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Scientists behaving badly–how does the public respond?

Title: Can’t You All Just Get Along? Effects of Scientific Disagreement and Incivility on Attention to and Trust in Science

Authors and year: Sedona Chinn and P. Sol Hart (2022)

Journal: Science Communication (Closed Access)

TL;DR: Scientists are increasingly resorting to visible and contentious means of settling their differences, but these angry public fights may be eroding public trust.

Why I chose this paper: Watching the increasingly sharp-elbowed style of scientific controversy in my former life as a journalist made me wonder what effect these were having on others.


Although the reasons aren’t entirely clear, there is no question that uncivil disagreement erodes trust in science.


“We’ve been trying to warn you guys for so many decades that we’re heading towards a

f—— catastrophe, and we’ve been ignored.” NASA scientist Peter Kalmus stated through tears in April after chaining himself to a Chase Bank building in Los Angeles to protest the company’s investment in fossil fuels. More than a thousand other scientists worldwide took part in angry demonstrations around the world to pressure governments into making deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. In London, some glued themselves to the windows of government buildings while others threw fake blood on the steps of the Spanish Parliament.

Unscientific behavior, you say? Unprecedented? Perhaps not any more. Researchers have shown that aggressive and acrimonious disagreement has become a growing part of both traditional and new messages about science, from the ratings-driven media and increasingly from scientists themselves. This is a fundamental change from the scientific community’s traditional methods of settling disputes, which featured measured, carefully fact-based arguments conducted solely through accepted forums such as peer-reviewed papers and academic conferences. Something about these civilized methods seems to have changed, at least for high-profile issues like climate change.

Is this brawling style a bad thing for science itself or just a harmless way to drum up attention for high-stakes issues? Seeking answers, researchers Sedona Chinn and Sol Hart inquired whether incivility in science news makes people lose respect for science by randomly exposing 1,995 American-based respondents to three news stories about recent science, none of them especially controversial.

Different subjects were asked to read different versions of each article with different headlines. One reported that a large majority of researchers agree with the findings. The second reported that the findings were controversial and contradicted by other studies. The third contained the same controversy as the second but included nastier quotes from a scientist not involved in the research: “There has been a lot of lousy research in recent years…” “The findings of this garbage study go against findings from previous research….“ “The idiot authors of this study are clearly just writing nonsense.” (see table) Would the three versions have any effect on the way people felt about the research--or about science itself?


To test this, subjects answered a series of questions measuring how much attention each story earned as well as whether they accepted the findings, trusted the authors and trusted science itself. Chinn and Hart found the subjects paid more attention to stories that featured agreement than disagreement, civil or uncivil—exactly the opposite of what they had predicted. Despite that, when it came to trust, the authors’ fears were borne out: subjects had higher trust in the scientist-authors and commenters when the stories featured agreement, less trust when the stories featured civil disagreement, and least trust of all when the arguments became angry (see table 1).

Interestingly, trust in science as a whole suffered less than trust in scientists. Subjects had greater trust in scientists and the scientific method when stories featured agreement and less trust when stories featured disagreement. However, the civil and acrimonious disagreement stories featured equally low levels of trust with no difference between them.

Table with rows labeled: Trust in the scientist who did the study, trust in the scientist who commented, trust in science, and trust in the scientific method; and columns labeled: scientific agreement, ,Disagreement, but civil, and uncivil disagreement.
Table 1 Variations of Trust (on a scale of 4) depending on the level and type of disagreement.


While these complex results don’t show a collapse of trust in science, they do suggest that public trust is a fragile thing and scientists can’t always count on public support when their fights become noisy and highly visible in the media. Because most scientific debate is low-key and takes place out of the limelight, the authors suspect that nonscientists aren’t familiar enough with the debates to recognize that disagreement is a normal part of the process. Instead, the authors believe nonscientists take their cues from the loudest, highest-profile debates.

Trust erodes, the authors believe, when nonscientists use public cues to conclude that all science works the same way. Their psychological discomfort with ambiguity has spillover effects, causing them to see debates as evidence of failure rather than as part of the normal working of science. Chinn and Hart believe it is important to learn more about how to convey scientific disagreement and debate in a way that is transparent and not perceived as a failure of science.

Edited by: Niveen AbiGhannam and Stephanie Deppe

Cover image credit: Ted Eytan/Creative Commons


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