Scientists should value public opinion, not trash it

From Douglas Axe, author of Undeniable, in response to Atul Gawande (“Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense”), who was complaining about lack of public confidence in science.

At Evolution News & Views:

Maybe the better way to restore public confidence is to abandon the condescending mindset and embrace a much more radically inclusive view of science. Maybe the moms Gawande referred to — the ones who jumped to the conclusion that vaccines were dangerous — aren’t all that different from professional scientists who jump to the conclusion that public dissent is dangerous. Gawande gave five handy tips for writing people off as pseudoscientists, but instead of alienating people by dismissing them in this way, what if we were to view public opinion as the ultimate form of peer review?

If the safety of well-studied vaccines and the danger of forgoing them are observable facts, perhaps we should trust public peer review to affirm this. Indeed, it already has. Gawande mentioned the tragic human cost of a drop in vaccination rates in the US from 1989 to 1991. Ten years after that drop, Gallop results showed that “parents with the most information, both positive and negative, are most likely to get their children vaccinated.” And this public verdict has held. According to a recent Pew Research Center report: “A vast majority of Americans view childhood vaccines as safe.”

People aren’t stupid. Science is a public enterprise, and public acceptance has always been its most significant seal of approval. Professional scientists should embrace this by doing more free sharing of information and less complaining about public opinion. More.

Of course. As a matter of fact, the public has recently been dealing with the discoveries that a lot of nutrition science is bunk (salt isn’t Bad, for example), whole foods are way overrated, and many promising cancer studies can’t be replicated.

It says something alarming about our culture that—at this point—when many scientists are having second thoughts about how things get classed as good science, the big worry should be that the public isn’t trusting enough.

Alternative suggestion: If you want to be believed, be believable.

Public opinion isn’t any kind of a gold standard. Rather, over time, involving more people with different life experiences in a free and honest discussion will usually produce better results than we get from small committees of elite authoritarian asshats. Try it, it works.

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See also: Atul Gawande on public opinion


Bill Nye as authoritarian asshat