Psychology has historically had a bad reputation, ever since Freud introduced his ideas of, um, infantile sexuality. In fact, science in general has become hopelessly understood. An AAMC article comments on three contributing factors to science’s plight.
- An overabundance of information, some of which is misinformation.
While an extensive press is usually considered a healthy feature of democracy, technology has turned it into an “information pandemic”. The increasing access to scientific research means that people can become a self-proclaimed authority on any subject, but reading scientific papers is more complicated than jumping to the conclusions section. Without a balanced mindset, it is very easy to find the “right facts” and ignore the “alternative facts”. When the “facts” conflict, people turn to “experts” – high-profile figures and popular institutions – to separate fact from fiction.
- Politicization and confirmation bias.
Theoretically, asking trusted figures for advice is not a bad idea, but the problem is in the word “trust”. News organizations, for example, inevitably contribute bias, so how do we know whom to trust? We believe what we want to believe, and this is such an infuriatingly stubborn and pervasive human behavior that I have written about it here. People look for information that confirms their own beliefs, and engage in apish tribalism, instinctively setting political dumpster fires and regurgitating mindless invective at their “enemies”.
Disinformation (deliberately misleading information, often peddled by organized groups with vested interests) takes advantage of this psychological defense mechanism to easily spread lies. Science has fallen victim to the politicization of facts, leading people to distrust it when it conflicts with personal beliefs. Studies have shown that people are more critical of the experimental design of studies that reach unfavorable conclusions (again, look here). Science has become increasingly weaponized as a political expediency, leading some news outlets to deliberately erode confidence in scientific results and spread conspiracy theories.
One poll found that Republicans trust Fox News more than the Weather Channel:
However, what is most concerning about this graph is that, except for the Weather Channel, there is no news organization trusted by both ends of the political spectrum. Apparently, politics worms its way into every corner of the media, such that people find it impossible to imagine a publication untainted by political intrigue.
- The institution of science.
When we hear about a PI embezzling funds or a clinical trial mishap, it reflects negatively on science in general. However, like most institutions, science is conducted by people, and people are inherently flawed. Of course, it is easy to forget this fact when we want to believe that science is a scam. Moreover, the technical incomprehensibilities and jargon of science contribute to a public apathy. It’s hard to believe in experts when they have the public image of criminals and mad scientists, but it is especially damaging when experts don’t agree. Though thousands of reputable labs may have come to one conclusion, the tabloid media and the human psyche’s tendency to notice and overstate unusual events have ensured that all it takes is a single dissenting voice in order to crush all hope of consensus. And, of course, if we don’t want to believe the majority conclusion, we will conveniently ignore the questionable credibility of the dissenting opinion.Moreover, what people consistently fail to understand is that, although the word “science” comes from the Latin verb “to know”, it is a process, not an eternal wellspring of knowledge. When scientists are strongly divided on a subject, it is not necessarily proof of gross incompetence; rather, science is intrinsically messy and all about probabilities. Everything in science textbooks is simply our best guess about how the world works. It would be fantastic if we could find an end-all, be-all experiment to decisively end all doubt about a subject, but that’s simply wishful thinking (click here for more information on the issues of experimental design). Unfortunately, in this increasingly black-and-white world, it seems that there is no room for nuance and being reasonable in the public consciousness.