NEWS

Media Plays a Part in Public’s Mistrust of Science

Scientist at a microscope writing down research.
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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study shows negative stories without context can reduce trust in science.
  • Understanding how science is conducted, and allowing transparency in the scientific community can reduce some of the mystery associated with the profession.
  • A key to building trust may be found in ensuring accurate, unbiased reporting of science topics and studies by media.

No doubt, the pandemic has brought to light the public’s mistrust in science. 

However, a lack of trust existed before COVID-19. 

In fact, researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania and the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, have been conducting ongoing research about how media reports regarding scientific failures play a part. 

In a study published in the journal Public Understanding of Science, researchers show how news stories about science follow specific narratives.

Conducted in 2019, the study analyzed how 4,497 U.S. adults reacted to the following four types of news stories about science or a control story:

  • “Honorable quest” or discovery, which covers scientists discovering reliable and consequential knowledge (such as a story about using immunotherapy to treat leukemia)
  • “Counterfeit quest,” when published work is retracted because a scientist was dishonorable and guileful (such as a story describing retracted scientific claims about eating behavior)
  • Science is “in crisis/broken” narrative, which indicts scientists or the institution of science for failing to address a known problem (such as a story about an alarming increase in the number of retractions)
  • “Problem explored,” where scientists research and sometimes fix a problem discovered by the “crisis/broken” narrative (such as a story about psychologists discussing ways to make psychology studies more reliable)

Based on the respondents’ reactions, the study found: 

  • Stories that focused on problems reduced trust in scientists and influenced negative beliefs about scientists
  • Greater effects occurred in people who read stories about science being in crisis or broken 

The Public Misunderstands Why Science Is Self-Correcting

Co-author of the research paper and APPC director, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, PhD, says the general public does not understand that science is an institution.

“So, the press coverage tends to talk about the individual scientists, the individual scientific discovery. It speaks less about the ways in which scientists across the scientific community relate to each other. And as a result, people are less likely to understand that there are incentives built into the underlying structure, through which science comes to know that increases the likelihood that if something is wrong in a finding, it will be discovered,” Jamieson says. 

She explains that science is an institution made up of many individuals with highly specialized knowledge, who are all trying to find the best possible answers by critiquing each other's work through peer reviews. 

This is where the notion of science being self-correcting is misunderstood. 

“If you understand that science is a collectivity of individuals, then you will also understand that they are competing with each other to find the best answer,” says Jamieson. “In an environment in which if you've made an error, somebody's likely to catch it. You've got a personal incentive to try to get it right because you might get caught, but you've got another reason to get it right. Because you actually are trying to contribute to knowledge as a result.” 

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, PhD

If you understand that science is a collectivity of individuals, then you will also understand that they are competing with each other to find the best answer

— Kathleen Hall Jamieson, PhD

Joseph M. Pierre, MD, a professor in UCLA's department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and author of Psych Unseen, explains that “research” involves re-searching: looking again and repeating observations, controlling for other potential explanations.

“When we have new observations that differ from previous ones, we have to resolve those differences and change our explanations. That’s the iterative and self-correcting feature of science,” Pierre says.

Because people prefer absolutes and categorical distinctions over a reality that involves uncertainty, ambiguity, and grey areas, he says their actions often depend on unwarranted confidence about that reality that can sometimes lead them astray.

“So, when scientific explanations and conclusions shift in light of new data, the public often takes this to mean that because ‘science was wrong,’ it’s completely unreliable or untrustworthy. But the flexibility to change in light of new data—the self-correcting feature—is actually science’s superpower,” says Pierre. 

The Notion That Science Is “In Crisis” or “Broken” Gets Science Wrong

Because research and science is self-correcting, Jamieson explains that retractions of published research does occur.

“It's based on an honest error that's been caught,” she says. However, the word retraction is misunderstood, she adds. 

“When science corrects a finding, it retracts a publication, or it retracts a finding, and people look at that and say, ‘Oh, well that means that science is broken because look, it was wrong.’ Retraction is actually part of the self-correcting process…not a signal of brokenness,” Jamieson says. 

