Trust in Science: Problem (not quite) Solved

Cold_Fusion_team_highOver the past couple of months, I’ve seen a wave of stories focused on why some people distrust science. In fact, there have been so many stories published that keeping track of the latest information has been a challenge.

I’ve read a lot of them, and what we’re learning about how and why people reject science is truly interesting. It seems we’ve assessed the current state of trust, and clearly defined the problem and its origins – but what are we supposed to do with this new information?

A few of the articles ‘sort-of’ offer suggestions for how communicators can operationalize the research, but the recommendations are too broad. For example, several pieces said we should help scientists develop better communication skills and get more of them to engage with the public.

Wait…I thought that was science communication 101?

What have we learned?

Since you probably haven’t had a chance to read more than a few of the recent articles, I’ll share some highlights from a few the pieces cited at the end of this post:

  • Media loves controversy. Media will give equal time to anti-science non-experts, and label it ‘balance.’ Media also favors stories focused on shocking/amazing discoveries, but rarely takes the time to give insight into the years of work and teams of scientists involved in the research.
  • We believe (or refuse to believe) scientific facts because we want to fit in. Even when faced with seemingly indisputable facts, the need to be accepted by peers and to belong will trump science every time. People view science through lenses tinted by their community, their friends, their religion, their job, etc. The good news is that even the most hardened opinions can be softened by family, friends, and colleagues who truly understand the culture fostering the disbelief. Relationships are important.
  • The deficit model still doesn’t work. Trying to change the mind of a disbeliever by spouting off a list of facts is likely to make the person defensive. This may limit his ability to consider facts that may seem contrary to his ideology. Surprisingly, distrust in science doesn’t seem to be reserved only for the uninformed observer. Research by Dan Kahan of Yale University has found that the strongest opposition to scientific topics is seen in people who already have a good understanding of the science.
  • Kahan also emphasizes the importance of ‘disentagling’ science messages from the ‘cultural baggage’ we all carry. (see bullet #2)
  • Political party affiliation is not what drives trust/distrust in science. Both liberals and conservatives support/dismiss scientific evidence, but they focus on different topics. And ‘high-profile’ scientific debates may diminish overall trust in all science.
  • Chastising those who disagree with generally accepted scientific facts isn’t effective. Finding common ground by identifying things we all agree on is a better way to start the conversation.

What are we supposed to do with this?

What we’re learning is important, but I’m struggling to identify ways in which I can apply it to the strategic marketing and communication activities at my university. I suspect other university communicators may feel the same. That said, there are are some very practical things we can do, which may help maintain – and potentially enhance – public trust in science:

1. Be honest…even when it’s difficult.

Science communication is more important than people may think. The information we share impacts lives, industries and reputations. It also influences policy. We’ve got to get it right. It’s not easy to admit when we don’t, but we have an obligation to do it.

This reminds me of a man who challenged authority and went public (in a big way) after finding problems with his team’s research…because it was the right thing to do.

Don Grace’s* most embarrassing moment occurred in the spring of 1989. The University of Utah announced that one of its chemists, along with a co-researcher from the University of laboratory, had achieved cold fusion in the laboratory.

Within two weeks, researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) confirmed the wonderful news. “We had the media in and had a great presentation,” Grace ruefully said.

The trouble was, the [GTRI] experiment was fatally flawed due to temperature-related instrumentation errors. The Tech team, following the original experiment’s same protocols in an effort to duplicate the results, arrived at the same wrong conclusion. Only four days after their experiment, the GTRI researchers, led by Dr. James Mahaffey, detected the error.

“Then came time to admit that we were wrong,” Grace recalled in a 2006 interview. Universities are notoriously averse to admitting mistakes in public. Grace said that a number of people strongly advised against going to the media again. But he didn’t take that advice.

“Of course it would be embarrassing,” he continued. “Jim and I blushed the whole time. But we did something that was incorrect and we had to face up to it and get on with it. It was the right thing to do.

*Don Grace was Director of GTRI from 1976-1992

– From the GTRI Historical Archives

The bottom line – if you mess up, you need to fess up. It may wind up enhancing your credibility in the end.

(See a video of Don Grace sharing memories of this experience.)

  1. Refuse to play games with research news

At Georgia Tech, we’re serious about the research news we share. I’ve written about it here and here.

