The average American’s trust in science has increased over the last three years, but there remains considerable opposition to scientific involvement in policy debates. Moreover, attitudes are becoming more partisan, a survey suggests.
Fifty years ago, when scientists and engineers had taken humanity to the Moon and recently created antibiotics and vaccines against some of the world’s most feared diseases, trust in science was high. Increasing recognition of the negative effects of some technologies, combined with campaigns to undermine scientists’ credibility by everyone from fossil fuel companies to anti-vax groups changed this dramatically.
Either these are losing their potency, or pro-science campaigns are starting to find traction, because the Pew Research Center has found more positive attitudes in each successive survey conducted since 2016.
In the Center’s latest survey of 4,464 adult Americans, 86 percent said they have “a fair amount” of confidence in scientists or better, including 35 percent who registered a “great deal of confidence”. Three years ago, the equivalent figures were 76 and 21 percent.
The Center also asked about scientists in specific fields; the news is notably bad for nutrition researchers, with just 24 percent judging them to provide fair and accurate information most or all of the time. Medical researchers do only a little better with 32 percent support. In both cases, people have more faith in the dieticians and doctors they speak to directly.
Even people generally positive about science were concerned about industry funding distorting results, expressed low confidence in scientists admitting their mistakes, and believed data is too rarely made publicly accessible.
Perhaps the most significant part of the survey, however, is the way views of science are becoming subject to political affiliation. Democrats were more likely to say they have a great deal of trust in scientists than Republicans by 43 percent to 27, but it is the question of whether scientists should play an active role in science policy debates that really divides the parties. Among Democrats and sympathetic independents, 73 percent supported the idea, among Republicans and their leaners it is 43 percent.
Overall, the more familiar respondents were with science, as tested by 12 basic questions, the more confidence they had in scientists, suggesting science communication is not in vain. Questions included tests of the ability to read graphs and understand the physics of motion, knowing the cause of the Earth’s seasons, and understanding why experiments need controls.
As some previous studies have reported the situation reverses with Republicans – those who know more about science are more likely to view scientists as biased.
Unsurprisingly, partisan bias is greatest when it comes to views of environmental scientists. Only 19 percent of Republicans said those working in environmental research provide fair and accurate information most or all of the time.
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