Public Opinion On Science: Who To Trust And When?

MSS-member and recent émigré to Canada Chris Hassall takes a look at how public perception of science is distorted, and the role of skepticism in  combating the distortion.

People go about their daily lives making decisions on the basis of beliefs about the way the world works. Their epistemological framework is a complex architecture of foundations and interconnecting supports on which rest concepts held to be “true”. While some beliefs may have little consequence for the person holding that belief, others have the potential to seriously impact the lives of both the believer and, through the actions that those beliefs precipitate, the rest of mankind. When we come to examine issues of such magnitude, we see a difference between the beliefs held by the general public and those which are held by the majority of experts in the respective fields. To understand why this is the case, it is informative to consider two claims that have been made in recent years and the variation in the reception that each has received from the public. 

Claim 1: “The measles-mumps-rubella vaccine causes autism”

The origin of this claim has been buried under the weight of subsequent newspaper stories which have clouded the issue. In 1998, an article entitled “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children” was published in The Lancet. This snappily-titled paper, without providing anything beyond circumstantial evidence, suggested that research should be carried out to investigate a causal link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Parents of the 12 children involved in the study blamed the vaccine for the development of the pathology on the basis that the onset of symptoms occurred soon after vaccination. Dr Andrew Wakefield, the lead author of the paper, urged caution in the use of the MMR vaccine and recommended that single vaccines for each of the three diseases be used until further research had been carried out, a recommendation not supported by his own paper.

It came to light later that Dr Wakefield had received considerable funding from lawyers seeking evidence against vaccine manufacturers and that he had attempted to take out a patent on a vaccine that would be a rival to MMR. These conflicts of interest were not declared at the time of publication of the paper though they would have formed part of the basis for an editorial decision on its suitability for publication. After the media coverage, the percentage of children being vaccinated at the appropriate time dropped year-on-year from 92% in 1995 to 80% in 2003 before gradually climbing back to 85% in 2007. MMR uptake has never reached the 95% threshold suggested by the World Health Organisation to provide herd immunity for the population. Measles infections increased to the point at which in 2008, for the first time in 14 years, measles was declared endemic in Britain (i.e. the disease is self-sustaining). More than two-thirds of all mumps infections recorded between 1996 and 2008 (43,378 out of 64,168) occurred during 2005.

Claim 2: “Anthropogenic factors cause global warming”

That the climate is warming is now beyond doubt. The causes of this current phase of environmental change are extremely complex, though strong evidence exists for a link between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and the rise in temperature. Subsequent work has implicated a range of other factors including aerosols, methane, albedo effects and fluctuations in solar radiation as contributing to the observed pattern. Climate projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggest that temperatures could rise by between 1.1 and 6.4°C by the year 2100 depending on sociopolitical factors.

It is difficult to overstate the strength of the consensus on climate change science. A staggering list of bodies of professional scientists have issued explicit statements confirming their support for the views that (i) unequivocal warming of the climate is occurring, and (ii) the majority of this warming is anthropogenic in nature. The number of scientific papers confirming these findings provides an intimidating prospect for would-be students in the area. However, despite this there is still a substantial portion of the general public holding the belief that the current phase of warming is due solely to “natural causes”.

Public reception

Here we have two claims: the first published by a scientist possessing a strong agenda and with almost no evidence that was followed by a sound debunking from the scientific community (notably in the same issue of The Lancet as Wakefield et al.’s original paper), and the second with mountains of evidence and a minuscule number of qualified dissenters. It is possible to quantify the difference in beliefs held by the public relative to the scientific establishment in each case. The wording of the IPCC shows at least 90% certainty in their statement that environmental warming is anthropogenic in origin. This is in contrast to a 2008 Gallup poll which found that only 58% of the public believed that “human activities” caused “increases in the Earth’s temperature over the last century”. In the case of MMR, a poll carried out by the Florida Institute of Technology found that 24% of respondents believed that “because vaccines may cause autism it was safer not to have children vaccinated at all”, with a further 19% “not sure”7. This is compared to a scientific community that can be assumed to be unanimous in its non-belief in a link between vaccination and autism, given the complete absence of data supporting that link8.

The role of scepticism

Scepticism should be a tool through which we view the world but it is important to be pragmatic in our use of this tool. The most extreme form of scepticism simply plants the practitioner in an epistemological quagmire where all interpretations of observable data must be made individually by that person. Clearly this is not a practical application of the principle. Instead it is obvious that we must occasionally take the interpretations and opinions of others as a basis for our own epistemological framework. While this seems reasonable it also means that the truth of our own beliefs hinges on the choice of whom to trust. Two recent sociological changes have occurred which have made this decision more complex.

The first is that the popular media moderates what the public hears, collectively acting as a filter by which only the most sensational opinions are broadcast. The shift in purpose that has gone on in the media from informing its audience to entertaining its audience brought with it the drive to find those fringe elders who will retain the semblance of authority but generate maximum audience figures. Dr Andrew Wakefield and Dr David Bellamy (a notable climate change sceptic who once described global warming as “poppycock”) are “men-in-white-coats” wheeled out to drive up audiences regardless of the resulting decline in the level of scientific understanding of that audience.

The second sociological change is the “celebrity culture” in which we now live. This has made it possible for ignorant members of the public to hold forth on important issues and garner great followings in the process. Jenny McCarthy, a C-list actress, is the figurehead of the anti-vaccine movement; Oprah Winfrey, the world’s wealthiest woman, has advocated a range of questionable health treatments; the late author Michael Crichton was a renowned climate change sceptic. Such characters are given airtime and column inches in abundance to espouse their views, regardless of how accurate those views are.

Intellectual laziness is also an important issue. While I have already stated that listening to a certain amount of expert opinion is a necessary epistemological concession, the most pressing issues (particularly those with potentially life-threatening consequences) require that the general public delve deeper themselves. Data that can be used to investigate either of the issues outlined in this essay are readily available to any interested parties. The Mauna Loa Observatory’s carbon dioxide monitoring data can be downloaded, as can the UK Meteorological Office’s climate data. The Health Protection Agency has data on cases of measles, mumps and rubella, as well as vaccine coverage, to emphasise the importance of vaccination compliance. Anybody investigating the MMR issue could even read the following sentence in the Wakefield et al. paper from The Lancet:

“We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described”


The gulf between public opinion and scientific consensus is due to the general public not knowing whom to trust and when. The decision of when to resort to expert opinion and then which sources to use in gathering information is a complex matter and there is an element of trust that needs to be exercised. Greater efforts need to be made to ensure that those involved in the media reporting of these kinds of issues are held to account for the abuse of the confidence that the public places in them. In addition to being misleading, such reporting can also endanger lives. Science is a fascinating topic in the hands of a skilled journalist and does not need the kind of selective, sensationalist reporting that is so prevalent today.

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