Uncertainty, understanding are key factors in whether people trust science

PITTSBURGH — Find yourself skeptical about certain branches of science? A study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University suggests that a person’s uncertainty about a particular scientific field, along with their own ideologies determines how they gauge its veracity.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, measures scientific uncertainty across various fields. Researchers plotted out a map that listed the public’s perception of specific disciplines from least to most certain.

“The map shows that perceptions held by the public may not reflect the reality of scientific study,” explains Stephen B. Broomell, assistant professor of social and decision sciences in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, in a media release. “For example, psychology is perceived as the least precise while forensics is perceived as the most precise. However, forensics is plagued by many of the same uncertainties as psychology that involve predicting human behavior with limited evidence.”

The researchers find that while political affiliations aren’t the only factor when it comes to how people perceive science, they did find that sciences which conflict with a person’s ideology are more likely to be viewed as uncertain, something which could affect public policy.

“When perceived accuracy isn’t the same as actual accuracy, this can lead to dangerous choices, as some essential fields like psychology, economics and genetic engineering provide vital social services but may be cut off because of this disconnect,” says Broomell.

The study also shows that uncertainty for particular fields does not carry over to individual study results. Scientists should thus focus on the specific details of studies rather than disciplines as a whole to help null misconceptions.

“Uncertainty is a natural part of scientific research, but, in the public domain, it can be used selectively to discredit undesirable results or postpone important policies,” says Broomell.” Understanding how the public perceives uncertainty is an important first step for understanding how to communicate uncertainty.”