New poll finds the US generally trusts scientists, with some exceptions

Yesterday, the Pew Research Center released an analysis of polling results on Americans’ views of science. In general, the poll was good news for the research community, showing a gradual-but-steady rise in the public’s view of scientists. But there were a few areas of concern within the data, which showed that the public still worries about issues like scientific misconduct and conflicts of interest.

And the numbers reveal a partisan divide on the situations where scientists are trustworthy.

The poll relied on Pew’s American Trends Panel, a group that can include up to 13,500 US residents, though not all will participate in every survey. In this case, over 4,500 were asked to share their views on science.

A partisan divide

Scientists have consistently been one of the most respected segments of the US population, and these results are in keeping with that. When the Pew asked whether people viewed scientists as acting in the public interest, 86% of the panel said yes. That puts scientists well ahead of politicians, business people, and the media, and roughly on par with the US military. This was higher among those with a strong knowledge of science, and higher among Democrats than Republicans (though 82% of Republicans still had a positive view of scientists).

This partisan divide showed up in a number of other questions. For example, while 73% of Democrats felt that scientists should engage in debates on policy issues, over half of the Republicans disagreed, with two-thirds of them saying that scientists are no better than anyone else at making science policy decisions. While 62% of Democrats felt that scientists were likely to make judgements based on facts, only 44% of Republicans agreed, with 55% of them saying that scientists were just as likely to be biased as anyone else. And 44% of Republicans said that the scientific method can be used to produce any conclusion a researcher desires.

Among Democrats with a high knowledge of science, scientists were viewed even more positively. Within that group, for example, 86% answered that the scientific method produces reliable information. But that opinion was only true of 59% of Republicans with high scientific knowledge, a number that wasn’t that different from answer given by Republicans with low scientific knowledge (where 51% felt it was reliable).

The gap was even more dramatic when it came to the issue of whether the scientific method can be manipulated to produce any desired conclusion. Here, 42% of Republicans with low scientific knowledge agreed. But 64% of those with high scientific knowledge agreed.

But there’s also evidence that this partisan mistrust is selective. As part of the survey, Pew asked people to consider three different areas of science: diet, medicine, and environmental science. The trust gap between Republicans and Democrats was small for medicine and diet, averaging about 5 percentage points. But regarding environmental science, the gap was about 30 percentage points, with Republicans far less likely to trust environmentalists. This may explain why Republicans have pushed laws that go against their own principles when the law goes against environmental advocates.

Misconduct and knowledge vs. practice

Beyond the partisan divide, there were a number of notable aspects of these results. For one, the public is very concerned about misconduct. About half viewed it as a problem with medical research, and over 40% thought it was an issue with environmental and dietary research. Similar numbers suspected that there are few consequences for misconduct in these fields. There were also worries about conflicts of interest among scientists.

But here, a lot of the public seemed to be a bit confused about the source of potential conflicts of interest. In general, these are higher among practitioners than scientists, given that the former’s income is directly related to their practice. Scientists’ funding, on the other hand, is generally not tied to any particular outcome. Yet practitioners were consistently rated as more trustworthy than scientists in these three fields (medicine, diet, and environmental sciences).

Another oddity comes when participants were asked to consider the source of funding. In general, federal funding is given out based on independent assessments of scientific merit. But survey participants were equally likely to trust federally funded research —a tendency that was driven largely by conservatives. (Conservatives also mistrusted practitioners who received federal money.)

Consistently, these issues were tied to familiarity. Regardless of whether people were asked about researchers or practitioners, trust went up when people had personal knowledge of people who were in the field.

In general, the familiarity issue is going to be easier to fix. There’s been a growing trend toward various science outreach and citizen science projects that are attempting to increase the interactions between the scientific community and the public. But it’s not clear whether that will be enough to overcome a large partisan divide, especially in the environmental sciences.

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