Crisis of confidence sparks global debate on how to respond to attacks on science
Science is suffering a crisis of confidence. In our modern, polarized societies, where fake news and conspiracy theories spread rapidly on social media, scientific knowledge has become a frequent target for groups with divergent political or economic beliefs and interests—or simply the uneducated. The effects of this phenomenon were highlighted in a survey conducted in 144 countries, including Brazil, and published in July, which asked participants about their views, interest, and level of information about science and technology (S&T) issues. Commissioned by the British Wellcome Trust and conducted by the Gallup Institute, the study heard from more than 140,000 people and found that 73% of Brazilians distrust science, while 23% believe that scientific research contributes little to the country’s economic and social development. This level of skepticism is not unique to Brazil, and even affects developed nations such as France and Japan, where 77% of respondents also stated that they distrust science.
The Wellcome Global Monitor also found that perceptions of science and engagement among Brazilians are influenced by religious beliefs. Almost half of respondents said that “science has at some time been contrary to my religious beliefs,” and of this group, three-quarters said that “when science disagrees with my religion, I choose religion.” A similar trend was observed in the USA, where science at some point went against the religious beliefs of 59% of respondents—of these, 60% backed their religion.
The data shows that in developed countries, the perceived benefit of science is three times higher among individuals who claim to lead a “comfortable life” than those who report experiencing difficulties. The level of trust in scientists also seems to be related to the Gini index, a coefficient that measures the income distribution of the countries analyzed. “In countries that are more unequal, people distrust science more. In countries that are more equal, trust is much higher,” wrote Mark Henderson, director of communications for the Wellcome Trust. According to Simon Chaplin, director of culture and society at the British organization, there is evidence from several countries that skepticism of science is related to the reputation of other institutions, such as the government and the legal system. “This should be a wake-up call to everyone who likes to think of science as somehow neutral and separate from the societies we live in.”
The results do not surprise Yurij Castelfranchi, a researcher at the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG). “It’s not just a trend of denying scientific consensus, but a crisis of legitimacy,” he says. “People distrust science just as they distrust other power structures, such as the government, the judiciary, and the press,” says the Italian sociologist and physicist, who has been studying how people perceive and consume S&T in Brazil and Latin America for over a decade. “It was inevitable that this collective sentiment would reverberate in science.”
Since the end of World War II (1939–1945), science has played an increasing role in national development strategies. “Science was seen worldwide as one of the drivers of progress and quality of life, rising to an unquestionable position of authority in the public imagination, free from uncertainties and conflicts of interest,” says Castelfranchi. This led to the creation of funding agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the USA in 1950, and the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) in Brazil in 1951. The pinnacle of this process was the space race between the USA and the Soviet Union, notes philosopher Marcos Nobre, fom the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP). “Research funding increased significantly in both countries due to their desire to demonstrate military strength and to be the first to conquer space,” he explains.
The landscape began to change as the Cold War came to an end in the late 1980s, with science seeking to renew its social legitimacy. But it was not able to achieve the same level. Nobre uses the sequencing of the human genome as an example of how the public often do not see research results being applied in the same way they did with the space race. “With the genome project, science did not achieve the same degree of public interest as the space race, and by the time it began in 1990, confidence was already waning in the relationship between science and the political authorities, which today is openly denounced as collusion,” says the researcher. The result, he notes, is that rejection of the political power, viewed as a “corrupt” institution that does not help the majority of people, has affected science, which is seen as in the service of the government.
Anti-vaccine groups in Brazil feed on conspiracy theories from the USA and spread on YouTube
This problem is particularly prevalent in Brazil, as shown by the results of the study Public perceptions of S&T in Brazil 2019, conducted by the Center for Management and Strategic Studies (CGEE) and commissioned by the Brazilian Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Communications (MCTIC). Conducted periodically since 2006, the survey shows that Brazilians have always claimed to be interested in S&T, especially subjects related to medicine and the environment. More recently, however, they have been more critical of science and its uses. The latest survey involved 2,200 people from all regions of the country and identified a fall in the number who believe S&T exclusively benefits humanity—from 54% in 2015 to 31% in 2019. It also showed a rise in the percentage who think S&T provides both benefits and drawbacks—from 12% in 2015 to 19% in 2019. The proportion who consider scientists useful to society also declined. In 2010, the figure was 55.5%, in 2015 it dropped to 52%, and in 2019 it was 41%.
Marcelo Knobel, dean of the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), believes the data is concerning, and may help to explain the recent wave of attacks on educational and research institutions in Brazil. He says that the low level of public confidence in science and the work of scientists, together with a worrying lack of knowledge about what science is and how important it is to the country, could compromise the structure of the national education and research system. “Recent cuts to the federal science budget demonstrate these risks in action,” says Knobel, who has been mobilizing the UNICAMP community against cuts and attacks on science. “Conducting quality research takes time and money, and it’s only possible with the support of the public.”
The public’s perception of science is distorted, notes Simone Pallone de Figueiredo, a researcher at UNICAMP’s Laboratory for Advanced Studies in Journalism (LABJOR). “Very few people, for example, realize that the technologies we use every day emerged from concepts that took years of research before they were practically applied in our daily lives.”
Ignoring the evidence The Wellcome Trust and CGEE research helps us to understand a historical process, but it does not explain the emergence of movements opposing scientific evidence and consensus on topics such as climate change, evolution, or vaccines. An ongoing study led by Castelfranchi is attempting to shed light on this issue. He believes that rather than an overall antiscientific movement, there are small bubbles that reject the evidence and consensus on certain issues, while accepting it in others. “Those who refuse to acknowledge that climate change is linked to human activity are not necessarily the same people who argue that the earth is flat,” he says.
