Test tubes in a lab

No time for experts?

Recent research from PBS

While science communication is booming, science journalism is in crisis.

Trends in science news are linked to trends in public attitudes towards to science. The Mapping the Cultural Authority of Science (MACAS) project brings together an Indo-European network of experts across research and statistical analysis in social research to track the cultural authority of science. Professor Martin W. Bauer (LSE), project leader for MACAS and director for MSc Social and Public Communication in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science, recently investigated public opinion on science in post-Brexit United Kingdom.

On 23rd June 2016, the British public voted to leave the E.U. The leading face of the anti-Europe, pro-Brexit campaign, Michael Gove stated: ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ and refused to site any expert, scientific data from economists to support his claims. Later, this regard for expert opinion became emblematic of the state of science in post-Brexit United Kingdom. This new research from Professor Martin Bauer shows that science, our interest and familiarity, is stable to the point that it has become almost a mundane part of everyday life. This has come at a price. A worrying trend reveals that this mundane normalcy reflects an acceptance of our lack of autonomy in decision making and a general suspicion the public are often ill informed. Michael Gove may think we have had enough of experts, but have we really just had enough of false experts?

Research shows that the public trust scientists and that we are well-informed. In its annual ‘veracity index’ IPSOS Mori shows that the public believe scientists to be ‘telling the truth’ and this has increased from 65% in 2000, to 85% in 2015. As a point of difference, the credibility of the clergy has declined from 85% to 70%. In general, people feel familiar and informed by science - not surprising when we consider that science news has increased dramatically - and do not feel that it interferes with other aspects of their lives, particularly conflicting views in religion. If anything, people feel frustrated by the rate of change that science develops and becomes accessible, and the older generation feel slightly more out of step on current trends.

Despite public trust in science, it seems we do so with a sense of resignation, deferring decisions to experts with unease in our own authority or sense of a lack of options. In 2005, 49% of those surveyed in a series of British Attitudes to Science (BIS-BAS), and increasing to 67% in 2016, agreed that ‘we have no option but to trust those governing science’. At the same time, 90% of people agree that communication with the public needs to improve. Despite the huge increase in science media, for example, the public feel ill informed. Why is this? Bauer shows that while science communication is booming, science journalism has become endangered, contributing to a mythical and unrealistic image of science, and he asks: Is this a sound basis for an increasing tolerance of technocracy in the UK?

 

This news feature is based on the following research report:

Bauer, M. W (2017), No Time for Experts? Trust in Science after the Brexit vote of 23 June 2016, in Schiele B & LeMarec (2017) (eds) Cultures de Science, Montreal, Acfas, pp 91-99. ISBN 978-2-89245-157-3.

This ongoing research is part of the MACAS project.