Trusting in Science

Why do so many people distrust science, scientists, and informed scientific consensus so much?

Maybe it’s old news, but I had an insight into this when looking at some stuff about Riedel wine glasses. (This is not a wine post, really.) These glasses are marketed as “scientifically” designed to maximise the experience and enjoyment of drinking a glass of wine. What’s more, they have dozens of different glass shapes, each “designed” to work best for some particular type of wine. The upshot is – if you believe this – that to enjoy your wine to the maximum you need to buy about 8 different sets of Riedel glassware.

Many people can spot the conflict of interest here. Obviously it’s to Riedel’s advantage if it’s true that to best enjoy your cabernet sauvignon you need a different glass to the one you drink merlot from. So if they say it’s true, then even the mildly cynical can easily come to the conclusion that they’re just making it up.

And what about those wrinkle creams? You know the ones, that are advertised as “scientifically proven to reduce wrinkles by 78%”. How do you even measure that wrinkles have been reduced by 78%? Does anyone really believe that?

The culprit here is advertising. Advertisers like to use “science” to promote their products, because it has a veneer of authenticity that gets some people to trust their products. But most of us have become habituated to “scientific” claims by advertisers and just mentally filter them out or assign a low weight to them and evaluate the products on our own criteria. Science has become something that you can choose to believe if you want – and maybe you’re gullible if you believe it.

Unfortunately, that’s a misguided representation of science. When hundreds or thousands of experienced scientists agree that something is most probably true because of all the research, data collection, analysis, and peer review that they’ve put in, it’s not the same as a claim on a commercial. It actually has serious weight behind it, and you better take on board the idea that what they’re saying is more likely to be true than not. Yes, there are counterexamples, but they are few in a vast edifice of consistent, established scientific knowledge. The odds of any given piece of scientific consensus turning out to be incorrect are very small indeed.

The problem is, large swathes of laypeople who don’t fully understand how science operates simply look on it as another marketing move. They feel free to be cynical, and to completely disregard what the scientific consensus says. Especially if they don’t like what the message is, or it makes them uncomfortable in some way.

Science is about uncovering the truth, not about concocting stories designed to sell a product. Stories can be made palatable. The truth is different; it doesn’t always fit the way we want the world to work. Disbelieving it won’t make you immune from it. Science has checks and balances to make sure that mistakes or lies don’t get propagated. That’s why it’s such a huge scandal whenever a scientist is found to have falsified data or lied about a research result. This is the absolute capital sin of science, and when it is discovered it is treated accordingly. Careers in science can be ruined by one instance. You can be pretty sure that the vast majority of scientists out there are keeping their noses clean, and when they say they have research to support some conclusion, that they really do have solid data behind it.

Advertising is a completely different beast. Judging science by the standards you use to judge advertising is simplistic and misguided. But it’s a trap that more and more people seem to be falling into, alas.

6 Responses to “Trusting in Science”

  1. Shishberg says:

    I’m not convinced that advertising is the cause here, although you’re probably right that it doesn’t help… People would probably be happy to explain away anything they’re uncomfortable with regardless.

    (Exactly how much I’m generalising with the term “people” is left as an exercise to the reader.)

  2. PTR says:

    I think that part of the problem is that for most people, science is no more or less than an act of faith. Scientists in particular can easily overlook this, because in their day to day lives they are constantly using the scientific method in order to arrive at scientific knowledge. But for non-scientists, scientific knowledge is obtained by someone telling you and you simply accept it as a fait accompli involving a minor leap of faith in their authenticity. Because few people consciously make the distinction between scientific process and scientific knowledge, the air of ignorance around scientific knowledge (yes, including the cynicism towards advertising that you so rightly identify) begins to permeate the process as well, leading people to become very cynical about science itself. I wrote an extended rant about this on my blog back in March (titled ‘Belief’) in response to some of Richard Dawkins’ posturing that had been annoying me.

    Great post!

  3. Monica says:

    Of course, then you have the sources who take real scientific studies and draw their own conclusions from them…

    I’m thinking mostly of (some) women’s magazines here, the kind that focus on fashion but also have exercise/healthy living tips. Let’s say that a writer for one of these magazines finds a scientific study concluding that some vitamin (say, vitamin A) lowers the risk for some disease (say, brain tumors) in mice. The writer will then write a blurb, referencing this study, declaring that eating carrots will ward off brain tumors.

    It’s unfortunate, but in the wrong hands even real scientific data can be used to present false information when it’s not interpreted correctly.

  4. martinl says:

    It more general than you say. Credibility is fungible. If you are not exchanging your credibility for advantage, someone else will. This applies to science as much as to anything else.

  5. Irgy says:

    I would have thought most people can separate advertising saying “scientifically X” from scientific consensus. My view is that the first and core reason most people who distrust science do so is that it makes at least one claim which conflicts with a pre-existing view of the world which they hold more strongly than their faith in the scientific method, the scientific community and it’s consensus. Their justifications for distrusting it then spring out from whatever they can imagine, motivated by their need to disagree with it.

  6. Eli Damon says:

    Your hypothesis doesn’t make sense to me. How can “science” lend credibility to advertisers but not to scientists? I think it is reasonable to assume that the advertising ploy works. Otherwise, you have a lot more explaining to do.

    Also, many scientists fall for pseudoscientific assertions that lie outside of their field. For example, I am active in discussions of traffic safety, and I’ve found that some people who study traffic safety and believe in the scientific consensus on the subject don’t believe in evolution, and some biologists who believe in evolution don’t believe in the scientific consensus on traffic safety. So the distinction between scientists and laymen is not very enlightening here.

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