Pierre points out that while there is nothing broken about science as a process for getting at the truth, scientists do make errors, and scientific explanations are only as good as the data they’re based on and how well an experiment was designed and carried out.

“When we start talking about human beings and ‘science’ as a social institution, we have to acknowledge that things like bias, conflicts of interest, and politics can and sometimes do get in the way of ‘good science.’ That’s a reality of all human activity to which science is not immune,” he says. 

Still, he stresses that despite science’s imperfections, he believes claims about science being in crisis is a propaganda tactic designed to undermine a legitimate institution of authoritative knowledge.

Joseph M. Pierre, MD

If science is broken or in crisis as some claim, then we don’t have to listen to scientists. We can then discount what they say about ‘inconvenient truths’ like COVID-19 or climate change.

— Joseph M. Pierre, MD

“If science is broken or in crisis as some claim, then we don’t have to listen to scientists. We can then discount what they say about ‘inconvenient truths’ like COVID-19 or climate change. But when people make such claims, they’re often arguing that people should listen to them instead—they’re saying, ‘don’t trust the scientists, listen to what I say and do what I tell you to do,’” says Pierre.

Mistrust in authoritative sources of knowledge leaves vulnerability to misinformation, he adds. 

“That’s how we get to a place where people believe in falsehoods like that COVID-19 was caused by 5G networks, or that vaccine campaigns are about microchipping people, or that the Earth is flat. To me, that’s a much bigger crisis than anything related to science,” Pierre says.

How Media and Scientists Can Bolster Trust in Science

After reading the different types of science stories, participants in Jamieson’s study answered questions about their trust in science, beliefs about science, and support for funding science. 

Researchers found the following:

  • Trust in science was moderately high.
  • Beliefs that science is self-correcting and beneficial were moderate to high.
  • People with higher levels of trust in science were more likely to perceive problem-focused stories to be representative of science and to believe that science is self-correcting. Opposite of those with lower levels of trust in science.
  • Support for funding science was unaffected by the stories. 

So, what can the media do to help gain more trust in science?

Jamieson says journalists should think differently about how they write stories about science.

“Giving a little bit more upfront in the story about what came before [the results] and just a little bit more on the back end about the unanswered questions would help with the discovery narrative, making sure that the language is never [implying that the discoveries] are definitive and forever,” she says. 

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, PhD

Giving a little bit more upfront in the story about what came before [the results] and just a little bit more on the back end about the unanswered questions would help with the discovery narrative, making sure that the language is never [implying that the discoveries] are definitive and forever.

— Kathleen Hall Jamieson, PhD

While Pierre agrees, he notes that today’s digital age brings about a conflation of objective reporting and subjective opinion, allowing people to dismiss one informational source for another that matches what they want to believe. 

“I call this ‘confirmation bias on steroids.’ In that sense, the media has a tougher task ahead of it than science does in terms of regaining trust. It has to find a way back to objective reporting, bearing in mind that whatever a journalist writes, someone else is probably somewhere else writing the opposite,” he says. 

As far as science is concerned, he believes the institution of science needs to do a better job of being transparent, minimizing conflicts of interest, and providing the public with a “seat at the table,” where scientists are available for open discussion. 

“It has to be less ‘ivory tower’ and more ‘grassroots,’ with science being encouraged among young people and within communities,” says Pierre. 

He says the public needs to learn how to become better consumers of disparate sources of information: “[The] solution probably involves an educational reboot from the ground up—teaching people the skills to sift through bias and to find objective truths at an early age.”

What This Means For You

While news coverage can affect your trust in science, understanding how science works, and where to find reputable reports of scientific discoveries can help you navigate the information.

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  1. Ophir Y, Jamieson KH. The effects of media narratives about failures and discoveries in science on beliefs about and support for sciencePublic Underst Sci. Published online May 17, 2021. doi:10.1177/09636625211012630