September 28, 2015

Examining the public’s trust of science

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By Dr. Wendy Powers, ASAS Public Policy Committee Member

Sept. 25, 2015 – In late August, New York Times article by George Johnson received a strong reaction from NPR writer, Marcelo Gleiser, and his readers.

The topic Johnson raised was that of the public’s trust of science and how emotion, perhaps even religion, plays into acceptance of scientific truths. Johnson goes so far as to propose that some people may view science not as discovering knowledge, but rather, as manufacturing it “along with other marketable goods” (Johnson, page 3).

Disturbing as this may be, I am not surprised by the notion, particularly when it appears that scientists disagree about data interpretation. Think about it – Are there scientists within your own institution or organization, perhaps from different departments, who disagree on the ‘best’ production practices for raising livestock? Complicating the decision of what information to trust is the case when science is published only to be later discredited. Given the veritable plethora of ‘truths’ that are available for any given topic, is it really any wonder that the case for accepting science as credible is increasingly more difficult to make?

My own experiences highlight the challenge of moving science into policy. While we all hope that policy is grounded in science, we must also accept that at some point the science ends and judgement, that may or may not be influenced by interest groups, must be used to ultimately shape the boundaries and guidelines of policies and regulations. Often I have to remind myself that a resulting policy is not a reflection of the acceptance or credibility of the science, but rather, the summation of the discovered knowledge coupled with competing commitments and/or feasibility of implementation.

After reading these articles, I surmised that the appropriate course of action is to maintain the highest degree of integrity in conducting studies and prioritize communicating discoveries to the breadth of stakeholders in order that my science appears at the top of an Internet search results page.

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