Last year, as the number of Italians getting a fourth booster dose of the Covid vaccine waned, the country’s ministry of health asked me, as a scientist, to appear on a 50-second TV spot, explaining why vulnerable people should get another jab. It was aired hundreds of times on television. As a result, I received a lot of emails attacking me; on Twitter and Facebook I was (wrongly) denounced as someone in the pocket of big pharma.
At the height of the pandemic in October 2020 I’d had a similar experience. At the time, I was president of the Accademia dei Lincei, Italy’s most important scientific academy, and the second deadly wave of Covid was arriving. I argued in a long and reasoned article, highlighting the epidemiological situation in detail, that either drastic measures would need to be taken immediately or 500 deaths a day could be expected by mid-November (unfortunately the prediction was accurate). Immediately after publication, I received emails telling me in the strongest of terms that I had better not get involved in other people’s business.
These episodes made me experience first-hand a phenomenon that I was becoming increasingly familiar with: the vanishing of confidence in science. It seems almost a paradox: as our societies become more and more dependent on advanced technology based on scientific discoveries, people are becoming more and more suspicious of scientists.
How can we make sense of this? There are many factors to consider. I often think about the decreasing importance of the printed word, over the past decades, in favour of visual and hyper-concise forms of media, from TV to TikTok. Televised debates require fast reaction times, whereas scientists are used to studying issues at length and only talking about them after thinking. In addition, a successful visual performance is not just about being correct but evoking sympathy in the viewer – about performing. This doesn’t always come easy to scientists.
But perhaps the current difficulties have deeper origins. We are entering a period of pessimism about the future that has its origin in crises of various kinds: economic, climate-related, resource depletion. Many countries are experiencing rising inequality, job insecurity, unemployment and outright war.
Whereas once it was thought that the future would necessarily be better than the present, faith in progress – in the magnificent and progressive fortunes of humans – has been eroded. Many fear, with good reason, that future generations will be worse off than the present ones. And just as science used to get the credit for progress, so now it receives the blame for decline (real or just perceived, it doesn’t matter). Science is sometimes felt to be a bad teacher who has led us in the wrong direction, and changing this perception is not easy.
In a nutshell, scientists are thought to be part of the elite and, therefore, not trustworthy. And the increasing interest by a fraction of scientists in patenting knowledge and making individual financial gains from discoveries reinforces this identification with the elite. But expanded links between science and industry or episodes of scientific fraud do not alter a fundamental reality: science makes fair predictions that become reliable after the gradual formation of a scientific consensus. The construction of consensus is the process that makes the real difference – it involves the whole scientific community and that cannot be manipulated.
Unfortunately this lack of trust can have disastrous effects: if citizens do not trust science, we will not be able to fight global warming, infectious diseases, poverty and hunger, and the depletion of the planet’s natural resources.
But how to restore and promote trust? A great coordinated effort is needed, and this will only be possible if there is a full understanding of the dramatic nature of the problem. A part of the human and financial resources devoted to the advancement of science must be used to discuss with citizens, through education and media and outreach programmes, what science really is: the most reliable and honest tool for understanding the world and predicting the future.
It is also important that we scientists talk about not just our successes, but our mistakes, doubts and hesitations. Often there is no trace, in the public scientific discourse, of the toil of the scientific process and the doubts that accompany it. If scientists are seen as part of the elite, perhaps the first step to restoring trust is a dose of modesty – to show we are just as human as those who distrust us.
Giorgio Parisi is a theoretical physicist and the author of In a Flight of Starlings: The Wonder of Complex Systems. Together with Klaus Hasselmann and Syukuro Manabe, he won the Nobel prize in physics in 2021
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