Social scientists and trust in science

I’ll be talking at a Social Science Week event next Monday which asks how social scientists and government might work together to strengthen public trust in scientific evidence?

Times Higher Magazine are partnering, and asked me to write a short piece on the topic for this week’s edition. I briefly ask why social scientists would want to be “used” in such a way, as well as what exactly they might provide:

It is clear that scientists simply saying that they know best is not enough for social or political action – take vaccines, climate change, nutrition, drugs policy (pharmaceutical or otherwise), energy, badger culling, or even – to be retro for a moment – mad cow disease, for example. To have impact, the public must believe the science, not just have it delivered to them. Belief is a social process, and this is where experts on the social can have a powerful role to play.

I wanted to stress that some of us have been at this a while (see this short bibliography, and this overview/ introduction might also be useful). Moreover, the role of social scientists doing such work isn’t just to work out the most efficient method by which science might be passed on to the public. Social researchers working in this areas will take a good long hard look at science as well as this thing we call ‘the public’, and sometimes they will deliver up uncomfortable messages. They are not PR officers, and this is precisely what makes them so powerful (not that there is necessarily anything wrong with science PR…). If science wants public trust, it will have to earn it, and it may have to change itself a bit in the process, or at least be willing to listen to what others have to say (it might also learn and improve from this too…).

Still, a form of this argument could be applied back to social scientists too, who are perhaps not always as trusted as they could be themselves. Perhaps the social researchers should take a leaf out of the natural scientists’ book and try to improve their image slightly. As I conclude:

So my message to social scientists is: ask not just what you can do for science, but also what scientists might do for you. I’d invite any natural scientists listening in to see social critique as a useful part of scientific work too. Everyone in the academy should challenge themselves to consider how the many threads of scholarship can best work together to serve the public good.

I believe the event on Monday is fully booked, but apparently it’ll be recorded in some way (EDIT 10/11: here it is, on YouTube). I’ll probably say something similar to the Times Higher piece, but if you’d like to help me refine my views do please comment here – I’m very open to changing my mind on this.

3 thoughts on “Social scientists and trust in science

  1. Pingback: Social scientists and trust in science | through the looking glass | Technology News

  2. Imran

    I don’t know if it’s quite what you’re asking for, but I was having a conversation on a related topic today about the difference between science and social science when it comes to perceptions from the public and politicians, which I thought I’d share a bit of and expand on.

    In particular, why when an ash cloud erupts, politicians wouldn’t dream of doing anything other than devolving the matter to scientists and the public wants to know what the ‘experts’ say – but when it comes to social science topics like education, everyone’s willing to venture an opinion because everyone’s had experience of going to school.

    Which of these is better? The former results in decent evidence-based policy when it really matters, and the latter leads to politicians deciding to have a massive upheaval of the education system every four years like clockwork – but philosophically I think one of the thing we all hope came out of Climate Gate is actually a better appreciation of how science actually works and what scientists do…

    1. alice Post author

      V much agree with that difference and think the education example is always the best one. The More or Less on evidence and policy is really good on this, if I remember rightly (think it is this one).

      Maybe social science needs a climate gate? :-)


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