Trust and Mistrust in Americans’ Views of Scientific Experts

More Americans have confidence in scientists, but there are political divides over the role of scientific experts in policy debates


Newswise — WASHINGTON, D.C. (Aug. 2, 2019) – Public confidence in scientists is on the upswing, and 60% of Americans say scientists should play an active role in policy debates about scientific issues, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The representative survey of 4,464 adults finds that public confidence in scientists is on par with confidence in the military and exceeds the levels of public confidence in other groups and institutions including the media, business leaders and elected officials. Overall, 86% of Americans say they have at least “a fair amount” of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest. This includes 35% who have “a great deal” of confidence, up from 21% in 2016.

At the same time, Americans are divided along party lines in terms of how they view the value and objectivity of scientists and their ability to act in the public interest. More Democrats (43%) than Republicans (27%) have “a great deal” of confidence in scientists – a difference of 16 percentage points. The gap between the two parties on this issue (including independents who identify with each party) was 11 percentage points in 2016 and has remained at least that large since.

There are also clear political divisions over the role of scientific experts in policy matters, with Democrats more likely to want experts involved and to trust their judgment. Most Democrats (73%) believe scientists should take an active role in scientific policy debates. By contrast, a majority of Republicans (56%) say scientists should focus on establishing sound scientific facts and stay out of such policy debates.

The two political groups also differ over whether scientific experts are generally better at making decisions about scientific policy issues than other people: 54% of Democrats say they are, while 66% of Republicans think scientists’ decisions are no different from or worse than other people’s. Finally, Democrats and Republicans have different degrees of faith in scientists’ ability to be unbiased; 62% of Democrats say that scientists’ judgments are based solely on facts, while 55% of Republicans say scientists’ judgments are just as likely to be biased as other people’s.

The new survey examines trust and potential sources of mistrust connected with scientists who work in three fields: medicine, nutrition and the environment. They include medical research scientists, medical doctors, nutrition research scientists, dietitians, environmental research scientists and environmental health specialists. For specific findings on each specialty, see below.

Key findings include:

  • Despite generally positive views about scientists across all six specialties, most Americans are skeptical about key areas of scientific integrity. No more than two-in-ten Americans believe scientists across these groups are transparent about potential conflicts of interest with industry all or most of the time. Similarly, minorities (ranging from 11% to 18%) say scientists regularly admit their mistakes and take responsibility for them. Between about a quarter and half of Americans consider misconduct a “very big” or “moderately big” problem, with the public generally skeptical that those engaged in misconduct routinely face serious consequences.
  • Americans tend to trust science practitioners, who directly provide treatments and recommendations to the public, more than researchers working in the same areas. For example, 47% say dietitians provide fair and accurate information about their recommendations all or most of the time, compared with 24% for nutrition scientists discussing their research. There is a similar gap when it comes to information from medical doctors and medical research scientists (48% and 32%, respectively, say they provide fair and accurate information all or most of the time). However, trust in environmental health specialists – practitioners who offer recommendations to organizations and community groups – is about the same as that for environmental research scientists.
  • Americans say open access to data and independent review inspire more trust in research findings. The Center’s survey asked about several factors that could potentially increase – or decrease – trust in research findings and recommendations. The two steps that inspire the most confidence among members of the public are open access to data and an independent review. A majority of U.S. adults (57%) say they trust scientific research findings more if the researchers make their data publicly available. About half the public (52%) say they trust scientific findings more if the findings have been reviewed by an independent committee. Industry funding stands out as a factor Americans say leads to lower trust. A majority of Americans (58%) say they trust scientific findings less if they know the research was funded by industry groups.
  • Public trust in scientists is linked with familiarity of their work and factual knowledge about science. Higher levels of familiarity with the work of scientists are associated with more positive and more trusting views of scientists regarding their competence, credibility and commitment to the public. The Center’s survey finds a wide range of familiarity with scientists. For example, 46% of U.S. adults say they know a lot about what medical doctors do, another 48% say they know “a little” and only 6% say they know “nothing at all.” In contrast, just 10% of U.S. adults report knowing a lot about what nutrition research scientists do, while most know a little (63%) and about a quarter (26%) say they know nothing at all. In addition, Americans with more factual science knowledge tend to hold more positive and more trusting views of scientists than those with less science knowledge. These factors, however, have a more limited effect on public skepticism about how often scientists are transparent about potential conflicts of interest, admit to mistakes, or are held accountable for misconduct.
  • Black and Hispanic adults are more likely than whites to see professional or research misconduct as a very or moderately big problem. For doctors, for example, 71% of blacks and 63% of Hispanics say misconduct is at least a moderately big problem, compared with 43% of whites. A larger percentage of blacks (59%) and Hispanics (60%) than whites (42%) say misconduct by medical research scientists is a very big or moderately big problem.
  • A majority of the public (54%, including equal shares of Democrats and Republicans) believes the public should play an important role in guiding policy decisions on scientific issues, while 44% say public opinion should not play an important role because the issues are too complex for the average person to understand.

These are among the findings from the new report, which is based on a nationally representative survey conducted Jan. 7 to 21, 2019, among 4,464 adults 18 years of age or older who live in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.

Key findings about each of the six scientific specialties examined in the survey:

Read the full report at https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2019/08/02/trust-and-mistrust-in-americans-views-of-scientific-experts

Related research: Trust and Distrust in America: https://www.people-press.org/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america/

For more information or to arrange an interview, please call 202-419-4372 or email Shawnee Cohn at scohn@pewresearch.org.

 

 

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. Subscribe to our daily and weekly email newsletters or follow us on our Fact Tank blog.

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