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Public trust in scientists is starting to creep up but is still problematically low

There are also big partisan gaps in who believes scientific findings.

Public trust in scientists is starting to creep up but is still problematically low
[Source Image: Onyxprj/iStock]

Here’s the good news for pro-science Americans: More people than ever have strong confidence that scientists are acting in the public’s best interest. But “more” isn’t the same thing as a majority. It’s still only 35% of the population (compared to when it was a measly 21% back in 2016).

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These findings come from a representative survey of nearly 4,500 Americans conducted by Pew Research Center as part of an ongoing effort to understand the role that science plays in social, ethical, and policy issues. “This research is part of our broader research program on science and how it intersects with society,” says Cary Funk, PRC’s director of science and society research. In this case, measuring scientific trust is really a “civic issue” because without it, even the best findings or breakthroughs could stall or not be adopted.

[Image: Pew Research Center]

The Pew data makes clear how this happens: some people are just uninformed, while others cling to opposing political values. People with a high degree of familiarity with what nutritional, medical, or environmental science researchers or practitioners are studying are nearly twice as likely to trust them. (The trust rate was 63% for knowledgeable respondents versus 27% for those without background knowledge). People with lack of knowledge exist on both sides of the political aisle, but there’s a clearly partisan perspective about what value people think that these experts may add to public policy arguments. “Overall, 60% of Americans thought that scientists should have an active role in debates over scientific issues,” Funk says. That majority is fueled by Democrats, though: 73% or the large majority of Democrats agreed with that ideal; 56% of Republicans did not.

[Image: Pew Research Center]

National leadership against climate change has continued to stall during recent Republican-controlled administrations. Not coincidentally, the political divide over the value of environmental researchers and related health specialists is especially sharp. Half of left-leaning people said the profession cares about the public’s best interest, compared with 22% of those on the right. About 51% of the former believe these experts do solid research, as opposed to 22% of the latter. And 47% of people on the left figure the reported results are fair and accurate, compared to a 19% trust factor among their counterparts across the aisle.

Overall, Funk says there was plenty of skepticism across all science sectors regarding whether scientists can provide clear and accurate information and maintain scientific integrity. That trust jumps for any findings based on easily reviewable public data or findings that have been reviewed by an independent committee and drops when studies receive funding by industry groups.

Roughly half of Americans surveyed said they still had a “fair amount” of confidence in scientists—even if they’re not totally willing to believe or act on the results. In science world, that’s called a baseline. The question is whether experts frustrated at not being taken seriously will devise their own experiments about how to change it.

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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.

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