News - February 23, 2017

‘Public trust in science is going up and down’

Albert Sikkema

Public trust in science is dwindling, we read with increasing frequency. But in fact, it is increasing, research shows. So what is going on? Both claims are true, concludes professor of Strategic Communication Noelle Aarts.

Photo: Niels van de Mossevelde

Public trust in science is being eroded, say opinion leaders such as Gabriel van den Brink and Louise Fresco. Interest groups shop around in research data and if the conclusions do not suit them, they accuse researchers of partiality. But this impression does not reflect the reality, two Tilburg professors claimed in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad last week. Television science programmes are hugely popular and research among 2000 Dutch people actually shows that trust in science is as strong as it ever was.

What is the situation now?
‘I think public trust in science is still tremendously strong. In fact: more and more often, so-called leaks make use of scientific facts to make their point. Science really is more popular than ever!’

So why all that criticism of science?
‘People increasingly often make use of science in an opportunistic way. And that is easy to do, because you can do a lot of shopping around in the vast supermarket called the internet – a quote from Louise Fresco – where we can find scientific evidence being put forward both for and against many arguments. Often, science is not clear-cut. And sometimes the position of science in society is an issue. When scientists are invited to take part in public discussions, they are often the ones who end the discussion because they feel they have presented facts which the rest of the participants should just accept. Research by my colleague Hedwig te Molder shows that there are often norms hidden in those facts which say how people should live their lives. Those people feel that their identity is being undermined, and that generates opposition. So both claims are true.’