In recent years, trust in science and public health has been on a steady decline in the United States. Disinformation and misinformation have seeped into public discourse, leading to alarming consequences. People are hesitant to get essential medical procedures, childhood vaccination rates are dropping, and skepticism about critical issues like climate change is growing. This growing mistrust of science, medicine, and public health is a significant concern for our society. A recent survey by Pew Research Center confirms this disturbing trend, reporting a decline in the public’s trust in scientists and science’s positive impact on society.
The Consequences of Eroding Trust
The consequences of this eroding trust in science are potentially dire. Imagine a scenario where another pandemic, a climate disaster, or a biosecurity threat like anthrax occurs, and trust in science remains low. Think about the implications if scientific innovation loses funding and if more Americans refuse to vaccinate their children. Such a future is dystopian and should be a cause for concern.
The Silver Lining
However, amid the decline in trust, there is a silver lining. The trust in scientists, physicians, and science itself still remains higher than trust in elected officials or journalists among all demographic groups. This provides an opportunity to rebuild trust by enhancing communication practices among health professionals and scientists.
Building Trust Through Communication
One way to address the trust issue is to better train health professionals and scientists in effective communication. This includes doctors, nurses, EMTs, public health workers, pharmacists, and researchers. They can learn to make science tangible through real stories, presented in plain language, that highlight how science improves human lives. However, addressing the trust problem extends beyond the scientific community, as they are already overburdened and facing challenges such as workplace violence and declining workforce numbers in public health institutions.
Different groups tend to trust different messengers. Teachers, businesses, and family members can have a powerful influence on individuals’ beliefs. For instance, during the pandemic, conversations with family and friends influenced over 20% of unvaccinated individuals to change their minds about vaccination. Cultural congruence also matters, particularly for groups that have faced discrimination.
Leveraging Organic Networks
Organic networks within communities can play a crucial role in building trust. During the pandemic, networks of non-health professionals were formed to disseminate evidence-based information about COVID-19 vaccines. These networks, funded and maintained at various levels, effectively communicated the importance of vaccination. Similar approaches could be adapted to address other public health issues like opioids.
The Role of Social Media
Social media can also play a significant role in disseminating credible health information. Efforts by organizations like the National Academy of Medicine, in collaboration with the Council for Medical Specialty Societies and the World Health Organization, have outlined ways for social media companies to identify and amplify “credible health messengers.” By combining facts with stories, social media can share tangible examples of how science and public health protect us, ultimately increasing trust.
Our Collective Responsibility
Rebuilding trust in science is a collective responsibility. We must ensure that we all become public health communicators, sharing data with the public and building trust within our communities. Science and public health protect us in numerous ways, from vaccines and therapies to clean water, clean air, and life-saving technologies. By working together to communicate these benefits effectively, we can rebuild trust in science and safeguard our future.