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Will 2022 be another year when scientists lament the public's continued lack of trust in science?

Editorials abound about the pushback scientists are experiencing when it comes to proposed science-oriented solutions to serious societal challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. Yet, science communicators can be their own worst enemy when they go on the offense with loutish language. Their offense becomes offensive and seen as arrogance.

Labeling as "conspiracy theorists" credentialed subject-matter experts who have legitimate questions about the science behind COVID-19's origin or the confidence the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change places in climate models is not helpful to the cause of science communication or, more importantly, the overall advancement of science.

After all, at its root, science is "what is known" — more precisely, "what we think we know" based on interpretation of available information about the world around us. But, what we know changes as more information is gleaned from the environs. And interpretation is highly dependent on perception and perspective, which are informed by challenges to the status quo (read "settled science") by cognizant contrarians.

In practice, science is a messy affair. Unlike the purely quantitative and engineering disciplines, the practice of science involves understanding phenomena by proposing a hypothesis that needs to be confirmed with the tools of testing and models. Practicing scientists know this, but the public may not.

Therein lies the problem. The general public has come to suspect that scientists, especially government scientists at the highest levels, are limiting what people know. They're not telling the full story. Instead, the scientific establishment is acting as if their hypotheses (incorrectly foisted as "theories" or verified hypotheses) are actually facts. This is perceived as hubris.

When the science behind the origin of COVID-19 or climate change is reduced to sound bites that must be believed, the public rightly suspects that something is up. They suspect they are not getting the full story. Even though the full story is a bit complicated, it must be distilled in a straightforward, complete, and accurate way that the public can understand, appreciate, and act on as they see fit.

After all, the public consists of mostly educated adults who can make their own decisions. If their decisions fly in the face of serious science, then so be it. In a representative republic, this is the outcome that must be accepted. Independence supersedes forced compliance with "what we think we know."

Communicating the whole truth in science requires telling what we don't know, delivering the good, bad, and ugly. This leads to a public trust in science communicators and confidence in the science they communicate.

This trust and confidence will only be achieved when scientists couple their science with integrity, authenticity, and humility. The integrity and authenticity parts seem to be OK. It's the humility part that looks to be lacking — big time.

Acting with humility will serve both science communicators and their audience well. Humility opens minds to new ideas and helps others set aside the defenses that often get in the way of their acceptance of trustworthy science.

Anthony J. Sadar is an adjunct associate professor at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, and co-author of Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry, 2nd Edition (CRC Press, 2021).