We work hard to avoid releasing stories that overstate research results. With every university competing for attention, and I can see how making a story appear ‘sexier’ could be appealing. Remember that you’re putting your reputation, and that of your institution, at risk if you decide to roll the dice.

We also go to great lengths to ensure everything we release to the public is as accurate as possible. This includes reviewing academic papers, interviewing researchers and working directly with our compliance office to confirm appropriate research protocols were in place, and conflict of interest and regulatory issues have been addressed. We also examine research contracts to identify if there are public release exemptions and/or sponsor review requirements. The researchers are asked to review stories for accuracy prior to release, and research sponsors are often asked to approve the text and photos we plan to share publicly.

Our process requires a lot of pre-planning. And on rare occasions, we’ve had to kill stories we’ve spent a lot of time on when approvals didn’t come through.

Is this a flawless system? No. We’re lucky to have a staff of seasoned science communicators who are very good at recognizing research that ‘has enough meat on the bone’ to be publicized. More importantly, they know which research isn’t ready for prime time.

My point is that you need to do your homework before blasting out a press release on your institution’s latest amazing discovery. Overselling a story hurts your reputation, the researcher’s reputation and tarnish your university’s reputation too. Aside from that, it certainly doesn’t help boost public trust in science. …oh, and it’s also likely that science bloggers (and tweeters) will administer a bit of public discipline.

What else can we be doing – right now – to boost public trust in science?
I look forward to hearing your ideas.

  1. Why science is so hard to believe? Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post, February 12, 2015 (also in National Geographic and The Guardian) (link)
  2. Why don’t people trust science? Tom Spears, Ottowa Citizen – February 21, 2015 (link)
  3. Our Partisan Brains: Exploring the psychology behind denying science. Erik Nisbet and R. Kelly Garret, The Conversation US, March 12, 2015 (link)
  4. Science Dilemma: Between public trust and social relevance. Hans Peter Peters, Euroscientist, February 25, 2015 (link)
  5. This is where distrust of science really comes from: It’s not just your politics. Chris Mooney, The Washington Post, March 2, 2015 (link)
  6. Shooting the Messenger: The erosion of trust in science and what to do about it. John Burrage, Australasian Physical & Eng. Sciences in Medicine, March 6, 2015 (link)
  7. A Matter of Trust Bernadette Keefe, Healthcare Leadership Blog, March 7, 2015 (link)
  8. Science communication in the age of polarization. Matthew Nisbet, Social Science Space, March 9, 2015 (link)
  9. Why science denial is about much more than corporate interests. Chris Mooney, The Washington Post, March 13, 2015 (link)
  10. Why we pick and choose which science to believe. PBS Newshour, February 18, 2015 (link)
  11. The Politics of Science: Political Values and the Production, Communication, and Reception of Scientific Knowledge (Special March 2015 issue) The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science March 2015658: 6-15,doi:10.1177/0002716214559004 (link)
  12. Bessi A, Coletto M, Davidescu GA, Scala A, Caldarelli G, et al. (2015) Science vs   Conspiracy: Collective Narratives in the Age of Misinformation. PLoS ONE 10(2):e0118093. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118093 (link)
  13. Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society Cary Funk and Lee Rainie, Pew Research Center January 29, 2015 (link)
  14. Don Grace Profile, Georgia Tech Research Institute Historical Archive (link)
  15. Change at the Top: The Grace Years, Georgia Tech Research Institute Historical Archive. (link)
  16. Georgia Tech Team Reports Flaw In Critical Experiment on Fusion, William J. Broad, The New York Times, April 14, 1989 (link)
  17. Donald Grace Interview, Georgia Tech Research Institute Historical Archive, December 7, 2006 (link)

(Editor’s Note (3/19): Bullets 2 and 3 at the top of this piece were edited for clarity, based on excellent crowdsourced feedback) 


The GTRI Cold Fusion Reactor (1989). Donated to the Georgia Tech Library by Dr. Jim Mahaffey, Alumnus, and Former Georgia Tech.

11 thoughts on “Trust in Science: Problem (not quite) Solved

  1. NSF and NIH should start a website called “Problems I want Smart People to Solve”. Anyone could post a problem they would like solved (ex. Are there ways to improve short term memory of the elderly?), and the website administrator would then share links to the grants that have been awarded in this area and how it might solve the problem. Also, if there is a problem which has no funding, this could also be stated.


  2. Great article. I feel much can be done differently in how we communicate science. If science has taught me anything, it’s that there is more than one way to approach everything.

