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Trust Me, I’m a (Government) Scientist

Imagine that you and I are sitting next to each other on a plane. I’m from Kansas City, and you’re from, let’s just say, Seattle. You’re a real estate agent with years of experience in that area of the country. I might ask you what the housing market is like in Seattle, and chances are, I would base my opinions about Seattle’s housing market on our conversation. If you say that the housing market there is booming, I might even repeat something like that in conversation with friends or family. I think you’re a credible source for information about the Seattle housing market.

Now imagine, however, that you’re a scientist studying climate change. Again, we’re seated next to one another on a plane. This time, the situation plays out differently. I ask you what you do for a living. You tell me that you’re a scientist studying climate change. This time, I don’t base my opinions on climate change on our conversation. Rather, as soon as you tell me what you’re working on, I seize that opportunity to tell you what I think of climate change. Although I haven’t read any scientific literature on the matter, I tell you not only the “facts” as I know them, but also my opinions. I even offer you some suggestions for how I think America’s policymakers should handle the issue. I use this moment, a moment in which I could be learning a lot from you, not as an opportunity to learn, but as my chance to express my preconceived notions. Oh, and I’ve tuned you out in the process.

Does this second scenario sound impossible? It isn’t. As an undergraduate studying chemistry, I worked in a lab that studied nanotechnology. On one holiday break, I was on a flight home and struck up a conversation with a fellow airline passenger. I began to share what I was learning in the lab…and then spent the next 45 minutes listening to this person tell me that they had read about nanobots with artificial intelligence, and that I should watch out since these little guys are (apparently) a threat. I regretted my life choices in those long airborne moments — not my choices to pursue chemistry or to study nanotechnology, but my choice to share my work with a stranger. Sadly, this experience has happened, in one form or another, to many scientists.

So back to our real estate agent and the climate scientist. Why would I find the real estate agent a better candidate to inform my opinions about their area of expertise than the scientist? Is the scientist not also a credible source of information about their respective field? It almost seems absurd. Scientists labor for years through graduate school, often on very meager stipends, only to have to defend their expertise in front of a panel of highly critical senior scientists. Those that survive this ritual of professional initiation emerge as experts in their field. Surely, then, they are no less qualified to inform those outside of their field than a real estate agent, or any other professional for that matter.

We listen to our dentists about how to take care of our teeth; we listen to sommeliers on which wines to choose. Why not listen to scientists about climate change? Or vaccines? Or genetic modification? These are the folks who uncover and analyze the data, the souls whose life’s work it is to get a handle on these problems.

We need to address the credibility problem for scientists. That means engaging with the public about several key parts of the profession:

  1. Conclusions are data-driven. Just as with any other job, scientific work is work. While it would certainly be easier to write up whatever results we were feeling that day and roll that “study” out to the world, that isn’t how it works. On the contrary: we often sift through months or even years of data and try to come up with conclusions that fit with our observations. Sometimes the data tell us exactly what we expected. Other times we’re surprised. In any case, we don’t get to decide. While the conclusions may be inconvenient for those who disagree with them, I assure you, the conclusions are even more inconvenient for the scientists who did the analysis.
  2. Peer review prior to publishing. This is perhaps the most important pillar of scientific credibility. Once we do come across some exciting or useful results, it’s time to publish (or patent, but I digress). We compile results into a coherent manuscript, in the hopes that this manuscript will develop into a published article. But the road to publication is paved with many perils. Generally, the manuscript is sent to a journal, where it is then given a once-over to determine if the content is suitable for that journal. From there, it is farmed out to several peer reviewers, often scientists doing similar work. Those reviewers then unleash their criticism on the manuscript, and these criticisms must be addressed before the article can be published. Many manuscripts don’t make it past this peer review process, but that’s a good thing. That means that the peer review system serves as a quality control mechanism for scientific work, identifying and weeding out the bad stuff. Reviewers make sure that the work was conducted in a systematic, logical manner and that the conclusions are data-driven (see #1). This doesn’t always work in every single case, but for the vast majority, it’s an effective system.
  3. Sometimes details keep us from making statements that are easy to understand.Scientists are a careful bunch. They don’t like to make broad, sweeping statements such as, “[insert food here] is good for you,” or “[insert drug here] cures cancer.” Instead, you might hear, “This food has been shown to lower cholesterol in mice,” or “This drug was effective in shrinking tumor size by 50% in a small trial.” It might sound like hedging, but it isn’t. In fact, making grandiose statements is a surefire way to draw reproach from one’s peers. Instead, we make only those claims that we can unequivocally support with data (again, see #1). So we end up sounding like unexciting party poopers rather than superheroes…and that makes those results more credible, not less.

We still have a long way to go before scientists are seen as the experts in the fields in which they’re…well, experts. But the checks and balances built into the scientific system are there to keep people from making claims that are not supported by evidence. That’s the essence of science, in fact: critical examination of claims (a.k.a. hypotheses) to determine what is true and what is not. All fields should be so lucky.

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Avatar photo Blake Martin

Great piece, Erica! I can only assume the scenario you propose is one experienced by many in STEM, especially on a plane or other mode of transportation. You make a great case for respecting scientists as experts in their respective work, although I am sad this needed to be done in the first place. We certainly could all stand to benefit from being more data-driven in our professional lives.

Uyen Nguyen

I really enjoyed reading this, thank you for sharing your experience with us – I never thought about this issue that scientists have but it makes total sense. I am sorry that you aren’t able to share your work with others in a casual space.

Rebecca H Mott

Bravo! (from one scientist to another) Scientists “factual” approach is often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misjudged. Part of the reason is our obliviousness to the complexity that we seem to understand with simplicity. As you state here, that comes from weeks to months to years soaking in a particular field until we know it. However, there is a danger here. I would point out that many breakthroughs in science and technology were often “outsiders” when it came to being embraced by their peers. So, while I see your point, we must be careful to understand that our often myopic view of a particular subject can limit our understanding in ways that we are often blind to.

That being said, I have to admit that it is very irritating to hear people speak “facts” that don’t line up with data or documented proof. People these days are prone to reading things on the internet, believing them as fact, and repeating them with confidence. And in their rush to be “in the know” they often miss important details that we scientists take the time to inspect.

Great read and valid points. Sending up a virtual cheer for all of the scientists out there in all walks of life – including government.