"Trust me – I'm a scientist." In this Covid-19 age, science - and scientists - seem to be everywhere.
Coronavirus conversations have meant that dropping the phrases "community transmission", and "antibody testing" into casual conversation has become totally normal. The pandemic raised the profile of virologists and infectious disease specialists, who left their white coats behind to become instant celebrities and identifiable personalities. You would think with all of this attention that scientists would be rising in popularity. A new study released this week, however, finds that the recent pandemic is likely to have a negative impact on trust in scientists for the generation about to have the most impact on the world.
Coronavirus put a spotlight on the importance of science in supporting the health of our nation. At the beginning we trusted it all, looking for expert guidance during those frightening times. The scientists were vocal, they used jargon to fill us with confidence, and they advised our leaders about big decisions that would impact the whole country.
Different countries made different decisions. Some - like New Zealand - took the advice to go into total lockdown. Others - like Sweden - left it up to the individual to modify their behaviour. From here the world became a giant Petri dish, running multiple experiments on itself as the consequences of each decision were measured in infection rates and death counts.
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Then the voices of other scientific experts came in and were used politically to undermine the opinions of the scientists that came before them. The media started to pin one scientist against another, and the public lost faith in who to believe in.
What happened in public during the pandemic is actually what happens in science every day behind closed doors. Science works best when other experts challenge ideas and hypotheses. We call it "peer review", and we rarely carry this process out in public. Because new data around the virus was coming out daily, scientists battled it out in front of a public viewing gallery, without explaining that this is a normal part of the scientific method.
An academic paper titled "Revenge of the Experts: Will Covid-19 Renew or Diminish Public Trust in Science?" looked at how pandemics affect the public's perception of science and scientists. The study combined data from the Wellcome Trust's 2018 Global Monitor survey, which surveyed more than 70,000 individuals in 160 countries, as well as data on all global epidemics since 1970.
They found that if past epidemics were used as a guide, this recent Covid-19 pandemic is likely to reduce the public's confidence in individual scientists, worsen the perceptions of their honesty, and weaken the belief that their activities benefit the public. Worryingly the strongest impact is likely to be felt by those aged 18-25, right at a time when they are forming life-long opinions about the world and what they believe. Interestingly, while trust in scientists dropped, trust in public health professionals such as doctors and nurses was upheld.
The mistrust lies in how scientists fail to explain their findings clearly and concisely - likely because their method for coming to a conclusion is often detailed and perhaps quite "dry" as news content. Fast-media emphasises headlines and soundbites, often ignoring the story behind the summary. The study finds that, as a consequence of this inconsistent messaging and media practice, scientists are increasingly being perceived as elitist and inaccessible.
This public display may have tarnished the view of scientists by young people for life and is something scientists need to heal if we are to be trusted by the decision-makers of the future.