Nov 16 2023

Trust in Science

How much does the public trust in science and scientists? Well, there’s some good news and some bad news. Let’s start with the bad news – a recent Pew survey finds that trust in scientist has been in decline for the last few years. From its recent peak in 2019, those who answered that science has a mostly positive effect on society decreased from 73% to 57%. Those who say it has a mostly negative effect increased from 3 to 8%. Those who trust in scientists a fair amount or a great deal decreased from 86 to 73%. Those who think that scientific investments are worthwhile remain strong at 78%.

The good news is that these numbers are relatively high compared to other institutions and professions. Science and scientists still remain among the most respected professions, behind the military, teachers, and medical doctors, and way above journalists, clergy, business executives, and lawyers. So overall a majority of Americans feel that science and scientists are trustworthy, valuable, and a worthwhile investment.

But we need to pay attention to early warning signs that this respect may be in jeopardy. If we get to the point that a majority of the public do not feel that investment in research is worthwhile, or that the findings of science can be trusted, that is a recipe for disaster. In the modern world, such a society is likely not sustainable, certainly not as a stable democracy and economic leader. It’s worthwhile, therefore, to dig deeper on what might be behind the recent dip in numbers.

It’s worth pointing out some caveats. Surveys are always tricky, and the results depend heavily on how questions are asked. For example, if you ask people if they trust “doctors” in the abstract the number is typically lower than if you ask them if they trust their doctor. People tend to separate their personal experience from what they think is going on generally in society, and are perhaps too willing to dismiss their own evidence as “exceptions”. If they were favoring data over personal anecdote, that would be fine. But they are often favoring rumor, fearmongering, and sensationalism. Surveys like this, therefore, often reflect the public mood, rather than deeply held beliefs.

Further, if you ask people more specific questions that relate to their life you may get a different impression. Ask people if they trust that their car is safe, that a bridge is reliable enough to drive over, that a medicine does what it’s supposed to do, you will get higher numbers than just trust in “science”. This is especially true if you ask people what they do rather than believe. Do you drive over public bridges? Compliance with childhood vaccines in the US ranges from 80-92%. This is partly due to school mandates, but still this requires a certain amount of trust in the overall system. Flying in a commercial jet, when you think about what’s happening, is putting an awful lot of faith in scientists, engineers, pilots, and regulators.

When trust in science decreases it is usually the result of a dedicated campaign of misinformation and fearmongering. Anti-GMO sentiments is probably the best example. Genetic engineering is an extremely safe technology, which is highly regulated. There have been exactly zero cases of harm from genetically modified crops, and there is no valid reason to suspect that food made with GMO ingredients is of any higher risk than anything else in the food supply. And yet a large portion of the public fears GMOs, and when asked why they cite false information. Basically, they have been gaslighted by a dedicated campaign of misinformation. The silver lining is that when views are based on false information, they can be improved by providing more accurate information.

But not all mistrust in science is so easily fixed. Some becomes baked into ideological affiliation, conspiracy thinking, and basic world-view. These views do not respond to facts and information. There is reason to think this is what might be going on recently. When you break the numbers out by party affiliation, most of the decline in among Republicans. Between 2019 and 2023 Democrats who say that science has a mostly positive impact on society decreased from 77 to 69%, while Republicans decreased from 70 to 47%. Looking at older data, the Democratic responses are fluctuating slightly, while the Republicans responses have plummeted.

It’s easy to blame this on the response to the pandemic, which I do think is the likely major answer. The media on the right demonized vaccines and mask wearing and the scientists (like Fauci) who were providing information about the pandemic. It’s no surprise this has all had an effect.

The obvious pushback to this view is that scientists deserve to lose faith because of the mistakes that they made, but I do not think this is fair. Sure, there is a background level of scientific error, premature hype, and even scientific fraud. No institution is perfect, and science is a messy human endeavor. And of course I am not advocating blind faith in any institution. Scientific skepticism is about healthy skepticism of any institution or authority, and we point out errors that are both individual and systemic. I think the best attitude is to have an earned respect for the process of science and the people who have dedicated their lives to science, while maintaining a critical eye toward constructive criticism. I don’t think the scientific community “nailed” the pandemic, but they did pretty well given the challenge and the information they had at the time. Most importantly, they were willing to change their minds as new information came in, and they actively sought that new information. We had effective vaccines within a year, and those vaccines saved millions of lives.

But the negative misinformation and conspiracy theories were also rampant, mainly on the right. I suspect the comments to this blog will fill with such misinformation and biased attitudes, proving my point. The worst aspect of this misinformation is that is sows distrust in all experts, and the very concepts of expertise and truth. Everyone can have not only their own opinions, but their own experts, and their own facts. This situation is not sustainable.

No responses yet