In our front page story about Harold Russell, the Hillsborough-born scientist expresses dismay at the growing loss of trust the general public has in science and scientists. As is the case with everything today, the coronavirus is right in the thick of it.
The public’s need to know the data and map out their schedules and paths according to infection trends has led to a nonstop avalanche of COVID-related information. Some of the facts of today will be disproven or adjusted tomorrow.
But this is the way science works. It’s the way good science works. Science, as it is unfolding, is a long book that isn't easily digested with a binge-watching mentality.
Making science more transparent, or “open science,” is actually a good idea when it comes to the people, companies and organizations charged with using and gaining a better understanding of that science for future discoveries, cures and vaccines. Creating a process for sharing information between labs enhances perspectives and approaches from a wider knowledge base.
The idea of a white-coat-wearing scientist in a laboratory shouting “Eureka!” about a discovery is myth. Discoveries are tested and tested. They are written about and reviewed by peers. In short, there’s nothing short -- or quick -- about impactful scientific discoveries.
So, why the growing mistrust in science? Three reasons: politics; the media; and an uninformed public.
(I want to take a moment to remove myself from any kind of political fray. I’m not choosing sides. I’m merely stating observations.)
Any politician facing a global pandemic that is wreaking havoc the nation is going to be desperate for positive information. That politician is going to want a vaccine in record time. Lives are on the line, but so is any real chance of being re-elected. A politician can apply tremendous pressure on the director of the National Institute of Health. As Harold Russell, who worked for 37 years at the Centers for Disease Control, said, scientists want to go where the data leads them, whether or not it’s a good place. Politicians sometimes want scientists to take the data to a place that most benefits their agenda.
The media, in all its forms, is adding to the shrinking trust in science by not sufficiently informing the public of the scientific process. Cable news, with its 24-hour coverage, repeats information and loops footage and news feeds until the viewer knows it by heart, only to change it all a short time later with little attempt to reconcile the new information with the “old.” As a result, instead of presenting science as a steady flow of traffic that intersects, we’re left with a pile up of cars honking at each other.
There’s much about the education system with which to be frustrated. I won’t pretend to have ever done well in science. I was terrible in chemistry and physics. But what each of my science teachers taught me — even in the classes where I was barely passing — is that science takes a long time and is a rigorous process. And it changes.
We should observe those changes as the process of moving from shallow truths to deeper truths, and not just regard them as information that is competing with itself.