Dec 9, 2021

The Stories We Tell Ourselves - Part 2

How do people define their relationships with science? What does it mean to “trust in science?”

By Brie Linkenhoker, PhD

This post is Part 2 of the seventh in a series from the 11 Awardees of the Templeton World Charity Foundation's Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing. The Foundation is investing US $60 million to grow the field of human flourishing to encompass scientific research, practice, and policy. Check back as we launch further requests for proposals under this important rubric.

“Trust the science.” 
“Do your own research.” 
“Don’t be a sheep.” 

If you spent any time on social media during the pandemic, you probably encountered comments like these in “conversations” about COVID-19 vaccines, masks, distancing, and treatments. COVID laid bare one of the greatest fault-lines of polarization in our time: how we think about, trust, and value science as a way of informing our decisions.

Recent data on public trust in science is mostly positive. The 3M State of Science Survey recently reported the highest levels of trust in science in four years, at 91% of respondents from 17 countries. An international poll by Gallup saw a ten-point-plus jump in trust in science during the pandemic in their survey of adults across 113 countries. This survey found that around 80% of people trusted science “a lot” or “some.” In the US, though, Gallup reported that only 45% of US Republicans surveyed expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science. This represents a drop of 27 points among Republicans since 1975, a time period in which Democrats’ trust in science has risen. So, not surprisingly, trust in science is intertwined with high levels of political polarization in the US, but overall reporting on public trust in science remains fairly high, ahead of most other social institutions. 

“Trust in science.”
But what does “trust in science” mean? Most polls just ask the question directly: How much trust do you have in science? Some frame the question slightly differently, probing whether “science will make life better” in the future, or whether people have confidence in “scientists to act in your best interest.” In short, it’s not clear what pollsters are asking, or what respondents are thinking, when responding to questions about how much they trust science.

When we look at the tenor of online debates about issues like COVID-19 or global warming, the blatant rejection of science among some high ranking politicians, and especially, the choices that Americans are making that are clearly not influenced by science, we see a major gap between polling and real-world behavior. And when we think about the magnitude of the complex challenges we face as a nation, and as global citizens, from climate change to pandemic preparation to gene editing to AI, we think it’s critical to dig deeper into what people think science is.

Is science a profession? An industry? A guild? A subculture? Is it a collection of knowledge or facts? A group of subjects to study in school? Is it a way of knowing and learning about the world? A process with (or without) widely accepted standards? If science is a profession, it’s probably something that most of us think other people do. If science is a process or a way of knowing, it might be something that most of us could do as part of our daily lives.

How do people come to their understanding of what science is?
The vast majority of adults have never set foot in a university or corporate science lab, and only a tiny fraction of our population has read a scientific journal article. The technical sophistication of modern science and the inaccessibility of its jargon make scientific publications extraordinarily difficult to access. Almost all of our collective science engagement is mediated – by search engines, news reporting, social media, or film, tv, and books. Most of us encounter “science-as-story,” or storytelling about the products of scientific inquiry rather than the practice of science itself. When our mediated science is this distant, even for professional scientists trying to understand fields other than their own, what does it mean to ask whether we trust it? 

Our group at Worldview Studio thinks a lot about the stories we tell ourselves, which encompass concepts of mindset, schema, worldview, and narrative. We define them as abstract, but coherent, frameworks of knowledge and beliefs that capture causal relationships, truths, and predictions about the world. If most of us who trust science are engaging with science-as-stories, does “trusting science” mean that we just have high levels of trust in this particular set of stories and/or its authors? Where does that trust come from? Might we find ways to more fruitfully engage people who don’t trust in these stories if we can get past the idea that science-trusting people believe in facts, whereas science-distrusting people believe in stories? 

Asking people how much they trust in science without understanding what they believe science actually is or how they define their relationship to science runs the risk of missing critical variables that might influence or predict peoples’ willingness to use scientific findings. In our project, we will dig into the stories we all tell ourselves about what science is, who does it and why, and what it is or isn’t good for. 

We suspect this approach might also help us understand the growing polarization around science, and reach people who want to do their own research, even in radically unscientific ways. Eventually, this could inform how the media report on science and how we, as media consumers, query or verify their reports. And who knows – maybe scientists will discover new and better ways to communicate with and engage the public too. Trust begins with understanding.

Read Part 1 of The Stories We Tell Ourselves by Brie Linkenhoker, PhD.

Brie Linkenhoker, PhD is the founder of Worldview Studio, a collective of brain and behavioral scientists, human-centered designers, and multimedia producers who create innovative learning experiences. She holds a Ph.D. in Neurosciences and an M.A. in International Policy Studies from Stanford University, and a B.A. in Psychology from Transylvania University. She did postdoctoral research in neuroeconomics at Baylor College of Medicine.