Understanding and Trusting Science

Abstract

Science communication via testimony requires a certain level of trust. But in the context of ideologically-entangled scientific issues, trust is in short supply—particularly when the issues are politically ‘entangled’. In such cases, cultural values are better predictors than scientific literacy for whether agents trust the publicly-directed claims of the scientific community. In this paper, we argue that a common way of thinking about scientific literacy—as knowledge of particular scientific facts or concepts—ought to give way to a second-order understanding of science as a process as a more important notion for the public’s trust of science.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Among whom we include historians, sociologists, and philosophers. We note that it is a little surprising, in particular, that philosophers of science and epistemologists have had little to say on this topic (as indeed they have had rather little to say to each other).

  2. 2.

    For this reason, Norris and Phillips call scientific literacy a “programmatic concept” (Norris and Phillips 2009, 271).

  3. 3.

    Shen’s few gestures towards greater specificity tend themselves to be functionally defined: e.g., “the scientifically literate layman knows how to separate the nontechnical from the technical, the subjective from the objective, and to make full use of scientific expertise without being overwhelmed by it” (Shen 1975, 266).

  4. 4.

    A further complication that becomes salient when taking up the normative interpretation of this question is that different communities, political contexts, social roles, and so on may carry different expectations for a certain depth and content of scientific literacy; we thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.

  5. 5.

    Shen’s initial gloss of it is also typical: it is “in the interest of everybody […] to gain a better understanding of science and its applications […]. Such an understanding might be called ‘science literacy’” (1975, 265; emphasis added).

  6. 6.

    Previous research has shown that epistemic success terms like “knowledge” and “understanding” are often left undistinguished from one another or even conflated in the scholarly literature on scientific literacy and the public understanding of science (Huxster et al. 2018).

  7. 7.

    How to define this last idea with more precision is a difficult question; our thoughts here turn initially to work by Kitcher (2001, 2011) on “well-ordered science”, though we have no particular account to offer.

  8. 8.

    This is not to deny that there won’t be some occasions on which an understanding of basic scientific facts and methods will not allow laypeople to reject some theories as ill-defended or pseudoscientific.

  9. 9.

    Kahan calls his measurement scale “Ordinary Science Intelligence” (OSI), which incorporates questions from the National Science Board’s 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators as well as some common numeracy and cognitive reflection items (see Kahan 2017, for discussion and validation).

  10. 10.

    This presumes, of course, a separation between the epistemic and affective dimensions of scientific literacy that may in real life be quite a bit more blurry. We take no position in this context on how we should respond to this blurriness.

  11. 11.

    In this effort, space constraints force us to focus on the content pillar of our conception; there is more to say about both the agent and relation pillars that must wait for another occasion.

  12. 12.

    A stable and authoritative URL for a transcript of this speech seems to be difficult to come by—one transcript is available at http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Publications/PDF_Papers/Crichton2003.pdf—but readers may search for “Aliens Cause Global Warming”.

  13. 13.

    Lombrozo et al.’s (2008) instrument for assessing understanding of the nature of science includes two items relevant to the scientific community: “The scientific community is essential to the process and progress of science,” and “Unlike many other professions, science is almost always a solitary endeavor” (Lombrozo et al., 292).

  14. 14.

    In this sense, we submit, our collective understanding of the social structure of science resembles our understanding of many scientific issues—anthropogenic climate change, for example—on which the general core of the theory is at this point almost beyond doubt while significant uncertainties remain about some of the finer details.

  15. 15.

    For example, might we reasonably limit this expectation to policy leaders and citizens attentive to science policy (cf. Miller and Inglehart 2012)?

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Slater, M.H., Huxster, J.K. & Bresticker, J.E. Understanding and Trusting Science. J Gen Philos Sci 50, 247–261 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-019-09447-9

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Keywords

  • Science communication
  • The social structure of science
  • Consensus