August 29, 2013 - Public opinion towards science has made headlines over the past several years for a variety of reasons â€” mostly negative. High profile cases of academic dishonesty and disputes over funding have left many questioning the integrity and societal value of basic science, while accusations of politically motivated research fly from left and right. There is little doubt that science is value-laden. Allegiances to theories and ideologies can skew the kinds of hypotheses tested and the methods used to test them. These, however, are errors in the application of the method, not the method itself. In other words, itâ€™s possible that public opinion towards science more generally might be relatively unaffected by the misdeeds and biases of individual scientists.Â In fact, given the undeniable benefits scientific progress yielded, associations with the process of scientific inquiry may be quite positive.
Researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara set out to test this possibility. They hypothesized that there is a deep-seated perception of science as a moral
pursuit â€” its emphasis on truth-seeking, impartiality and rationality privileges collective well-being above all else. Their new study, published in the journal PLOSOne, argues that the association between science and morality is so ingrained that merely thinking about it can trigger more moral behavior.
The researchers conducted four separate studies to test this. The first sought to establish a simple correlation between the degree to which individuals believed in science and their likelihood of enforcing moral norms when presented with a hypothetical violation. Participants read a vignette of a date-rape and were asked to rate the â€śwrongnessâ€ť of the offense before answering a questionnaire measuring their belief in science.