A Rising Distrust of Science and Technology

Science and technology are essential tools that help us answer questions, solve problems, improve productivity, and enhance quality of life.

Look no further than the COVID-19 vaccines — developed by scientists in record time — that have immunized nearly a billion people around the globe, stemming the infection rate and death toll of the pandemic. Or consider mobile technology that facilitates real-time communications from anywhere at any time. Or streaming media that offers entertainment, education, and collaboration. Digital photography and massive data stores allow us to capture precious moments and preserve them for generations to come. Air travel has effectively brought the world closer together, enabling exploration, trade, and human connections. And don’t forget antibiotics, microwave ovens, medical imaging, the internet, and robotic surgery. Of course, the list of science- and technology-led innovations that have positively impacted our world could go on and on and on.

Yet in recent years there has been rising distrust of both science and technology. Science deniers. Misinformation. Techlash. Alternative facts. This manifests as a growing divide that threatens our health, safety, and future.

This isn’t new. For centuries there have been fringe movements that attracted a following for not “believing” in science or technology. The flat earth society is one such group that persists today, despite conclusive empirical evidence of the spherical nature of the earth. Numerous people today still ascribe to the flat-earth theory — including as many as 2% of Americans and 7% of Brazilians — an overt expression of distrust in science and authority. Data is cherry-picked to justify sincerely-held beliefs in a flat earth, and contrary evidence is ignored.

My daughter and I joined the 2017 March for Science in New York City, where we paraded along with a million others around the world holding signs that declared “Science Saves Lives” and “Science is Non-Partisan” and “There is No Planet B.” We felt great solidarity with a crowd that was fighting for truth, facts, and the betterment of human lives. What alternative could there possibly be than thoughtful, structured, data-based discourse grounded in the rigor of the scientific method, experimental evidence, and iterative discovery?

Even pre-pandemic, there were concerns of rising skepticism about science, with scientists perceived as elitist. Mistrust of evidence, conspiracy theories, and competing business priorities slowed action in response to undeniable proof that HIV causes AIDS and smoking causes cancer. The illusory truth effect describes the tendency to believe false information after repeated exposure. Social media and closed communities can create echo chambers that propagate and reinforce false claims.

Today we risk catastrophic impacts to public health and to the health of our planet by anti-vaxxers and climate deniers, who justify their positions based on economics, religious beliefs, and misinformation. As the more transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant spreads around the world, hospitalizations are on the rise and consist mostly of those unvaccinated — some who couldn’t get the vaccine, others who chose not to take it. The incontrovertible proof of human-induced climate change has produced deadly flooding in Germany, historic heatwaves and wildfires in the western United States, and unprecedented droughts in Brazil. And yet we continue to see debates about the causes of climate change and inaction when we can no longer afford to wait.

After what many called an “assault on science” during the Trump administration (complete with political interference, misconduct, and censorship), U.S. President Joe Biden has taken a strong pro-science stance. In his first week in office, Biden issued a memorandum on scientific integrity. He elevated the presidential science advisor to a Cabinet-level position. He re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement. Biden declared: “Science is discovery. It’s not fiction. It’s also about hope.” Vice President Kamala Harris asserted: “The science behind climate change is not a hoax. The science behind the virus is not partisan. The same laws apply, the same evidence holds true regardless of whether or not you accept them.”

Alongside denialism of science is mistrust of technology. According to a recent poll, trust in the technology sector has fallen globally from 77% in 2012 to 68% in 2021. In the United States, the decline was even more severe over this same period (from 78% to 57%). Backlash against technology — known as “techlash” — reflects understandable societal concerns around cybersecurity threats, privacy risks, and the rapid pace of technological change. Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), genetic engineering, and 5G seem opaque to many, raising fears that technology will be misused in a way that favors big tech and penalizes consumers.

Given the importance of science and technology in society today, how can we — as individuals, as scientists, and as business leaders — address these concerning trends?

Speak Up: Share truths and experiences with others. Explain why you got a vaccine. Describe how you are taking action to address climate change. Advocate for causes that promote the values of science. Communicate with science deniers respectfully; address concerns, rebut arguments, and provide credible sources of trusted information.

Embrace Experimentation and Discovery: Science gives us a methodology to discover answers: question, study, hypothesize, test, assess, report, and iterate. Promote a culture of experimentation at home, at work, and in public discourse.

Advocate for Responsible and Inclusive Technologies: Privacy must be protected. Technology should meet society’s needs and not exacerbate disparities. Technology companies must be good corporate citizens, and the technologies themselves must be developed and deployed responsibly. Through policies, regulation, embedded ethics, and transparency we can rebuild trust in tech.

A recent 3M State of Science global survey shows some promising dynamics. Seventy-nine percent of respondents agree that science will make life better in the next five years. Eighty-nine percent agree that science brings hope for the future. Ninety-one percent agree scientists are critical to our future well-being. The IBM Research Urgency of Science narrative describes the compelling mandate of science: “Rather than guessing at solutions — especially with so much at stake — we, as a society, need to implement scientific thinking at all scales — from our daily lives, to corporate innovation, to government policymaking.” Today, more than ever, we’re counting on science and technology to provide much-needed solutions to society’s most pressing global challenges.

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