The world has lived for more than a year trying to develop effective methods to manage the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the microorganism responsible for the dreaded COVID-19 illness. Much information about the virus and the illness it causes is now available on the web. Almost on a daily basis, the media, policy makers, celebrities, and heavily credentialed scientists give updates on the virus, aspects of the illness, therapeutics, and seemingly infinite stories about the administration and effects of the vaccines. Conversation in social media abounds. Today’s situation features a broad spectrum of information on COVID-19 and, not surprisingly, serious disagreement on how the information should be used and how recommendations should be implemented to guide a return to “normal” life.
There are well-known organizations, some with the words “public health” or “science” in their names, that are assumed to practice responsible reporting. Others use the word “science” to lend credibility to the information or instructions they disseminate. The word “science” is used because it is “highly esteemed” and invokes a sense of infallibility, according to a book called What Is This Thing Called Science? (Hackett Publishing Company; 2013).
Scientific information may change with technology, available information, and even interpretation by experts. It is through science that knowledge is improved. We must continue the discourse even in the presence of difficult discords.
But what is meant when experts say “follow the science” or “it’s science”? When the word “science” is used in these cases, there usually is no reference to specific scientific studies or data, which is what most scientists use when they communicate scientific information to support their contentions. And how about the individuals to whom the “scientific” information is directed? Is science the same for these individuals as it is for the scientist and the communicator? What is science to them?
The Meaning of Science
On April 12, 2021, two researchers, Eric Grunfeld, a researcher at Brown University in Alpine, N.J., and Hollis Belger, an independent researcher based in California, used an app called BimiLeap that employs the emerging science of mind genomics to create a mental picture of what science is, even when study respondents cannot articulate their understanding of it.
They created a narrative comprising four silos (or questions or categories), with four answers (elements) provided for each question. This 4 x 4 matrix resulted in 16 elements, which were then combined by an experimental design that mixed and matched ideas or concepts into vignettes. A full experimental design of 24 vignettes was created for each respondent in order to identify their emerging definition of “science.” Each vignette was unique and statistically independent of the others, and all 16 elements appeared equally often but covered a wide range of combinations. The experimental design eliminated interviewer bias and any respondent’s attempt to “game” the researchers.
The app presented the vignettes to the respondents, instructed them to rate the combinations on a scale. Respondents gave their insights intuitively. The app pooled their responses, measured the response time, and conducted the designated statistical analyses. The final product was delivered within six hours of the launch of the fieldwork in the form of complete reports in Excel and PowerPoint. The full results of the Grunfeld and Belger study will be published in Psychology Journal: Research Open, Volume 3, Issue 3. Some of their results are shared below.
A total of 108 respondents participated in the study, and a total of 24 x 108 vignettes were presented. The respondents were approximately two-thirds female and one-third male. Males defined science as “performing an experiment to see what occurs,” and they perceived the outcomes as clearly under their control for improvement. The females were not as clear as to what science was to them, aside from their belief that “science assists (our) evolution through time.”
Although the respondents were grouped into five age groups, I grouped them further to have fewer age categories. Approximately 85% belonged to Gen Z (aged 1-22 years) and 15% were Millennials (aged 23-39 years). Results indicated that, with increasing age, the respondents tended to define science as “performing an experiment to see what occurs.” They looked at the outcomes and believed that those were within their control and could, therefore, be improved.
About 34% of the respondents were high school students, and about 54% were in college or graduate school; 20% of the respondents were not students. College students, as might be expected, defined science as “performing experiments” and, as they gained more life experience, they looked at science outcomes as something that they could control for improvement. Surprisingly, there was disagreement on the idea that science “delivers groundbreaking health care solutions” or “can lead to a new world with zero global emissions.” There seemed to be distrust of the scientific information given by “subject matter experts,” “scientific organizations,” or “university publications.” There was, however, strong agreement among the respondents that scientific information from the “medical community and doctors” is trustworthy.
What emerges most importantly from this simple mind genomics study are the elements that drive the answer to the question, “What is science?” The study identified two mindsets and ways in which the respondents define science: Mindset 1 (52%) are inner directed and Mindset 2 (48%) are outer directed. These two almost equally populated mindsets are characterized by radically different responses to the question, “What is science?” These differences may come as a surprise to the reader.
Mindset 1, the inner directed, define science as information that originates from performing experiments and understanding the outcomes, with the ability to use the data to improve and, perhaps, to evolve.
Mindset 2, the outer directed, appear to feel that science is not so much about the process and results as it is about their trust in the authority delivering the information. To Mindset 2, the medical community and physicians deliver more trustworthy scientific information than do policy makers and politicians, more than do their family and friends, and more than do educators and professors.
So, What Is Science?
