Building trust in science essential to the “general interest of humankind”

“Science is in crisis,” says Fouad Laroui, economist and author from Morrocco. “We’ve seen it clearly during the pandemic, but also in relation to climate change. Over the last twenty years or so we have seen growth in the idea that science is just a belief like any other. This is very dangerous.”

Trust in science, says Fouad Laroui, was once a given. Previously, there was far-reaching consensus that science brought truth – subject to challenge, of course, but then this is the underlying logic of science. Mass touting of superstition and niche conspiracy theories was the exception, not the rule. But now, with the advent of the internet and other methods of information sharing that allow such untruths to spread widely and rapidly, it is becoming more and more common.

“Conspiracy theories like the idea that the world is flat can be largely harmless. But, for example, the perspective that vaccines are bad – and more importantly, holding that perspective on par with scientific proof to the contrary – leads to very real impacts on people’s health. And it is incredibly problematic when you have these kinds of narratives perpetuated at higher levels of decision-making and communication. We’ve seen this happen during the pandemic, with disastrous results.”

When questioned about the global challenges associated with health and disease in UNESCO’s World in 2030 Survey, more than half of respondents cited “not knowing which information to believe or who to trust” as a top concern. In an era when information of all kinds and qualities is readily available to a huge audience, and particularly in a global context where the reliability of the information on hand can have such a significant impact on public health, knowing where to access accurate and trustworthy information is incredibly important. Re-fostering trust in science, say Fouad Laroui, is therefore vital.

Scientists are heroes and UNESCO can help advocate for them

“Scientists are people who devote their whole lives to improving ours. It would be interesting to see how we could help show people why this is important, and why we should look up to them. For example, there was an Iranian mathematician [Maryam Mirzakhani], who won the Fields Medal in mathematics. She died of breast cancer very young. But her legacy is immense – what she represented not just for her field, but for young girls everywhere, makes her a hero for the modern world.”

Highlighting such figures and their work is one way, according to Fouad Laroui, that we could re-foster trust in science. It would also help communicate to young people the importance of their contributions – and give them role models whose work and goals contribute to the public good.

“People like Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee, for instance, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics last year; their work is vital because it contributes to the fight against poverty. The same can be said for Amartya Sen. And then what about Pierre Bourdieu? He showed that public policy was very important for lifting young girls and boys from poverty. Not only that, he contributed to the communication of general culture to those children. He said it was important, and now twenty or thirty years later kids are in museums and have access to culture because public policy says they should.”

Strengthening this link between science and public policy is another area where UNESCO’s input is imperative, says Fouad Laroui. The importance of public policy engagement has been a theme in ongoing reflections, such as in dialogues with Member States last year where capacity building in public policy and increasing policy instruments for field offices were cited as important areas of work for UNESCO. For Fouad Laroui, improving public policy also involves re-valorizing the work of scientists for the broader public.

Facts and narratives of optimism pathways to the common good

UNESCO’s work in public policy (like the Inclusive Policy Lab), as well as open sciencescience education, and advocacy for science, contributes directly to its broader peace building mission. Such work is more relevant than ever in the context of COVID-19, and in the face of (according to the results of the World in 2030 survey) this decade’s most pressing challenge: climate change. According to Fouad Laroui, UNESCO’s work in these areas must tap into both facts, and narratives of optimism.

“From 2000 to 2006 I was a professor of environmental science. I remember even then that despite the sobering nature of learning about climate change, the young students I taught were always very optimistic. UNESCO has a role here, to strike a balance between the facts – the sobering message of humanity’s impact on the planet – and that optimism. We need to be able to concentrate on what we can actually do.”

One way of doing this is by communicating success stories.

“I remember when the last male northern white rhinoceros, Sudan, died. It was awful – but then, a little while later, I heard about this conservation initiative between zoos that had them flying other subspecies of rhino all over the world to breed and preserve them. A similar thing is happening with the Moroccan Lion. The last wild one was shot in 1912 – but now, with the help of a specialized breeding program, scientists and conservationists are trying to reestablish the species, which will then be reintroduced in protected areas. These stories are important. If you say the word ‘biodiversity’ to a kid it might not mean much – but you can tell them the stories of the rhino and the lions and this will give them hope.”

Such narratives should be complemented by a revalorization of science in public policy, in the example set by leaders, and in relation to religion.