Workshop: Why don’t the public trust evidence and advice provided by environmental experts?

SESSION D09 / Glass Room / 20 May 2022 / 11:30 - 12:30
Workshop: Why don’t the public trust evidence and advice provided by environmental experts?
Chair / Presidente: Peter Shaw (UK)

The title of this workshop is clearly a huge, sweeping statement and a massive over-simplification! Or is it?

We expect many reading this text will agree with the general standpoint expressed by the question. In our experience, (academic) environmental scientists and engineers are often regarded by the public as competent but remote and “untrustworthy”. Reasons given for distrust in environmental science / engineering include that:

  • Academics receive funding from (government-run) research agencies and/or private companies and so cannot be impartial / objective.
  • Academics use their papers and presentations to promote particular “liberal” political, social and/or cultural agendas.
  • Academics are arrogant about their expertise and dismissive of non-evidence-based views.
  • Academics over-complicate their research findings and fail to communicate with the public in a clear, comprehensible, and straightforward fashion.
  • Academics give the impression of being cold, superior and aloof, in contrast to the warmth and accessibility shown by “caring” professions such as teachers, nurses, doctors and care workers.
  • Academics appear “angry” about lack of political / public response to environmental issues such as eWaste mountains, climate change and plastic pollution.
  • Academics seem to have soft, easy jobs, with relatively low workloads and long holidays, and thus “don’t live in the real world.”

This is very frustrating for those of us who have spent a lifetime gaining expertise by studying a subject in detail and working hard to produce evidence-based research that only has the best interests of society at its heart. Think about this as a “member of the public”: when we want fruit, we trust the greengrocer. When we want a haircut, we trust the hairdresser. When we have heartburn, we trust the pharmacist. If we want a car fixed, we trust the mechanic. So when advice is needed on climate change or waste (resource) management, why don’t people trust environmental scientists and engineers?

There are theories that people acknowledge the expertise of scientists but will only “trust” them if they feel that their interests coincide. Thus if environmental scientist and engineers are presenting evidence that is perceived to require a change in lifestyle, or is perceived to threaten job security or economic interests, then they must be “untrustworthy”.

What do you think? Do you have the same or a different perspective? How do these issues make you feel? Is there something we could / should do about this situation

This workshop will address the question “Why don’t the public trust evidence and advice provided by environmental experts?” from a waste and resource management perspective. An initial overview presentation will set the context for the workshop; this will outline the reasons for asking this question with illustrative examples. As an introductory exercise, participants will be asked to provide their views on the topic, and the other questions it generates. Working in small groups, participants will be tasked to:

1. Share their views on this question, how it makes them feel as “experts”, how the views of the public impact on waste / resource management in public health, environmental, economic and social terms;
2. Discuss if and how actions might be taken to increase trust in environmental expertise;
3. Share the outcomes of small group discussions in a plenary session involving all participants.