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Science and Innovations

NAU Professor Discusses Science, Politics and Trust

Melissa Sevigny

Polls show that Americans are ambivalent about the role of science in our society. Ironically, there’s plenty of research about why people mistrust research. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny discussed those findings with Rod Parnell, environmental science professor at Northern Arizona University.

Tell me about how you think scientists and the public are interacting right now. Do you feel like there’s a trusting relationship there or has that started to change? 

Rod Parnell: I think the trust issue comes down to the larger issue associated with what people call ‘tribalism,’ this idea that you tend to relate to a group of people based upon the opinions, beliefs, values, that you hold in common…. So there would be a lot more skepticism on the right about environmental and climate change science, whereas on parts on the left there is skepticism about immunology and the effects of vaccines on autism and so forth… So when we’re talking about trust in science, it tends to be selective.    

So what you’re saying is that people look at science through a lens according to what they already value?

Rod Parnell: Yes, exactly. … So when you have a whole universe of information, for example what we have now with the Internet, you can selectively pick the information that is concordant with your values and beliefs. That process is something called confirmation bias.

There was an interesting poll out from the Pew Research Center last year that said, overall people in America tend to trust scientists, but when you look at climate change scientists specifically that trust sort of vanishes, particularly among political conservatives. What do you think about that?

Rod Parnell: Well, there’s certainly a range of trust exhibited by the public. The field people have the most faith in and are overwhelming supportive of is forensic science. And I have a feeling that has more to do with CSI investigations TV shows all over the place that show these amazing results. So forensic science is at one end of the scale. At the other end of the scale, the low end of the scale, are things like psychology and climate science. I think part of the problem is that when people look at science that has more uncertainty associated with it, they tend to be more skeptical of the science itself. So instead of recognizing that all science has uncertainties, and that all science tries to move toward reducing the level of uncertainties, a lot of people tend to think in terms of, “OK, the guy either had the blood on his shirt or he didn’t.”

What advice would you give to scientists who are dealing with an erosion of trust in their research?

Rod Parnell: I think the key is engagement. … Probably the best example is the effort at creating more networks of citizen science programs where we get people out into the environment and actually start doing their own measurements and analyses…. That kind of involvement with the community had traditionally not been a big role for scientists, but I think we’re seeing more of that.

Thank you very much for speaking with me.

Rod Parnell:  Oh sure, it was a pleasure.

Rod Parnell is presenting a lecture tonight on science, politics and trust. It starts at five thirty at NAU’s Social and Behavioral Sciences building, room 200.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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