Trust me, I’m a doctor: could more open science change how much we trust scientists?

According to Warren Buffet, it takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. Science has had a bit longer, being based on what gentlemen philosophers in 17th-century England thought important: civility, honour, integrity and trust. Fast-forward 400-odd years and many things have changed (welcome, women of science!), but trust, it seems, is still central to how we perceive what a scientist is.

Trust me, I’m a doctor: could more open science change how much we trust scientists?

‘Since the early 1980s, market research organisation Ipsos MORI has been asking the British public to judge different professions on how much they “generally trust them to tell the truth”’

Since the early 1980s, market research organisation Ipsos MORI has been asking the British public to judge different professions on how much they “generally trust them to tell the truth”. You don’t need a PhD to guess who came bottom in 2014: politicians, followed by journalists, estate agents and bankers.

What’s fascinating is the static nature of these polls. Even with horrors such as the case of mass-murdering doctor Harold Shipman, the ranking of professions barely changes (and doctors come top virtually every time). Scientists have been on a general upward trajectory since they were first included – their score increasing from 63% in 1997 to 83% in 2014.

Of course, trust can be taken to mean a lot more than just telling the truth. In a 2014 report about public attitudes to science, Ipsos MORI explored trust in terms of scientists following the rules, being competent and considering the risks of new technologies. The survey results were similar across the board – we really do seem to trust the men and women in white coats.chemicals

“My impression is that scientists are relatively highly regarded in terms of trustworthiness,” says Professor Stephen Curry, who has been blogging about his life as a structural biologist for more than six years.

However, he wonders whether these opinions are well founded. “In my experience, many of [the general public] don’t really have a good idea about how science is done – who pays the scientists’ salary, how they get money for their research. They probably suspect a lot of it commercially driven, whereas in actual fact a lot of it isn’t.”

His hunch is reflected in the findings of research. The Wellcome Trust monitor, which tracks views on medical research in the UK, found that the number of adults who said they don’t know what it means to study something scientifically more than doubled between 2009 and 2012. The number replying “I don’t know” when asked who carries out medical research also doubled.

So, although trust in scientists seems to be growing, so too does the number of us who feel that we have no choice but to trust those governing science. But is resigned trust better than no trust at all?

A truth to tell?

The truth can be a slippery thing. Researchers don’t tend to use just one method to interrogate the world around us – methods and means can be as varied as the fields of study and the people working in them. But that’s okay, said science historian Professor Naomi Oreskes in a 2014 TED talk, because all scientists collect evidence, and all of that evidence is subject to scrutiny.

“We can think of scientific knowledge as a consensus of experts,” Oreskes said. “We can also think of science as being a kind of a jury, except … it’s not a jury of your peers, it’s a jury of geeks.”chemistry_lab

This means that most of us are not part of the club: not party to the papers in journals, nor conversant in the language in which they’re written; not invited to the conferences or symposia; not seated at the lab bench or the computer screen. Essentially, we have to take the researchers’ word for it, right?

‘Open science would help non-scientists better understand the piecemeal, iterative process of research, and could even support the development of the critical thinking skills needed to tell science from pseudoscience.’

Not necessarily. “Open science” is a growing movement that could, in its broadest application, result in everything to do with science – from preliminary ideas to researchers’ lab notebooks – being made freely accessible to everyone and anyone in real time. Open-access publishing, which allows free access to and reuse of scientific papers, is already happening, and research shows that the impact of a paper is greater when it’s open access.

But how could open activities like this actually help increase trust? Open science might kill several birds with one stone, say researchers from UWE, by offering scientists new ways to connect directly with the public, rather than relying on the media to represent them. This would also help avoid the much-feared “dumbing down” of science.

Non-scientists would have direct access to original research and could hear things straight from the people doing the work, which would, surveys indicate, engender more trust. Open science would help non-scientists better understand the piecemeal, iterative process of research, and could even support the development of the critical thinking skills needed to tell science from pseudoscience.

Giving it 110%

open_science

Still, it’s never prudent to trust anything 100%, and it’s the same for science. As taxpayers, we stump up for a lot of the research that’s taking place. In return, we want to feel confident that the right research is being funded, the right studies are being done and the data is shared in the right way.

When Curry talks to other scientists about blogging and social media, he points out the enthusiasm of the general public, who “love hearing about the nuts and bolts of what really goes on”. But are we ready to know what scientists – real humans doing real jobs – actually get up to? Could making the machinations of research transparent threaten the trust we put in researchers? And, in a culture where scientists “publish or perish”, are researchers prepared to open their doors ­and notebooks to just anyone?

“[Some people] have a very idealistic view of what scientists are like and what they’re capable of,” says Curry. “Sometimes you have to say, ‘Well, actually, no, we won’t be able to do that.’ They all assume that we’re geniuses who are about to win Nobel prizes. Most working scientists will accept that’s probably not the case.”

Images: US Army RDECOM, [email protected], Nic McPhee, and RDECOM used under Creative Commons

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