The Challenge of Fighting Mistrust in Science

Emphasizing the way scientific findings play out in people’s everyday lives could help.

A woman walks on the dried-up river bed in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, August 16, 2006.  (China Daily / Reuters)

“The denial of science—I’ll just state it straight up—is dangerous,” said Michael Myers, the managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation.

The “denial of science” of course is a nuanced phenomenon, and not one that is as simple as flatly denying science as a concept. People who don’t believe in climate change, or evolution, or who mistrust vaccines all come to those conclusions for different reasons. A lot of it has to do with tribalism—you believe what the people in your group believe, because membership in that group is more important to you than the truth.

“What I think is part of the challenge here is that people’s hardening belief systems are going against the science,” Myers said Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. And that’s true—one of the biggest reasons that it’s so hard for facts to change people’s minds is that people have an incentive to keep believing what they already believe, as I’ve written before, especially if it’s a belief that’s deeply tied to their identity. The mental gymnastics they do to achieve this are known in psychology as “motivated reasoning.” It’s something that’s extremely hard to get around. If people change their minds on these things, it happens slowly, and it often has to be something they want to change their mind about.

Montira Pongsiri, a planetary health science policy adviser at Cornell University suggested that when scientific findings are applied in ways that fix problems in people’s lives, they might be more easily accepted.

“I think it’s the process of science that people don’t necessarily trust,” she said. “It takes a long time.” People who are facing crucial problems now don’t necessarily want to wait for peer review to get an answer, and it can be frustrating when studies contradict each other, or the best answer science has on a question is “We don’t know.”

Myers added that one way to convince people of the truth and utility of scientific findings is to “bring it down to a personal level.” Like the extreme heat that was grounding planes in Phoenix this week, for example, he said. “That just reinforces that something different is happening to the planet. It’s those kinds of direct connections, bringing it into the everyday lives of people—that’s what I think we’re going to have to deal with as we try to rebuild people’s trust in science.”