Social work in the anti-science era: how to build trust in science-based practice

Over the past five to seven years there has been an increase in anti-science rhetoric and ideas which look to replace the reliance on science with misleading theories and discredit scientific experts. Unfortunately, non-scientific beliefs gained traction during the pandemic and show no signs of slowing. This post-truth and anti-science movement places the field of social work at an important crossroads.

Social workers are expected to explain diagnoses and treatment options to clients and deliver services based on empirical research. Practitioners often need to challenge unhealthy behaviors and distorted beliefs which impede clients’ progress. At the mezzo level, we seek to change stereotypical beliefs and inaccuracies about diverse groups based on facts gleaned from research. In addition, social workers advocate for changes or additions in legislation based on findings from science.

But the current skepticism toward scientific research has become entwined with politics, angst, and anger. Many citizens and political leaders have taken a large step back from science and critical thinking because they are following political groups’ opinions of science and truth — or worse social media’s perspectives. Moreover, students are entering social work programs with few critical thinking skills, and an unhealthy distrust and resistance to science and research.

This isn’t a new problem for our field; understanding and using evidence-supported practices has long been debated and students often enter social work programs believing we do little else than use our instincts to “talk to people.”

“But if science isn’t ‘believed’ or valued, then what comes next for professions which are based on science?”

But if science isn’t “believed” or valued, then what comes next for professions which are based on science? Roles like physician, dentist, dietician, and social worker that apply or practice science — by which I mean evidence-supported assessments and interventions — might not be needed. The field of social work could return to the days of being “friendly visitors” or be discarded for para-professionals.

So, what can be done when clients, students, and politicians are suspicious of and hostile to science, its findings, and the professionals who use it?

Social workers hold key positions in pivotal places to answer questions, educate, clarify, and return value to truth and science. The field of social work will need to make assertive efforts to address these anti-science sentiments and hone our tactics to assist clients, social work students, as well as the public in enhancing their understanding of science and research. Staying silent about anti-science beliefs is not an option, so let’s work together to counter the movement.

Seven strategies social workers can apply to build trust in science-based practice

  1. Remove the veil that hides and mystifies the research process and scientific methods by openly and frequently explaining the process to students, clients, and the public.
  2. Discuss the dangers of not using research-supported treatment in service to clients and the benefits of using it. However, avoid arguments, trying to scare, or becoming emotional when you talk to someone who disbelieves science. Try to find common ground.
  3. Increase social work students’ critical thinking skills through skill-based activities that teach thinking fallacies and cognitive distortions throughout their curriculum.
  4. Re-envision BSW, MSW and Doctoral-level training regarding an emphasis on science and research. We can do this by increasing the number of research studies available, teaching empirically-supported interventions, and focusing on the evidence-based process throughout all programs.
  5. Train students, faculty, and social workers to communicate scientific findings clearly with jargon-free language to provide useful and practical public presentations of science (for example, TEDx events, radio, podcasts, YouTube videos, etc.). Give credit to academics for these public presentations towards tenure and promotion.
  6. Social work professionals need to stay up-to-date on current theories, assessment, intervention, policies, diversity, and social problems, reading empirical findings and utilizing evidence-supported practices. They need open access and reasonably priced resources.
  7. Keep an open-mind to the constant changes in knowledge coming forth via research and recognize that science is not free of errors, bias, and / or limitations.

Silence and time are not our allies in this struggle, post-truth and anti-science rhetoric are gaining momentum and impact our work and our profession. If the public and clients don’t value science; they won’t value a science-based profession like ours. We can strategically act to re-build trust in science and value in truth. But we will need to work collaboratively, use effective tactics and take action now.

Featured image by Mario Purisic on Unsplash (public domain).

Leave a Comment