Public trust in science is a fickle creature. Surveys show a clear majority of Americans believe science has positively impacted society, and they’re more likely to trust scientists on issues like climate change and vaccines. On the other hand, surveys also find that factors like politics, religion, age and race can greatly impact the degree of that trust. It presents a delicate challenge for agencies that depend on trust in science to do their jobs.
“Trust in science is high, but it’s not unanimous and it’s not completely unquestioned — and nor necessarily should it be,” Joseph Hilgard, an assistant professor of social psychology at Illinois State University, told me. “We assume that people don’t trust us because they don’t know what (scientists) know, but that’s not really the case. You have ideology, perspective, values — all these different lenses coming into play and that’s a great challenge for science communication.”
Hilgard is the co-author of a new study that provides some interesting insights into possible ways to improve public trust in science. The study, published in the August issue of Science Communication, is based on data collected via the Annenberg Science Knowledge survey, which began in 2016 and conducts nationwide bilingual telephone surveys on a weekly basis. Last August, the survey enhanced its ongoing data collection on Zika knowledge and attitudes, adding in another 500 people from the high-risk state of Florida. In examining the Zika data, researchers detected a noteworthy trend: following media coverage of a potential Zika vaccine, respondents reported greater trust in science for providing solutions to problems.
Hilgard, who at the time was a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, cautioned right off the bat that the findings are correlational and it’s difficult to draw any generalized implications, especially since Zika doesn’t have the polarizing effect of some other scientific issues. And unlike other Zika solutions — like aerial spraying and genetically modified mosquitoes — a vaccine is relatively uncontroversial. Still, the findings could suggest that particular circumstances are conducive to facilitating trust in science.
Hilgard and co-author Kathleen Hall Jamieson write:
A Zika vaccine has clear benefits, improving human health by preventing birth disorders, and vaccination does not conflict with mainstream public values or cultural norms. Additionally, media coverage of the Zika virus has established Zika prevention as a matter of public concern and general importance. These attributes make this news cycle a useful opportunity to observe the relationship between news of scientific progress and public attitudes toward science.
In examining answers from more than 34,000 survey responses, researchers found that in the weeks following news that a Zika vaccine had entered its first human trial, people paid more attention to Zika news and public trust in science went up. In particular, that trust bump followed increases in Google searches for “Zika vaccine” as well as news reports featuring Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Tom Frieden, then-director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The heightened trust lasted only two weeks, but greater attention to Zika overall lasted for six weeks.
However, the increased trust in science didn’t extend to the federal agencies tasked with Zika response and research. Within the same period of Zika vaccine news, opinions of both the National Institutes of Health and CDC remained the same. The vaccine news also had no effect on whether people felt the federal government was prepared to deal with a Zika outbreak in their community — those opinions stayed stable throughout the study period as well. Hilgard and Jamieson write:
This finding opens the possibility that confidence in science could be bolstered in a more sustained fashion by regularized communication about advances made by science. These communications may be particularly effective when they provide potential solutions to problems placed by media on the national agenda. However, such effects are likely to be relatively brief even under the best of circumstances. Additionally, such communications may backfire if the public feels that a problem or its solution is overstated for the personal benefit of scientists, politicians, or the media, although further empirical research is needed.
“This may seem like a surprise given the struggle that we sometimes have in expressing the safety of this or that treatment,” Hilgard said of the findings. “But I think it speaks to the idea that it’s not that people dislike science; it’s that they dislike certain science.”
So, what exactly fueled the heightened trust following media reports of the Zika vaccine? The study doesn’t tease those specifics out, but Hilgard had some guesses. First, while vaccine safety can be a sensitive topic, Hilgard said the actual gap in vaccine safety attitudes between scientists and the public probably isn’t as wide as we sometimes fear. Secondly, he said Zika isn’t “morally aligned.” In other words, it doesn’t lend itself to the type of morality discussions that erupted with the advent of the HPV vaccine, which prevents a sexually transmitted disease.
“Zika has very serious health implications and people are afraid of it,” he told me. “You put together fear of Zika, the acceptability of the product and the fact that there’s no real moral element to protecting yourself against Zika, and it leads to a scientific advance that, by and large, people feel good about.”
Because of such factors, Hilgard said it’s difficult to draw any generalized tips for communicating better on other scientific topics. But he did say the study suggests that keeping the public informed on new and promising scientific advances — while staying accurate and not exaggerating — could help nourish public trust.
“Science has always enjoyed a respected place in society, but it’s not unconditional love,” he said. “People want to see science earning its keep — they want know, ‘what have you done for me lately?’”
For a copy of the new study, visit Science Communication.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for 15 years. Follow me on Twitter — @kkrisberg.