Can the Public’s Belief in Science Be Restored?

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COVID-19 has highlighted the stark reality that a majority of Americans do not have a great deal of confidence in the scientific community. A perhaps surprising fact, though, is that these levels of lower-than-ideal confidence are not new but have instead remained stable for decades.

Accessibility of Information

Before COVID-19, topics such as climate change, food safety and vaccine efficacy had been in the national media headlines off and on with the media giving time to pro-science perspectives as well as science skeptics. This dual-sided coverage was representative of the split between those that had strong confidence in the scientific community and those that had some or no confidence. Some scientific publishing companies started initiatives such as the Bentham Open to improve access to scientific research. The Bentham Science Open works to improve researchers’ access to publishing thus increasing accessibility of scientific materials. 

Disparity of Opinions

Improved accessibility makes scientific research more available, but those with low or no confidence in scientific information aren’t likely to seek it out, especially with social media feeds becoming strong echo-chambers for currently held beliefs. COVID-19 highlighted this disparity in public opinion. Since a COVID-19 vaccine didn’t exist, personal behaviors such as mask-wearing, hand-washing and social-distancing were the best way to control the spread of the disease. Effective control of the spread, however, depended upon a majority of Americans practicing these behaviors, and the practice of these behaviors was inextricably tied to a person’s belief in the science backing the recommendations.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic made especially apparent, the question is not necessarily how the public’s belief in science can be restored but instead how it can be raised from the relatively stable less-than-half figures. The recent pandemic has highlighted the risk of having less than half of a society’s confidence in science high, but with other world-changing phenomenons like climate change having a potentially more devastating impact, raising the public’s overall confidence in the scientific community is of paramount importance.

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