Tom Hartsfield: Why The Public Should Mistrust Scientists

  • Date: 23/08/16
  • Tom Hartsfield, Real Clear Science

Scientists have increasingly become overtly political rather than maintaining distance. Worse, they usually fight for one side only. Then they turn around and act shocked when the enemies they have unnecessarily made don’t trust them.

This weekend RealClearScience ran an editorial bemoaning the public’s distrust of science. The author explains away the problem by insisting that the public is naive, rooked by Republican “pandering,” and uninterested in a scientific establishment “too old, too male,” and not “representative.”

In essence, she answers her own question. Reasonable people distrust science because of the way scientists treat them.

The truth is that many scientists pick political sides, look down their noses at the public, and play politically correct games. I think the public is on to something. I wouldn’t trust us either.

The condescension is the worst part. Many research scientists who fret and wail about public ignorance live off the public dime. Our microscopes, our labs, our pipettes and our particle colliders are bought with taxpayers’ money. They pay our salaries too.

So when we tell them how stupid they are, how ignorant and backward and wrong they are, why shouldn’t they be angry? Belittling someone in an argument never wins his support. How much more arrogant and foolish is it to belittle the people who write your paycheck?

If the public doesn’t understand why we believe certain things, that’s our fault. We owe them better communication. We need to demonstrate the value of our work and ideas, not demean theirs.

The other big problems in scientist-citizen relations arise from politics.

Scientists have increasingly become overtly political rather than maintaining distance. Worse, they usually fight for one side only. Then they turn around and act shocked when the enemies they have unnecessarily made don’t trust them! There’s condescension here too: how dare these ignorant little people not fall in line behind their intellectual superiors!

The public trusts those with strong moral codes lying in a plane above politics. Four of the five most trusted institutions in the United States are the military, the police, the church, and medicine. All of which are supported by apolitical moral backbones.

Congruently, we distrust those possessing no morals above the political. Among the least popular institutions in this country: Congress, TV news, organized labor, and newspapers.

Every time science picks sides in politics, it slips away from the trusted group and sinks toward the disreputable one. […]

If the public does not trust science, I say many scientists have given them good reason. Scientists need to be more trustworthy. We need to stop looking down on the public. We need to stop playing politics and taking up the banner of political correctness. Otherwise we become just another snooty political faction, trusted fleetingly by our friends of convenience but permanently loathed by our growing legion of self-inflicted enemies.

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