According to the results of the Grunfeld and Belger study, science is defined in two radically different ways by two distinct mindsets. If the two mindsets are looking at the same scientific information, science to Mindset 1 (the inner directed) consists strictly of the results obtained from performed scientific studies. To Mindset 2 (the outer directed), science consists of the information disseminated and interpreted by the authority they trust. If the trusted authority of Mindset 2 were to go by the results only (i.e., behave similarly to Mindset 1), then the two groups would define science in the same way. If the trusted authority of Mindset 2 included other data interpretation not in the results, then the two groups would define science differently and may disagree.
The preponderance of negative news around the world may also indirectly contribute to this disagreement by influencing the behavior of either or both mindsets. Investigators recently confirmed in a 17-country, six-continent experimental study on psychophysiological reactions to real video news that there is indeed a propensity for negativity biases in human behavior. In a 2013 article, I reported that people perceive positive information to be self-serving, biased, and even inaccurate. People believe negative reports more than positive ones because negative reports also aid in their decision to avoid losses.
For example, people know that food, food ingredients, and medications are not absolutely safe. There are risks involved in eating food and taking medications. People use negative reports on these substances to assist them in deciding what the risks of taking those substances might be. Attempts to allay those concerns with persuasive arguments are often difficult and even ineffective. Thus, Mindsets 1 and 2 may see the same study results, and Mindset 1 may remain unchanged in their interpretation of the results. But, if the trusted authority of Mindset 2 were significantly influenced by negative reports, then this group’s interpretation of the study results would be different from that of Mindset 1. As a result, the two group’s definitions of science might conflict.
How the two mindsets obtain the news or reports may further contribute to a disagreement on the meaning of science. According to Pew Research Center (2021), about 86% of American adults get news from a smartphone, computer, or tablet “sometimes” or “often.” When using a digital platform, about 69% of U.S. adults are likely to get their news from websites or apps “sometimes” or “often,” except for Gen Z (42% for those aged 18–29), who turn to social media for their news.
The results of the Grunfeld and Belger study indicate that members of Gen Z belong to Mindset 2 more often than they belong to Mindset 1. They select their trusted authority and then form attitudes and share them with friends, family, and followers using social media. Those thoughts and sentiments are further shared with others in their own respective social networks.
It is important to note that users of social media generally follow other users with the same attitudes and beliefs that they have on a topic. The final opinions that people form are an amalgamation of all of the factors that make them who they are—what they read, think, see, believe, and feel. They are influenced by their emotions, those factors beyond what they read. Thus, one group may define science strictly as the results of studies or experiments on a topic, but another group may define science as the interpretation of their trusted authority, who may be a contributor on the social media platform to which they subscribe. For example, about 67% of Gen Z and 71% of Millennials have expressed the opinion on social media that climate should be top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations, a significantly higher percentage than the Baby Boomers and older people (57%). Gen Z (76%) and Millennials (81%) also shared posts on social media stating that the U.S. should prioritize alternative energy development. Because Gen Z and the Millennials comprise the largest segments of the U.S. population, they are the arbiters of the major preferences in the U.S. Future consumer behavior seems to be formed through social media.
Is Science Still Dependable?
Science is “some claim or line of reasoning or piece of research” that is “done in a way that is intended to imply some kind of merit or special kind of reliability,” according to What Is this Thing Called Science? Scientific studies use scientific procedures and methodologies, then present a discussion of the results. Conclusions are written, and the entire report is reviewed and published. It is through this scientific process of sharing experiments or scientific studies with the community that the reliability, or repeatability, of the studies is determined and confirmed. Challenge studies may result and, often, additional questions are raised and answered. This is a normal occurrence because scientific information is not infallible.
Scientific information may change with technology, available information, and even interpretation by experts. It is through science that knowledge is improved. We must continue the discourse even in the presence of difficult discord. Disagreement with the information presented by those who subscribe to beliefs or behavior different from ours is not necessarily misinformation or lies. Science will help determine the credibility of these seemingly opposing ideas or thoughts.
Science is dependable. But we need to be committed to continuing an intelligent discussion of our differences in order to improve our knowledge—about anything.
Carl Custer says
The negative beliefs that people hold onto reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
“The human understanding is no dry light, but receives an infusion from the will and affections; whence proceed sciences which may be called “sciences as one would.” For what a man had rather were true he more readily believes. Therefore he rejects difficult things from impatience of research; sober things, because they narrow hope; the deeper things of nature, from superstition; the light of experience, from arrogance and pride, lest his mind should seem to be occupied with things mean and transitory; things not commonly believed, out of deference to the opinion of the vulgar. Numberless in short are the ways, and sometimes imperceptible, in which the affections colour and infect the understanding.”
Francis Bacon Novum Organum XLIX. 1620