Rebecca Rutstein and the Ocean Memory Project, "Blue Dreams" (2023), still from the 2 minute and 40 second digital video.

Enhancing Trust in Science

In “Enhancing Trust in Science and Democracy in an Age of Misinformation” (Issues, Spring 2023), Marcia McNutt and Michael M. Crow encourage the scientific community to “embrace its vital role in producing and disseminating knowledge in democratic societies.” We fully agree with this recommendation. To maximize success in this endeavor, we believe that the public dialogue on trust in science must become less coarse to better identify the different elements of science that can be trusted, whether it is science as a process, particular studies, which actors or entities are trusted, or further distinctions.

At the foundation of trust in science is trust in the scientific method, without which no other trust can be merited, warranted, or justified. The scientific community must strive to ensure that the scientific process is understood and accepted before we can hope to merit trust at more refined levels. Although trust in the premise that following the scientific method will lead to logical and evidence-based conclusions is essential, blanket trust in any component of the scientific method would be counterproductive. Instead, trust in science at all levels should be justified through rigor, reproducibility, robustness, and transparency. Scientific integrity is an essential precursor to trust.

As examples, at the study level, trust might be partially warranted through documentation of careful study execution, valid measurement, and sound experimental design. At the journal level, trust might be partially justified by enforcing preregistration or data and code sharing. In the case of large scientific or regulatory bodies, these institutions must merit trust by defining and communicating both the evidence on which they base their recommendations and the standards of evidence they are using.

Trust in science at all levels should be justified through rigor, reproducibility, robustness, and transparency. Scientific integrity is an essential precursor to trust.

Recognizing that trust can be merited at one point of the scientific process (e.g., a study and its findings have been reported accurately) without being merited at another (e.g., the findings represent the issue in question) is essential to understanding how to develop specific recommendations for conveying trustworthiness at each point. Therefore, efforts to improve trust in science should include the development of specific and actionable advice for increasing trust in science as a process of learning; individual scientific experiments; certain individual scientists; large, organized institutions of science; the scientific community as a whole; particular findings and interpretations; and scientific reporting.

However, as McNutt and Crow note, “It may be unrealistic to expect that scientists … probe the mysteries of, say, how nano particles behave, as well as communicate what their research means.” Hence, a major challenge facing the scientific community is developing detailed methods to help scientists better communicate with and warrant the trust of the general public. Thus, the current dialogue surrounding trust must identify both specific trust points and clear actions that can be taken at each point to indicate and possibly increase the extent to which trust is merited.

We believe the scientific community will rise to meet this challenge, offering techniques that signal the degree of credibility merited by key elements and steps in the scientific process and earning the public trust.


Distinguished Professor

Provost Professor

Indiana University School of Public Health, Bloomington

Associate Professor of Biostatistics, Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics

Indiana University School of Public Health, Bloomington

In times of great crisis, a country needs inspiring leaders and courageous ideas. Marcia McNutt and Michael M. Crow offer examples of both. Recognizing the urgency of our moment, they propose several innovative strategies for increasing access to research-grade knowledge.

Their attention to increasing the effectiveness of science communication is important. While efforts to improve science communication can strengthen trust in science, positive outcomes are not assured. A challenge comes from the fact that many people and organizations see science communication as a way to draw more attention to their people and ideas. While good can come from pursuits of attention, they can also amplify challenges posed by misinformation and disinformation. These inadvertent outcomes occur when attention pursuits come at the expense of characteristics that make science credible in the first place.

Consider, for example, what major media companies know: sensationalism draws viewers and readers. For them, sensationalism works best when a presentation builds from a phenomenon that people recognize as true and then exaggerates it to fuel interest in “what happens next” (e.g., the plot of most superhero movies or the framework for many cable news programs).

A better way forward is to see the main goal of science communication as a form of service that increases accurate understanding. Adopting this orientation means that a communicator’s primary motivation is something other than gaining attention, influence, or prestige.

In science, several communication practices are akin to sensationalism. Science communicators who suppress null results and engage p-hacking (the practice of using statistical programs to create the illusion of causal relationships) can gain attention by increasing the probability of getting published in a scientific journal. Similarly, science communicators who exaggerate the generalizability of a finding or suppress information about methodological limitations may receive greater media coverage. Practices such as these can generate attention while producing misleading outcomes that reduce the public’s understanding of science.

A better way forward is to see the main goal of science communication as a form of service that increases accurate understanding. Adopting this orientation means that a communicator’s primary motivation is something other than gaining attention, influence, or prestige. Instead, the communicator’s goal is to treat the audience with so much reverence and respect that she or he will do everything possible to produce the clearest possible understanding of the topic.

Of course, many scientific topics are complex. A service-oriented approach to communication requires taking the time to learn about how people respond to different presentations of a phenomenon—and measuring which presentations produce the most accurate understandings. Fortunately, an emerging field of the science of science communication makes this type of activity increasingly easy to conduct.

