What’s trust got to do with it?

My final piece of assessment for the Controversial Science subject is an essay. I’ve chosen to focus my essay on the twin topics of expertise and trust and I’ll be looking at how these ideas have fuelled the coal seam gas debate. My basic premise is that CSG objectors don’t trust the motives of mining companies and therefore don’t trust any claims they make, even about matters of science.

It’s funny that this should happen, because most people believe science to be fact; plain and simple. Trust shouldn’t even form part of the equation. The public’s view is that science merely reveals a pre-existing truth. Scientific findings are objective and repeatable. What is there to trust or not trust?

Have you guessed? It’s the people, of course! Because here is the reality of science: it’s conducted by scientists, and scientists are people. You might think they’re nerdy people, or intelligent people or even eccentric people, but at the end of the day, they’re still people, just like us. They have flaws just like us. A scientist is not an unfeeling robot working in a magical tower, but a real person who is imperfect, subjective and yes, even corruptible. People have backgrounds and they have motives and scientists are no different. The problem is, the imperfections carry through to the science and carry through to our opinion of the science.

In general, when someone states that they don’t trust the science, what they really mean is they don’t trust the scientist. Perhaps they don’t trust that the scientist is sufficiently qualified in the area, or maybe that the scientist was paid to fudge their results. Either way, if the trust isn’t there, the science will never be accepted.

This is what’s happening in the CSG debate. Mining companies are doing additional research, taking more water samples and building computer models in a desperate effort to convince the public that the CSG process is safe. I think they’re wasting their time. No matter how many fact sheets the mining companies put out or how often they refer back to hard scientific findings, the majority of the public won’t listen. As long as the public feels that the mining companies are untrustworthy, no amount of science will change anything.

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