While one can’t disagree with the anti-science factors of distrust that the authors of the article point out, here I would like to add other factors that the article does NOT tell us about.
First, a necessary disclaimer: I’m light years away from the right-winged covid and climate change denial conspiracy theorists. I know climate change is true, am not an anti-mask activist and do not believe in any conspiracy theory and am totally pro-science. However, when scientists wonder why people’s distrust in science is growing, they can’t always exempt themselves from a self-critical analysis. Because, we always assume this being due to the people’s ignorance alone. We implicitly assume that there is no form of scientific ignorance and no wrongdoing from the side of the scientists other than, perhaps, not being good communicators. But truth is a bit more articulated.
There is always this assumption that scientists are perfectly detached from their emotions, their mind, and that they have no background ideology that determines their research. Still strong is the belief that science is never biased and is based only on the dispassionate analysis of facts. Something that has long been shown to be not the case, since Thomas Kuhn, the famous philosopher of science of the last century, highlighted how science is always “theory-laden.” Meaning that there are always unaware social and cultural factors that determine our theories, how we look at reality how we interpret the facts and how we search for it. The romantic idea of the scientist as a disinterested, and equal to whatever outcome arises, ready to accept wherever the evidence leads is … well, just a romantic idea that has no correspondence in reality
But, having said that, there is nothing wrong with that. We are all humans and have our biases, our ideological background that drives us in framing theories, hypotheses, research and tend to see what we believe in, while neglecting what don’t believe in. The problem arises when we are not aware of these psychological mechanisms and pretend to be the perfect observers having a ‘view from nowhere.’
The best example we had in the last couple of years was with Covid. The flood of data led to so many and so different interpretations of the “facts” as there are scientists. I rarely could observe so diverse and diverging analyses and opinions as in the “exact science” of virology. But, again, that’s not the real issue. Because, after all, that’s how science always worked when we are confronted with new phenomena and new data. The real problem is that they seem not to be aware that what is “evidence based” is, to a good degree, in the eyes of the beholder. Science is “theory-laden”. This might be unavoidable, but the confusion grows if we aren’t aware of this and fall in a state of denial, not realizing how this determines our way of seeing things and, consequently, for what new things we search and how we search for it.
Moreover, this is only one aspect, and that doesn’t take into account the whole plethora of strong self-interested motivations of scientists, individually or as a group. What really creates distrust in people is the fact that today’s science, for the most part, focuses on pragmatic outcomes only and where economic interests, internal political power struggles, career, one’s own and the department’s reputation, fundraising and the necessary media hype to sustain it, and the ‘publish or perish’ policy, have become the absolute priority. Scientific truth has been sacrificed, or is a secondary matter. Science is no longer driven by the desire for truth (whatever ‘truth’ might mean). The big existential and philosophical questions that moved the founding fathers of science have nowadays not much traction. On the top of that, an academic authoritarianism that forces to (self-)censorship those who have ‘heretic views’ is not the exception, but the norm.
People see this, or feel and intuit this state of affairs, and react correspondingly with distrust.
Frankly, I can’t blame them.