Most Americans trust scientists and science-based policy-making – panicking about the minority who don’t isn’t helpful

Most Americans — 81% — think public investments in scientific research are “worthwhile investments in society over time,” according to the Pew Research Center. latest survey of public perceptions of science.

A similar proportion said they had at least “somewhat” confidence that scientists act in the best interest of the public: 77% for all scientists and 80% for medical scientists. As with previous surveys, this puts trust in scientists at about the same level as in the military – 77%. It is also much higher than for any other group surveyed by surveyors and, unlike most groups, fairly stable over time, despite the recent increase political polarization.

Supporters of science want researchers to share their ideas to help solve societal problems. The scientists themselves want their research to have an impact. Thus, public judgments like those identified in the Pew report are important because of what they suggest about how Americans might view evidence-based advice on issues such as climate change and public health.

Don’t focus on the negatives

It would be easy for the scientific community to look at this data and lament the 1 in 5 Americans who said they didn’t think government investments in science were important or who said they didn’t trust scientists.

Same with the fact that trust in scientists has receded after a small surge that Pew surveys had previously identified from late 2018, or the reality that Republicans seem to have increasingly negative opinions of scientists and science investments than Democrats.

But I suspect there are more shades of gray behind the black and white numbers themselves.

For example, while two-thirds of Democrat-oriented respondents said they supported scientists’ participation in political debates, less than a third of Republican-oriented respondents said they shared this view, a further decrease. compared to the proportion of Republicans who expressed this view in both 2019 and 2020.

But consider that this specific question only gave people two choices. Respondents might say they want scientists to play an “active role” in policy or “focus on establishing solid scientific facts”.

Given the choice, I suspect that many respondents from all political backgrounds would have given a more nuanced answer. Even the greatest science boosters probably want scientists to spend most of their time on research and teaching.

In this new survey, in fact, only about a third of Republicans said scientists currently have “too much” influence in public policy debates and about a quarter said scientists have “not enough.” of influence. The majority – 39% – said they had “about the right amount”.

From my perspective, yes, it’s disheartening that about 2 in 10 Republicans believe that scientists are “generally less good” at “making good policy decisions on scientific issues” than “other people” and that this proportion has doubled since 2019.

But about a quarter of Republicans consistently said scientists’ decisions are “generally better” than others, and about half said scientists’ decisions are “neither better nor worse.”

And it seems possible that if current Republicans took the survey, they were thinking about issues like abortion or COVID-19 policies that involve medicine, but also ethics, economics and personal values. . Moreover, many Republicans presumably recognize that most scientists oppose current party orientations and may use their survey responses to communicate their sense of alienation.

What could improve overall perceptions

Data such as that provided by the Pew Research Center points to potential problems; they do not suggest a solution. Adopting a positive outlook, however, emphasizes potential solutions.

As Antoine Dudo and me discuss in our new book on science communication strategyanyone who wants to be trusted – including scientists – should consider social science research on what enhances trust and perceptions of trustworthiness.

Key among these results: People perceive others as trustworthy if they appear to be caring, honest and competent.

Back to the Pew Research Center 2019 surveys on trust in sciencewhich are compatible with other research, it seems that Americans largely perceive scientists as quite competent. However, Americans tend to be less likely to believe that scientists “care about people’s best interests”, are “transparent about conflicts of interest” or willing to take “responsibility for mistakes”.

These perceived characteristics help explain the share of the American population that does not trust the motives of scientists. They are also perceptions for which scientists, like others, can take responsibility through their choices about how they behave and communicate.

Additionally, Americans tend to view “scientific researchers” less positively that science-based practitioners like physicians, suggesting that they feel more distant from academic researchers.

Look on the bright side for best results

Focusing too much on the minority of people with negative perceptions is dangerous for those of us who want science to play an important role in society because attacking critics can exacerbate the problem.

While he might feel right to “fight” for sciencebeing aggressive towards people who question his reliability seems unlikely to stimulate positive perceptions.

Unlike politicians, proponents of science probably cannot win by making others look bad. Like the press, members of the scientific community want to ensure the sustainability of their discipline in society. Research suggests that for scientists, building real relationships with other members of the public will depend on communication and behavior in ways that show kindness, honesty and expertise.

Loud criticism from scientists and their supporters that too many people simply don’t appreciate science’s place in society, or insults to those who don’t see its value, are bound to be counterproductive. .

The stakes are high as humanity faces a number of science-related challenges, including climate change, infectious diseases and habitat destruction. Anyone who wants scientific evidence to have a place at the table where solutions are discussed may need to follow the evidence to achieve this.

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