These groups, he notes, are small and have always existed. Strengthened by their own sources of erroneous information and misinterpretations of scientific studies, the internet has helped them to grow. This is the case with the flat earth theory, which is defended in Facebook communities of almost 80,000 people in total worldwide. “They tend to be composed of paranoid individuals who are skeptical of political, social, or scientific consensus,” says Castelfranchi.
Conservatives still refute the climate crisis despite melting glaciers in the Arctic basin
Social media is the number one tool used to spread these ideas. “The groups opposed to vaccines in Brazil feed on conspiracy theories produced in the USA and grow primarily via YouTube,” says Dayane Machado, a PhD student at UNICAMP’s Department of Science and Technology Policy. Machado, who studies anti-vaccine movements, points out that despite having been around for a long time, they have enjoyed a major boost since 1998, when surgeon Andrew Wakefield published a study in the journal Lancet indicating that the MMR vaccine is associated with cases of autism in children. Later studies refuted the connection, and in 2010, a decade after the study was published, Wakefield was found to have shares in a company producing an alternative vaccine. The article was retracted and he lost his medical license, but the damage was already done.
Interestingly, skepticism of the safety and efficacy of vaccines tends to be highest in developed countries. According to the Wellcome Trust study, a third of France’s population said they did not believe immunization was safe. “Skepticism about vaccines is not a new phenomenon in France, but suspicion increased after the 2009 swine flu pandemic, during which the World Health Organization [WHO] was accused of being influenced by pharmaceutical companies,” comments Imran Khan of the Wellcome Trust. Distrust of vaccinations is considered the main factor behind the 462% increase in the number of measles cases in France between 2017 and 2018. Despite the recent drop in immunization rates, most Brazilians surveyed said they trusted vaccines and believed they were “important for children.” Similar trends were observed in other low-income countries, such as Bangladesh and Rwanda. Machado explains that there are several reasons behind the rise of anti-vaccine groups, including the increased availability of alternative medicines, the rejection of state interference in individual matters, and religious beliefs.
The debate about how people choose what to believe and why some reject scientific consensus is complex and inconclusive. According to linguist Carlos Vogt, from the Institute of Advanced Studies (IDEA) and LABJOR at UNICAMP, these negationist movements arise from a lack of knowledge about what science is and how it works. “Science is a method that allows us to identify patterns behind the phenomena of nature and translate them into general laws,” he explains. The problem is that this is poorly understood. “Few people know that research is based on specific methods, that its results are reviewed by other scientists in the same field before they are published, and that other researchers will attempt to reproduce published results to verify them.” Vogt also emphasizes the importance of understanding that scientific results are provisional and can be overturned by future experiments or observations. “Scientific truth is eternal… For as long as it lasts.”
Conservatism Often, however, those with the most scientific knowledge are the most polarizing in scientific debates. This was the conclusion of a study published in 2015 by Dan Kahan, a professor of psychology at Yale University, USA.
Participants in the experiment had to assess the threats of climate change on a scale from 0 to 10. Kahan then checked their responses against their level of scientific knowledge. He found that the more participants knew about science and its processes, the more radical their views on the effects of climate change. This occurs because many people tend to use scientific knowledge to reinforce existing beliefs, which have been shaped by their view of the world.
The role of political conservatism in the way Americans handle certain scientific evidence was analyzed in a study published in 2017 by the Pew Research Center, an institute that specializes in public opinion surveys. Republican Party voters, especially the most conservative, were found to be more skeptical of news about climate change, the effectiveness of vaccines, and genetically modified foods. One hypothesis for this resistance is the increased use of scientific evidence by the government to justify regulatory measures introduced in some sectors of the economy since the 1970s. “Any evidence that reinforces the need for state intervention in the economy or in people’s lives tends to be viewed with more distrust by this section of the population,” says Castelfranchi.
The phenomenon is particularly clear in discussions about climate change. The consensus among scientists with respect to the rise in global temperatures over the past 130 years and the role humans have played in this process has encouraged governments to more tightly regulate greenhouse gas emissions. “Several organizations funded by the fossil fuel industry have tried to undermine public understanding of the scientific consensus on this issue by promoting ‘skeptical’ researchers and spreading doubts and controversy,” says John Besley, a researcher from Michigan State University, USA, who specializes in public opinion. According to Besley, the effort was so intense that the media felt compelled to report on the opinions of the opposing groups.
Physicist Paulo Artaxo, from the Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo (IF-USP), points out that climate change denial gained momentum in the 1990s, at the same time as many agreements, conventions, and laws were established to mitigate the impacts of economic development on the environment. “When President Donald Trump says he doesn’t believe in climate change, even after ‘reading’ 1,656 pages of a report signed by 300 scientists about the devastating effects of global warming on the economy, health, and the environment, he makes it clear that he will meet the political and economic interests of the sectors that funded his campaign,” says the researcher.
The European Union is studying how to tackle this wave of skepticism and has held discussions based on a 2018 report by the High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation. Aimed at all countries in the European Union, the paper suggests a multidimensional approach that includes promoting transparency of websites and internet providers; media and information literacy; and academic research on misinformation.
Marcos Nobre believes the dialogue between science and the public needs to be improved. “Science needs to rethink its platform for public validation and it must be absolutely transparent to succeed,” he suggests. It also needs to show the public that it is open to debate, even with those who reject its conclusions. “Otherwise, it will continue to feed the conspiracy that it is in collusion with the authorities,” concludes the researcher.
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