Can you trust scientific and medical experts?
How are scientific and medical experts perceived by the wider public? To what degree can we trust such experts? Societal experts have long been supporting politicians to push their agendas. Medical experts have been called upon during pandemics to provide context and predictions. Climate change experts have faced demands for definitive answers as fresh evidence continues to emerge, constantly reshaping our understanding of the issue.
The ubiquitous presence of experts in our work and lives often make the public wonder whether they can be trusted. Often this disconnect between experts and non-experts stems from the fact that experts use densely technical language and they have a high tolerance for uncertainty, a crucial component of scientific research.
In contrast, wider audiences tend to seek clear-cut answers, which may be unavailable at the time the questionis asked. So how do we know who to listen to, and whose advice is the best?
How do experts become experts?
To boast expertise in an area, an professional must demonstrate a high level of education and extensive experience. This may include rigorous lab training, intense study, high level of collaborations with others in the same field and a world-class education. There are many scientific and medical experts across the worldwith top qualifications, beyond their PhD, and years of experience. They work to establish credentials and credibility in their part of the scientific community.
So what makes expert knowledge trustworthy?
A scientific or medical expert has a broad understanding of the context around their specialist field. They publish their research in scientific and medical journals, opening up their findings to the peer-review process. Experts are also able to contextualise scientific information within broader societal themes. They are also well-placed to detect trends that non-specialists might miss.
It can be difficult to grasp overly complex information, so, scientific and medical experts rely on critical analysis and consider all available evidence, observations, and arguments to form a balanced judgement. Applying critical judgement is necessary to avoid falling for false information, and assertions without evidence will not withstand rigorous scrutiny. However, results are often open to interpretation, so contradictory analyses can emerge from studies.
The exploratory nature of scientific endeavour can sow doubt in the minds of lay audiences. Fresh evidence can disprove established theories and multiple valid interpretations can co-exist for a single set of results. It may be that the experts have only found part of the full picture. Or experts working separately on the same problem have not fully compared their interpretation with that of their colleagues. With so much uncertainty, even among specialists, how do we know we can still trust experts?
When disseminating the latest research findings, it is essential to manage audience expectations concerning expert opinions. The expert’s background and affiliations may be relevant to their opinion. Therefore, wider audiences should be aware that experts can only comment using the best, most recent evidence available at the time. If new information comes to light, fresh analysis and commentary is required.
Understanding science and medical experts
Bearing in mind that experts opinions needs to be replaced in a wider context for lay audiences, it is helpful to make their views more accessible by sharing their key messages in an accessible formats. For example, popular formats include infographics, video and podcasts, all of which are useful to help convey expert opinions to wider audiences. SciencePOD can help convey expert information clearly, creating concise,compelling scientific and medical content for non-specialist audiences.