Are Consumers Losing Trust in Science?
By Shari Steinbach, MS RDN, RDBA Contributing Editor
These days, it can seem that science is under attack. Consumers question the need to vaccinate children against contagious diseases, the real cause of global warming is debated and sound advice from nutrition experts is often discarded for the latest diet fad. However, according to a survey released in August of 2019 by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., 86 percent of Americans hold at least “a fair amount” of confidence that scientists work for the public good. The survey looked at the degree to which the public values scientific expertise in the areas of medicine, nutrition and the environment, and probed potential sources of mistrust. Key findings included that most Americans are skeptical about areas of scientific integrity, they tend to trust science practitioners (such as dietitians), more than researchers, and transparency matters. In addition, Americans with more factual science knowledge have greater confidence in science.
Also, in 2019, the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) commissioned an independent Advisory Committee to look specifically at the public’s trust in nutrition science and the factors that can influence it. These areas include:
- Conflict of interest and objectivity. Consumers are more trusting when they believe scientists are acting independently of financial gain. Any conflicts of interest, as well as, personal bias/beliefs, business associations or personal relationships should be fully disclosed.
- Standards of scientific rigor and reproducibility. Consumers want to know that the quality of the research is extremely thorough and accurate, but this can be especially difficult with nutrition science as many individuals hold “unscientific beliefs” about food.
- Transparency. Transparency in communicating the scientific process is one of the keys to increasing public trust in science. This requires acknowledgment of all funders, beneficiaries, and opponents of the research and its outcomes. It’s also vital to state all potential biases and competing interests that influence the overall research and interpretation of outcomes.
- Equity. Typically, in the U.S., inequities in health research center around the lack of women, specific age groups and under-represented income or ethnic groups in clinical research and trials. A lack of equity can undermine trust.
- Information dissemination (education, communication and marketing). The strong and ever-increasing evidence that links food to health is generating a growing interest in nutrition and retail dietitians can advance consumer trust with educational efforts that help link science and decision-making. ASN recommends helping individuals increase their critical thinking and reasoning skills when it comes to scientific information and the ability to critically evaluate the media. In addition, dietitians should continue using multiple educational touch points (i.e.: social media, website and community events), to provide meaningful advice and tools that help consumers make sound dietary decisions based on science.
- Cutberto Garza, Patrick J Stover, Sarah D Ohlhorst, Martha S Field, Robert Steinbrook, Sylvia Rowe, Catherine Woteki, Eric Campbell, Best practices in nutrition science to earn and keep the public's trust, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 109, Issue 1, January 2019, Pages 225–243, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqy337