Why is Science Hard for People to Trust? Fighter Pilots and Restaurants Offer Clues

We currently living in a time where “science” is neither universally trusted nor accepted. For data-driven, fact-first people who see science as a meaningful way to understand our world, that can be frustrating. But there are reason why science has always received significant push-back.

First, there’s a simple fact that I’m going to set aside for this particular discussion: sometimes, scientists lie. Or, if you’re being generous, they jump the gun. Take the Lancet article that drives much of the current anti-vaxxer movement as an example. The article was flat-out wrong, has since been disproven, and should never have been published in the first place. That was a misuse of science, and it erodes trust in the entire scientific process. I’m setting that aside not because it isn’t meaningful, but because it’s easy for any reasonable person to grasp.

Fighter pilots have an incredibly difficult job. They’re sitting in flying machines that move at multiple times the speed of sound — far faster than human senses are designed to handle. They have physical forces acting on them that confound their sense of balance and direction, making it incredibly easy to forget which way is “up.” Intellectually, every pilot knows that and accepts it as fact. After all, it’s science, and science is the same thing that keeps the damn machine in the air to begin with, right?

Yet pilots have to be extensively trained to active ignore their own senses and instincts, and they have to constantly be on guard, because the human brain wants to trust what it experiences through its senses. Pilots have to remind themselves that they do not know which way is “up” and that, in many circumstances, they cannot know. They have to instead lower their eyes to their instruments and trust in science instead. Unlike their bodies, their instruments were designed for the situation, and are better at interpreting what’s happening.

All human beings have difficulty trusting in what they cannot experience through their own senses. Ancient civilizations created stories—myths—to try and explain what they were experiencing, trusting more in the input from their sensory suite than in anything like scientific rigor. Today, people accept the fact that invisible, single-celled beings like bacteria and viruses exist, but that’s only because the fact has been with us for so long. The scientists who originally posited these beings as the cause of disease are often killed for their efforts. We trust what we personally experience, and we have difficulty accepting as fact anything that we cannot personally verify. Even today, we’ve got people saying, “if you fart through your pants, you can still smell it, so how can a mask stop a virus from getting out?” Science isn’t intuitive, and it isn’t experiential.

Restaurants know that a customer who receives great service might tell a friend or two; a customer who didn’t have a great meal will tell nine people about it. And with Yelp, they’ll tell nine hundred, if they can. We hate being wronged, and it makes us vengeful. On the other hand, we don’t necessarily love being “done right by,” and we don’t have a particular motivation that comes from it. There’s no “positive” version of revenge, in other words. That’s part of our biology: our brains have a greater fear of losing something than they do a feeling of gratification from gaining something. We’re biological hoarders, which made a lot of sense in the hunter-gatherer days. “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush” is a saying that comes from our deepest brains, and in our modern context, we carry that over into the experiences we have.

The problem with science is that it isn’t absolute. What we understand today about a thing will change over time as we gain more facts and conduct more experiments. Unfortunately, that doesn’t fit the human psyche very well. If you tell me that something is a scientific fact today, and then next week you amend that, then my brain’s instinct is to mistrust everything you’ve told me, and to want revenge for having been lied to in the first place. After all, if something is a fact, how can that ever change? And if it wasn’t a fact, how dare you present it as one? This is actually a key part of what the anti-vax movement is able to continue despite every shred of scientific “fact” that drives the movement having long been proven wrong. If it was “fact” at one point, how can it be wrong? And if I’m supposed to distrust the original “fact,” then why should I trust any subsequent facts? Why not just chalk it up to “bad humours” and call it a day?

There’s no “fix” for any of these things. The fact is that much of our behavior still stems from survival wiring that’s never going to go away. We can choose to acknowledge that wiring and override it, but that’s a choice we have to make, and many people won’t make that choice.

It doesn’t help that, in our modern age, a scientist’s usual caution in presenting facts often isn’t present. A good scientist will usually be quite clear about what they’ve actually proven or disproven, and couch everything in a zillion caveats to be clear about what they haven’t proven or disproven. Their 300-page paper, painstakingly researched and peer-reviewed, gets picked up by the sound-bite media and by politicians, and gets reduced to a set of bullet points. That’s delivered to the public, who are understandably annoyed when the bullets turn out to not be “true” later on.

It’s the restaurant analog all over again: you’re a person I trust, and you told me we were going to a great Mexican restaurant that has strippers. When we arrive at a Spanish tapas restaurant for three hours of tasting small plates, I’m annoyed. “I never said it was Mexican,” you tell me, “and I didn’t say ‘topless,’ I said, ‘tapas.'” Well, maybe I didn’t listen to the entire sales pitch and instead focused on the bits that were meaningful for me, but facts be damned, I’m annoyed.

(That ^ happened to me once, actually, although the roles were reversed. I also never say “tapas” now unless I’m in Spain. I say “small plates” instead.)

Science is always going to have an uphill struggle with our squishy, hunter-gatherer brains. Always. Those of us who aren’t scientists, but who feel we have a scientific bent, have an obligation to be careful how we communicate science amongst ourselves and to our friends and colleagues. We need to politely call out the media and politicians when they’re oversimplifying, and try to mitigate the damage their bullet points cause. We need to be as patient as we can with people who “don’t get it,” because science isn’t intuitive, and it’s often contradictory—especially in the early stages of study and experimentation. We don’t have to love people who refuse to accept science, but we probably should try to understand why they feel that way—the deck is stacked against science, a lot of times, and scientists make plenty of mistakes (just like the rest of us) that are (sadly) often seen as discrediting the field as a whole.

When I’m dealing with my less-scientific friends and family, it can sometimes be helpful to point out all the things that science has gotten right, because much of it is so day-to-day that nobody takes notice. The Internet. Television and radio. Chemotherapy. Airplanes. Refrigeration. I remind them that it’s only when they’re encountering leading-edge science, where new facts are still being discovered, and where theories are still being formulated and proven or disproven, that science can seem sketchy. Once science has had its run, I tell them, it’s solid stuff. It only “feels” wrong when you’re watching it happen, and seeing it go through its process. And stop trusting sound bites you hear on TV; politicians aren’t scientists, they’re often professional liars and con artists with their own agendas.

Sometimes it helps :).