The Scientist Complex: The Complex Relationship Between Scientists and the Public

Author: Obamate Briggs
Artist: Qiwen Liu
Editor: Atufa Shabnum

From as early as I can remember, I knew that to be a scientist was to be held in high esteem. Like many kids deciding what to do with their life, I was ‘gently encouraged’ to pursue occupations that were advertised as financially stable and that held a certain prestige and power within our society: Lawyer, Doctor, Engineer, Scientist (whatever that means).

For me, the role of the ‘scientist’ was shrouded in mystique, but I was aware of the characteristics attributed to those who held the position. They were smart. They were important. They were a necessity.

Cut to 2020, and Nature magazine has published an article exposing the anonymous emails containing the harrowing statements ‘I hope you die’ and ‘I would shoot you’ received by an epidemiologist. These emails were received in response to his stance on the anti-parasite drug Ivermectin — controversially promoted as a potential COVID-19 treatment without evidence that it was effective. An extreme, but telling, example of the shift in much of the public perception. 

The outbreak and ongoing ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic have thrust our healthcare and scientific industries into the spotlight and under increased scrutiny. Though we came together as a nation to applaud those working on the frontlines in our NHS, those behind the scenes were not privy to the same reverence, and it begs the question as to why?

In attempting to tackle this question the ideas of perception versus reality play a key role. Within the scientific community, there is an overwhelming sense of being misunderstood by the public and the idea that any negative public attitude is a result of fear or a void in the knowledge of what it is that they do and/or the processes through which science is reviewed and verified.

This is evidenced in a 2015 study carried out by The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), in which they investigated what they call ‘chemophobia’. What was particularly telling about the RSC’s findings is not that the public doesn’t understand chemists, but that chemists don’t understand the public. The RSC started by asking its members how they felt Chemistry was perceived, and sure enough most expected them and their work to be perceived in a negative light.

But what could be worse than a negative opinion? For some scientists; not having one at all.

Everyone has a stake in science, whether that be financially, physically, or otherwise and therefore, everybody has a right to it. But they also have the autonomy to not engage with it at all. There is a temptation for scientists to categorise those that do not actively engage with technoscientific content as an uninformed group. The RSC study found that rather than a majority of the public holding a negative stance towards science, the consensus was one of neutrality. This alludes to the somewhat egoic nature of scientists in pushing the ancient idea of science and its progression as a ‘Universal Light’, that has the potential to solve every possible problem.

Perceptions such as these formed the early foundations of the endeavour to relate with, and inform, the public, effectively known as ‘Science communication.’ Scientific communication has been viewed by many for millennia as a didactic enterprise. Didactics make sense only on the assumption of a knowledge deficit, and democratically this becomes problematic when many science-related public affairs are seen as being aimed at a ‘knowledge deficient’ public.  

STS scholar Corina Cortassa suggests that this idea of a deficit public will always return. The idea is an simplistic coping mechanism when attempting to remedy the gap created between science and society and the asymmetric dynamic that resides between the two.

Epistemic asymmetry is a normative concern in seeking and giving advice, a dialogue that is dependent on trust. ‘Trust is a legitimate part of knowledge acquisition,’ suggests Philosopher Maya Goldenberg. She offers a view that purposes we have mischaracterised how we come to know things, by failing to take into account the influence of this vital relationship on our understanding. Epistemic Trust is an individual’s willingness to consider new knowledge as trustworthy and relevant, and therefore worth integrating into their lives.

The public is instructed to trust, with no eye or involvement in the innermost practices. The mechanisms used to ensure the trustworthiness of scientific information are internal to the scientific community, shielded from public view, therefore requiring a certain ‘leap of faith’. But, for communities that have, and continue to, experience medical racism or those that have been spurned by the commercialisation of healthcare, this ‘leap of faith’ may seem like a large vault, made difficult through the acquiring of social and historical knowledge, which informs their decision-making.

Trust is difficult to bestow when one is susceptible to the effects of the power yielded by another. Scientists are deemed a necessity in our society but with that necessity comes a dependency that can be uncomfortable to be subjected to. The inherent power imbalance of a relationship founded on informational authority and undemocratic (or perhaps one-sided) assertion of values of honesty, transparency and integrity, leaves the public in a vulnerable position – with high stakes and risk potential when such science enters the public sphere.

This power was perceived to be wielded irresponsibly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The politicisation of science was brought to the forefront –  particularly evident in the US government, where there was a clear trend between the party one was affiliated with (Democratic or Republican), and the likelihood of adhering to the mask mandate or social distancing guidelines. Science was being weaponised to drive an agenda, so how can we place full trust in scientists when we see them being used as pawns?

The dynamic between the ‘public’ and the ‘scientist’ is complex. One that likely does not benefit from the harsh distinctions between the two. It is likely that no matter how well-intentioned or rigorously studied the art of science communication is, people will continue to make meaning out of their own reality. 

However, that does not mean efforts should cease, nor are they entirely futile. We are seeing science communication evolve from unilateral dissemination of ‘fact’ to multidirectional dialogue. Relying on public engagement and participation with science and technology to give representative publics an input on the direction of science, and the ways in which its products are integrated into society (whether they be informational, system or physical product-based). Identifying the interdependence between scientists and the public, and acknowledging their interactions as a relationship, is a start in the right direction towards bridging the gap. 

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