#390) It’s About Trust

May 11th, 2015

I can’t say it enough. Daniel Kahneman said it. Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post said it yesterday on NBC’s Meet the Press. The most important question the science and environmental communities could address is, “How do we build public trust?” And yet there is little talk of this.  Instead, they talk about “The public understanding of science.” Which sounds more like, “You people need to do a better job of learning this stuff.” The world doesn’t work that way any more. Sorry.



WHO CAN YOU TRUST? Above is what Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post had to say yesterday in talking about next year’s Presidential elections. The issue is age old.




It’s about to be three years since I began quoting Daniel Kahneman’s line about how, “the source has to be liked, and the source has to be trusted.” It’s such a simple element, yet is overwhelmingly powerful. And is fundamentally lacking in the mindset of the science community.

I know this well from a few years ago. I was recruited to the AAAS committee that went by the foul and disgusting acronym of COPUST. At the core of that acronym was the old phrase, “public understanding of science and technology” — the wretched PUST part of the name. I was told this phrase came from England where it has been in use for a looooong time. Which figures.

I quit the committee, saying I couldn’t be part of something with such an off-putting acronym. I recommended they rework their name into something that took the reverse perspective — instead of having the tone of lecturing the public, they send a signal that we are interested in what the public thinks of us.  And in fact, given the Pew Poll earlier this year showing declining public trust in science, I’d say it’s about time for this mode of thinking. I recommended something that included the phrase “public perception of science.”

They did throw out the old name (yay!) and at least went so far as to put “engagement with the public” into the new name. Which is halfway there. But eventually they need to go the full distance.

It’s about LISTENING. People trust people they feel are listening. They don’t trust people who don’t listen. Scientists are VERY bad at listening. This is part of why we use improv techniques in our workshops — they foster listening.

Again, it all comes down to trust. As Kahneman says, it doesn’t matter how much data and how strong your arguments are. Without trust, you have nothing.