    One project idea I’m working on with a friend, includes a collaboration with musicians, movie directors and 3D animators, to create a series of music videos that communicate different science phenomena to the public. Especially the younger audience late teens early 20’s.

    Things like the biological flow of information, human movement, astronomy, and more. The goal is to create an appreciation for life through science and music and to promote curiosity.


    • Thank you for your comment Andrew. Your project sounds fascinating. As you bring get closer to rolling it out, please let me know. I’d be interested in learning more about it and potentially profiling the project on this blog.


  3. Political party affiliation is not what drives trust/distrust in science. Both liberals and conservatives support/dismiss scientific evidence, but they focus on different topics. And ‘high-profile’ scientific debates may diminish overall trust in all science.

    Any evidence for this?

    Liberals may sometimes not like GMO and nuclear energy, but they do not claim that genes do not exist or do not determine traits, they do not claim that radioactivity do not exist or that no heat is produced. The Tea Party fans do claim that the Earth is not warming or that the greenhouse effect does not exist or that increases in CO2 do not lead to increases in the greenhouse effect.


  4. Many of the problems with our processing of scientific information is grounded in how we, as humans, process information. We are wired to look for connections. If someone sees that their child has autism and was vaccinated and they then see others, they make a (false) connection from that limited data.With these people, I doubt there is a correlation between level of knowledge and the belief that vaccines cause autism.

    Kahan at Yale was not studying this. He was studying Climate Change skepticism. And with this I think the correlation makes sense. The more I read the source research under the public pronouncements in the press, the more skeptical I am.

    I find that many of the climate alarmist statements are what I would consider anti-science, but somehow that side has become the “science” side and skepticism is the “anti-science”.


    • Hi Peter,

      You are right. Much of Kahan’s work (at least the stuff I’ve seen) is focused on the climate debate. You can read a lot more about what he and his center are up to here:

      You make a very interesting point about use of the terms ‘science’ and ‘anti-science.’ I was once quick to freely toss around the word ‘denier’ – until I interviewed a dozen climate scientists. One, in particular, helped open my eyes to the tremendous value of skepticism in all science. She also helped me understand the difference between a real scientist who is a skeptic, and an individual who simply denies anything not consistent with his/her ideology. I now have a much more wholesome respect for those who carefully and thoughtfully question scientific claims. I’m sure getting everyone to agree on things is impossible, but as long as we examine all possible evidence and make good decisions based on the what the science tells us – we all win.


  5. The “What have we learned?” section failed to include a really big section of society – those who make up their own minds by testing against real-world observations.

    That is, observations with their appropriate approximations match theoretical outcomes, and wouldn’t otherwise have occurred e.g. below for medical and climate science.


    Climate Science
    Once one delves into climate science in order to extract information to check this, it becomes obvious that observations don’t match theoretical expectations of around 5 years ago, and the explanations of why not are may and various. It also becomes obvious that some of the ‘Global Warming Poster Children’ occur at regular 20 year /50 year intervals anyway e.g. (1) polar bears move around a lot (researchers counted bears as dead when they’d moved somewhere else) and have actually increased in numbers since the hunting ban (2) the acceleration in warming 1975-1998 was the same as several other 20 year periods in the previous century (3) the Arctic warms regularly – the most recent previous occasion being 1920s – and was even hotter around a thousand years ago (i.e. when Greenland was named after it’s grass)

    Medical pronouncements of ‘safety’ are found to fail in oneself and our acquaintances. The statements are made as if statistics can provide 100% certainty. Anyone using statistics should know stats don’t even provide causality. Of course, we remember illness much more than ‘not-illness’ so for example, I often quote the fact that my mother was diagnosed as have ‘stomach ulcer due to mental stress’ when we know nowadays that it’s a bacterium to counter any statement that there’s no such thing as mind-over-matter.


  6. Some resources that may be useful to this conversation…

    Research on whether political ideology influences trust in science – of course it does, but it’s topic dependent. below – political ideology doesn’t have an infludence on perceptions of stem cells. political ideology does have an influence on perceptions of biofuels.

    Dan Kahan’s work on public perceptions of vaccines.


  7. Pingback: Adulterated Science: Why not all Sci Comm is GOOD Sci Comm | UNder the C

  8. Pingback: Adulterated Science: Why not all Sci Comm is GOOD Sci Comm | Justin Baumann, MS

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