’ in sciences such as psychology, because the results of some classic experiments cannot be reproduced, calling into questions their original validity. And science evolves by discrediting theories, and replacing them with better ones. Albert Einstein improved on Newton. That doesn’t show that science has no objective basis. It shows that science has the in-built capacity for self-examination and progress.
One puzzling aspect of the decline in trust in science is that it is found even with those with a very high level of education. Many educated anti-vaccinators are appalled by climate scepticism. Politicians and other stakeholders with impeccable degrees will rush to judgement on the dangers of chemicals that the EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety has meticulously examined and approved as safe.
What can we do? Self-evidently we need to communicate better about science. It’s not easy. Communication depends on listeners’ willingness to engage. Science is complex and nuanced. Anti-science is unconstrained (‘they just want to take away your job’, ‘they are interested in profit, not people’ etc.) Perhaps instead of what we do for the most part in scientific education – teach facts – we need to extend curricula to encompass critical thinking as an essential life skill.
Most of all we need those in leadership positions – including politicians and public servants - to make the case for science in the face of prejudice and disinformation. And we need some of them to move on from the currently fashionable disregard for facts and expertise, however inconvenient that sometimes might be.
John Chave, Director General, Cosmetics Europe