Title: On Trusting Neighbors More Than Experts: An Ebola Case Study
Author(s) and Year: Katherine Furman (2020)
Journal: Frontiers in Communication (open access)
TL;DR: The spread of rumors within society can present a significant challenge for science communicators to overcome. This was seen in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2013-2016), where the circulation of rumors about the disease led to significant resistance from locals against international aid workers. Furman argues in this paper that it is values which explain why it is reasonable for ordinary laypeople to trust rumors from their peers over scientific experts. While the values embedded within science are often unknown or suspicious to a typical layperson, the values within their peer networks are more transparent and more likely to align with their own values, making peer testimony more trustworthy.
Why I chose this paper: I came across this research paper while studying a science communication course, and I found the discussion fascinating, in particular the idea of values being so deeply embedded within the scientific process, so I wanted to share the paper with others.
The general public gains access to scientific information through a variety of sources. A recent study from Katherine Furman focuses on a particularly treacherous information source – rumors. Furman defines rumors as information received from members of our social circles, unproven and not backed by credible evidence. The paper places this in contrast to testimony from experts who are, as Furman describes, “credentialed members of mainstream scientific communities”. When making a decision on a science-based issue, it seems fairly logical that you would place a higher level of trust in expert evidence received from official science communication sources.
However, in this discussion paper, Furman shows that such decision-making is not always so simple. Situations can arise in which laypeople will trust rumors over scientific experts, and Furman explains that we cannot just dismiss this stance as being unreasonable or irrational.
The Ebola case study
Furman introduces the example of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (from approx. 2013-2016) to frame this discussion around values and trusting rumors over experts. The efforts of international aid workers to assist the affected communities in fighting the spread of this deadly disease were met with fierce resistance by some locals – resistance that was driven by rumors circling in the community. This case provides a clear example of how rumors can severely shackle effective science communication.
The affected areas had access to a significant array of official science communication about the outbreak, including biomedical information and advice on what to do if people presented with symptoms. However there were also various rumors surrounding the outbreak. As described by Furman (p. 2) the rumors included accusations that;
“the disease was a plot by governments to take out troublesome marginal groups, that it was a genetically engineered disease from the West designed to kill Africans, and that medical teams were stealing the bodies of the deceased to sell their organs as part of the international organ market”
Such rumors sparked resistance in local communities which severely hampered efforts to control the epidemic. But why would locals place trust in these rumors, over the testimony that was available to them from scientific experts?
The key argument - values
According to Furman, the answer to this question comes down to values. And this goes beyond just the personal beliefs and morals of the individual, values are also deeply embedded into the scientific process itself. For example, values are applied when decisions are made about what scientific projects should be funded or pursued, what type of methodology should be used, how data should be interpreted and how results should be shared.
The key argument from Furman is that within science, it is very difficult to disassociate these ‘values’ from the ‘facts’. In other words, it is challenging for an average layperson to clearly see and understand the values that are present when they are presented with scientific information. In some cases, the public may even be suspicious of the values that are present.
Why trust peers over experts?
When presented with testimony from a scientific expert, if a member of the public believes that the values entrenched within that information are close to their own values, or at least in some way neutral, then they will likely accept the information as trustworthy. But what if they believe the values in the science to be suspicious, or even directly contradictory to their own? This, Furman argues, is when a layperson may begin to place higher trust in rumors received from peers and social networks.
Furman unpacks why this is the case. First, if a friend has previously navigated a difficult situation that you are now facing for the first time, especially if they have done so from a social standpoint similar to your own, this increases their trustworthiness. Second, and most importantly, both sets of testimony are imbued with values. Whilst the values within the expert testimony are unclear or even suspicious, at least the layperson knows the values within the peer testimony and knows if these values reflect their own. This is the core argument of the paper, and explains why trusting rumors over experts can be seen as a ‘reasonable’ strategy.
The importance of values over facts
Furman also explains that whilst a layperson might place trust in their peers due to value transparency, this does not necessarily mean that the experts are entirely dismissed. A layperson may believe expert testimony to be factually correct, however still make the personal choice to set it aside, because preserving their values is of higher importance to them.
This is illustrated in the Ebola case in the treatment of deceased bodies. Families were denied access to the bodies of their loved ones after death, as they remain highly infectious. However, providing a traditional burial service is of extreme importance to locals on value grounds, resulting in some terrible confrontations with medics in order to gain access to the bodies of the deceased. In this scenario, the locals may have accepted the scientific claims about infection risk, however still decided to act against it, as keeping their values intact was more important.
The final word
It is worth noting that Furman is not trying to make an argument that trusting rumors over experts is what people should do, or should even be seen as a ‘good thing’. Rather, she is providing us with a rationale as to why people make this decision, and that rather than simply rejecting this as irrational, it can actually be seen as a reasonable strategy, when looked at in the context of values.
There is no doubt that rumors present a significant challenge for effective science communication. Although Furman stops short of providing any concrete solutions in this discussion paper, she helps science communicators to understand the value-based reasoning which underpins why laypeople place trust in rumors. This understanding could help set the foundation for strategies to counter the negative impact of rumors in future science communication endeavors.
Edited by Niveen AbiGhannam
Cover image credit: Markus Winkler from Pixabay