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Public Trust in Science Hinges on Uncertainty, Study Finds

Posted February 23, 2017

To a significant degree, the progress of science depends on how the lay public judges specific research endeavours – more support begets more funding. Needless to say, one of the key determining factors in how different individuals perceive science is political disposition and differing worldviews. As a new study, just published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, suggests, however, there might be more to this picture.

Image courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University.

Researchers at the CMU (Carnegie Mellon University) had looked at how the distribution of public trust in separate branches of science correlates with people’s views on their perceived accuracy and, by extension, the level of inherent uncertainty. The team looked at both the more polarizing topics and empirical disciplines the public is not as concerned about.

“Uncertainty is a natural part of scientific research, but, in the public domain, it can be used selectively to discredit undesirable results or postpone important policies. Understanding how the public perceives uncertainty is an important first step for understanding how to communicate uncertainty,” said said Stephen B. Broomell, Assistant Professor of social and decision sciences in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

To arrive at this finding, Broomell and his colleague, Ph.D. student Patrick Bodilly Kane, developed a scale to measure people’s views on the trustworthiness of different sciences and plotted the results onto a map, showing the disciplines from the least to most certain.

“The map shows that perceptions held by the public may not reflect the reality of scientific study,” Broomell said. “For example, psychology is perceived as the least precise while forensics is perceived as the most precise. However, forensics is plagued by many of the same uncertainties as psychology that involve predicting human behaviour with limited evidence.”

Just as predicted, the study had also corroborated the past finding that political views have a rather large effect on how certain people judge different sciences to be.

Somewhat more surprisingly, though, Broomell and Kane had also found the public’s perception of the accuracy of different branches of science does not carry over to individual studies. In other words, when presented with results of a specific study, the usual, unconscious biases we all to have tend remain, to some extend at least, dormant, thereby providing science communicators with a new alley for assuaging common concerns and pushing for  superior science literacy.


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