Trust is one of the adhesives that binds a healthy society. With it, our financial and banking systems enjoy the faith and confidence of the markets; our political system relies on it for election results and good governance; our judicial system depends on it for the administration of due process; and the evidence produced by our science and innovation systems can be counted on for objectivity and excellence.
But trust is increasingly fragile, and it takes little for public confidence to be shaken. Whether banks, courts, legislatures, or labs can be trusted is now, in part, influenced by a tsunami of data and information, made more accessible through countless media platforms of uneven quality and trustworthiness. Adding to the deluge is the conflation of the messages and the personalities promoting them. Today, assessing who, and what, can be trusted is rarely straightforward and usually contested, particularly when misinformation and disinformation are on the rise.
In Canada, there is documented deterioration of trust in institutions, experts, media, and science 1-3, leading to polarization of opinions and communities. One result is that fewer people want to help, live near, or work with those who disagree with them 4. For a country that prides itself as a compassionate and welcoming place to live, these trends point instead to Canada becoming less inclusive, less friendly, and less tolerant.
Science has always generated wedge issues. Debates about genetically modified organisms, stem cell research, climate change, and vaccine policy have divided individuals and raised questions about the validity of evidence and the ethical acceptability of the science. In the past, these debates were often civilly conducted in the town square, the opinion-editorial pages of newspapers, and the floors of legislatures. Trust was not on trial, even if the science may have been.
Today, a different dynamic is emerging, magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is both a generalized distrust of “science” writ large, and a distrust of the decisions that are made based on that science. During the pandemic, people questioned the origin of the virus, the value of masks, the adequacy of border control, and the safety of vaccines5. Many were legitimate questions about the science itself, with individuals participating in real time in a fundamental part of the scientific process. But others fuelled conspiracy theories and questioned the motivations of scientists, promoting distrust of decision-making and opposing inclusive conversation. And this distrust was not limited to pandemic policy ─ it often extended to actions on other issues such as climate change, Indigenous reconciliation, and systemic racism6.
It is disheartening that trust evaporated, for some, at the very moment public health officials were providing trustworthy advice (which included uncertainty), leading to serious repercussions for individual and community health, and social cohesion. A Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) assessment on misinformation found that between March and November 2021, misinformation contributed to vaccine hesitancy for an estimated 2.35 million people in Canada, leading to increased illness, death, and healthcare costs>sup>7/. When a public health emergency threatens the health and welfare of society, polarization, debate, and distrust are antithetical and counterproductive.
What accounts for the lack of trust in advice and what can be done about it? A survey of Canadians following the pandemic found that nearly half were dissatisfied with government transparency about the factors that influence decision-making8. Society is rightfully uncertain about the speed and pace of science, and about what it could do to help their lives. But when this concern is combined with fears about their community or country, science can be dangerously politicized.
Despair about the future is not the predetermined fate of society or science, precisely because science and society have the joint capacity to learn from each other and change the narrative. Science occurs everywhere: in schools, private companies, and public laboratories. It is undertaken on every topic in, and about, the universe. It has improved lives. Restoring and rebuilding trust in science is a collective responsibility, and it begins with a commitment to better communication and transparency. Those who wish to effectively convey science (and the advice that it supports) to the larger community should engage early and often and communicate in understandable language. Those who may not appreciate the basis for a science-based recommendation should expect clear communication by trustworthy sources. Although clear communication and transparency take time and money they are worth the long-term investment. As with physical infrastructure, society should commit to not only building trust but also maintaining it by improving science literacy, debunking misinformation, training young people, and providing environments for respectful dialogue.
The Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) is part of a community of like-minded organizations that views science as a (mostly) apolitical undertaking. That does not mean science should not be a topic of political debate. Our country’s science policy ─ like its innovation, defense, or labour policy ─ should be a part of every government’s agenda regardless of who is in power. The same holds for an approach to science-for-policy: there should be a continual commitment to the transparent use of evidence to inform policy because it enables the best information to be available when most needed to support a healthy and prosperous society. This is an idea we hope will stick.
5,6- EKOS. (2021). Disinformation. Ottawa (ON): EKOS Research Associates.
7- The Expert Panel on Socioeconomic Impacts of Science and Health Misinformation. (2023) Fault Lines. Ottawa (ON): CCA.