By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
This past weekend saw not just Earth Day, but also a nationwide "March for Science." On Saturday, people across the country, and in some other parts of the world, turned out in order to show support for the role of science. The message behind these marches is distilled in a four-minute viral video from Neil deGrasse Tyson, viewed more than 25 million times in the past few days. Tyson argues that science should help us understand the world and shape public policy, but due to a decline in public support for science, “people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not, what is reliable, what is not reliable.” As long as science is viewed as just a chosen and often politicized belief rather than as a means of finding truth, the public won't have the best guidance on a number of issues like vaccines and medicines, food safety, and climate change. Marchers had the goal of defending scientific knowledge at a time when it is often relegated to just a belief. Critics of the march, however, point out that the idea of large crowds of people marching for science the same way they might march for a political candidate, particularly when most of those marchers seem to represent the left side of the political spectrum, could further erode faith in science, making it seem more like a political stance and less like a neutral source of knowledge.
The conflict is played out on a background of changing attitudes. As Gallup has been documenting, there has been a decades-long, relatively steep decline in trust in institutions in general. When it comes to attitudes toward science, however, the decline has been even steeper (Gauchat, 2012). Breaking that out by political leaning, however, it appears that most of that decline is the result of changes in one group: Conservatives have gone from being the most science-supporting group to the least supporting group, falling 25 percent in the last four decades. While distrust of science can influence the left as well (research on vaccines or genetically-modified foods for example) (Griffin, 2016), the biggest effect has been that the use of science in supporting regulations or in pointing toward limits to economic development and energy use has meant that conservatives have discounted science in order to maintain cognitive consistency in support of pro-growth policies. Court cases don't often address the big science behind issues like climate change, but parties do often ask jurors to understand, assess, and apply the scientific method when dealing with the testimony of expert witnesses. For that reason, the waning trust in science itself matters to trial persuasion. In this post, I'll take a look at a few ways that experts and attorneys can adapt to these changing views of science.