Who do you trust to tell you about innovations? Scientists or “people like me”?

by | Feb 10, 2024 | Blog | 0 comments

Feeling whiplashed about the state of the world and maybe your fellow human beings too? You’re not alone. Check out the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer. This year’s global report is subtitled “Innovation in Peril.” Trust, innovation, and politics are racing toward each other on a collision course, and who knows the extent of the collateral damage?

This year’s Barometer reveals a new paradox within society, according to Edelman, the global communications firm that’s been conducting its annual trust study since 2000. The 2024 report released in January based on November 2023 data explains, “Rapid innovation offers the promise of a new era of prosperity, but …. risks exacerbating trust issues, leading to further societal instability and political polarization.”

More specifically, the new innovations, such as AI, mRNA vaccines, and gene-based medicine among others, are introducing us to new and greater opportunities, which excites many of us. Yet at the same time, many others fear losing control over what’s happening and want to seek out peers for information.

And this divergence in opinion is big. Many survey participants have noticed all the progress in innovations over the past year and remain excited with varying degrees of hesitation. Yet, many other respondents are pushing back, concerned that the innovations are not being managed well, if at all. Individuals who are wary—especially Republicans in the US—also think society is changing too quickly and in ways that don’t benefit “people like me.”

There are other concerns with science too. A majority (53%) of global respondents say that science has become politicized in their country. The percentage is higher (66%) in the US and China. And scientists have lost their stature in society, become on par with peers. Would you believe 74% of respondents say they trust scientists and peers equally to tell them the truth about innovations? And peers are trusted more than scientists (72% to 68%) among those who think innovation is poorly managed.

Welcome to our post-truth world that includes fake facts on steroids. Post-truth was the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year back in 2016, thanks to the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. According to Oxford Dictionaries, post-truth refers to a “situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts.”

This situation is not new. It’s human nature for people to want to rely on their feelings first, rather than checking out the facts. Before the internet and social media though, individuals had to rely on getting news from professional journalists, scientists, and other experts whose reputations depended on serving as reliable sources. For example, my journalism education drilled this lesson into me: “If your mother says she loves you, you still need to check it out.”

What’s new is all the technology with no gatekeepers and guardrails, along with relaxed social norms. Many people prefer to get their information – and they might even say “news” – from social media posts, memes, videos, and content from other channels that friends, relatives, strangers, and other unknown sources share. It’s common practice now to consume this stuff without checking who created it.

The challenge is that many believe and “trust” the quality of social media content more than what’s available from professional media sources. In this year’s Edelman survey, only 47% of global respondents found journalists trustworthy about new innovations and technology. And global respondents considered media and government much less competent and ethical than non-government organizations and business.

With the public becoming even less trusting of science and scientists and other experts and turning to “people like me,” we run the risk of even more misinformation running rampant. (If this concerns you too, check out Newsguard, if you haven’t discovered it yet. It provides a number of tools to track and counter misinformation. It was launched in 2018 by Steven Brill, the media entrepreneur and award-winning journalist, and Gordon Crovitz, the former Wall Street Journal publisher.)

Meanwhile, we need to stay attuned to other issues surfaced in the Trust Barometer, even with the growing challenge of misinformation in an election year for many countries, including the US. These include the continued balance of power shift from experts to peers, especially now with scientists losing credibility. Even so, business is still the most trusted institution on its own and when it partners with the government.

As in recent years, respondents want and expect CEOs to play a role in managing societal changes. For example, CEOs are trusted around the topics of job skills of the future, ethical use of tech, and automation’s impact on jobs. For these reasons, it’s important for businesses, especially the senior leaders, to share their point of view on these issues and explain what they and their organizations are doing.

CEOs and businesses may not be looking for more responsibilities. However, the stability of our companies, government, and society in these fast-paced, uncertain times depends on businesses and their leaders.

What are you doing to stop the erosion of trust?


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