Among the many brilliant elements of the McNutt-Crow essay are the ways their respective organizations have embraced service-oriented ideas. Each has broken with long-standing traditions about how science is communicated. Arizona State, through its revolutionary transformation into a highly accessible national university, and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine through their innovations in responsibly communicating science, offer exemplars of how trust in science can be built. These inspiring leaders and their courageous ideas recognize the urgency of our moment and offer strong frameworks from which to build.

Gerald R. Ford Distinguished University Professor

Associate Vice President for Research, Large Scale Strategies

Executive Director, Bold Challenges

University of Michigan

Some years ago, I conducted a content analysis of five of the leading American history textbooks sold in the United States. The premise of the study was that most young people get more information about the history of science and pathbreaking discoveries in their history courses than in the typical secondary school course in chemistry or physics. I wanted to compare the extent and depth of coverage of great science compared with the coverage of politics, historical events, and the arts, among other topics.

The results were somewhat surprising. First, there was almost no coverage of science at all in these texts. Second, the only topic that received more than cursory attention was the discovery of the atomic bomb. Third, in comparative terms, the singer Madonna received more coverage in these texts than did the discovery of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick. In short, there was almost no coverage of science.

When I asked authors why they did not include more about science, their answers were straight forward. As one put it: “Science doesn’t sell, according to my publisher,” and “Frankly, I don’t know enough about science myself to write with confidence about it.”

This brings me to Marcia McNutt and Michael M. Crow’s important essay on producing greater public trust in science as well as some higher level of scientific and technological literacy. Trust is a hard thing to regain once it is lost. McNutt and Crow suggest significant ways to improve public trust in science. I would expand a bit further on their playbook.

Probably 30% of the American population know little to nothing about science and have no desire to be educated about it and the discoveries that have changed their lives. They are lost. But a majority are believers in science and technology. When universities are becoming multidisciplinary and increasing institutions without borders, we must harness the abilities and knowledge that exists within these houses of intellect—and expertise beyond academic walls—to make the case for science as the greatest driver of American productivity and improved health care that we have.

When you survey people about science, you are apt to get more negative responses to very general questions than if you ask them to assess specific products and discoveries by scientists. The group Research America! consistently finds that the vast majority of US citizens approve of spending more federal money on scientific research. They applaud the discovery of the laser, of the gene-editing tool CRISPR, of computer chips, and of the vaccines derived from RNA research.

A few scientists have the gift for translating their work in ways that lead to accurate and deeper public understanding of their scientific research and discoveries. But the vast majority do not. That can’t be their job.

As McNutt and Crow suggest, it is now time to create a truly multidisciplinary effort to transfer knowledge from the laboratory to the public. A few scientists have the gift for translating their work in ways that lead to accurate and deeper public understanding of their scientific research and discoveries. But the vast majority do not. That can’t be their job. Here is where we need the talent and expertise of humanists, historians, ethicists, artists, and leading technology experts outside of the academy, as well as the producers of stories, films, and devises that ought to be used for learning. New academic foci of attention on science and technology as part of this movement of knowledge toward interdisciplinarity ought to be fostered inside our universities.

The congressional hearings centered on events of January 6 offer an excellent example of the collaboration between legislators and Hollywood producers. The product was a coherent story that could be easily understood. We should teach scientists to be good communicators with the communicators. They must also help to make complex ideas both accurate and understandable to the public. There are many scientists who can do this—and a few who can tell their own stories. This suggests the importance of training excellent science reporters and interlocutors who can evaluate scientific results and translate those discoveries into interesting reading for the attentive public. These science writers need additional training in the quality of research so that they don’t publish stories based on weak science that leads to misinformation—such as the tiny, flawed studies that were presented to the public as fact that led to false beliefs about autism or the effects of dietary cholesterol and heart disease.

We should be looking especially toward educating the young. The future of science and technology lies with their enthusiasms and beliefs. That enthusiasm for learning about women’s and minority members health, about global climate change, about finding cures and preventions for disease lies ultimately with their knowledge and action. The total immersive learning at Arizona State University is an excellent prototype of what is possible. Now those educational, total immersion models—so easily understood by the young—should be developed and used in all the nation’s secondary schools. We can bypass the politically influenced textbook industry by working directly with secondary schools and even more directly with young people who can use new technology better than their elders.

We have witnessed a growth in autobiographies by scientists, especially by women and members of minority groups. More scientists should tell their stories to the public. We also need gifted authors, such as Walter Isaacson, or before him Walter Sullivan or Stephen J. Gould, telling the stories of extraordinary scientists and their discoveries. Finally, we should be more willing to advertise ourselves. We have an important story to tell and work to be done. We should unabashedly tell those stories through organized efforts by the National Academies (such as their biographies of women scientists), research universities, and very well-trained expositors about science. Through these mechanisms we can build much improved public understanding of science and technology and the derivative trust that that will bring.

John Mitchell Mason Professor of the University

Provost and Dean of Faculties (1989–2003)

Columbia University

Cite this Article

“Enhancing Trust in Science.” Issues in Science and Technology 39, no. 4 (Summer 2023).

Vol. XXXIX, No. 4, Summer 2023