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In Science We Trust (?)

According to a recent article published by USA Today,[1] there is a gap between what scientists and the public believe around some key issues like climate change, childhood vaccines, and genetically modified (GM) foods. Oftentimes, doubt is expressed around the science behind these issues by politicians and press.

But does public mistrust in scientific findings around certain topics stem from a lack of faith in the science, the scientists, or the messengers who are reporting that science?

To see what the data tells us about public perceptions of science, we decided to dig a little deeper into Gallop Poll (GP) findings about honesty and ethics in professions,[2] American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) data on levels of trust in science,[3] and a Huffington Post YouGov poll on trust in scientists.[4]

  • Trusting the science: 

The General Social Survey (GSS) has been polling American attitudes on a number of issues since 1972. The percentage of Americans who say they have a ‘great deal of trust’ in science has actually remained around 40% since the early 70s.1 The most recent GSS data suggests that in 2016, the American public trusted science (40%) more than congress (6%), the press (8%), organized religion (20%), and the Supreme Court (26%).

Taking attitudes to GM foods as an example of public trust in science, according to AAAS survey data, 88% of scientists believe that GM foods are generally safe to eat, compared to just 37% of the general public.3 Asked about whether climate change is mostly due to human activity, 87% of scientists believe that to be true, compared to 50% of the general public. From a scientist’s perspective, AAAS data also shows that 84% of scientists believe that limited public knowledge about science is a major problem.

  • Trusting the scientists:

A recent poll conducted by The Huffington Post suggests that levels of trust in scientists can vary along gender, geographic region, and even partisan lines.4 For example, 13% of Republicans taking the survey reported trusting what scientists say as accurate and reliable ‘a lot,’ compared to 54% of Democrats. Geographically, 42% of survey participants in the Northeast US reported they had ‘a lot’ of trust, compared to 31% in the South. While along gender lines, more males (38%) reported trusting scientists ‘a lot’ compared to females (33%).

[1] USA Today, 2017: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2017/04/20/science-march-war-truth-political-polarization/100636124/

[2] Gallup Poll, 2016: http://www.gallup.com/poll/1654/Honesty-Ethics-Professions.aspx

[3] AAAS, 2016 as reported by Pew Research Center: http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/

[4] YouGov Poll, 2017, as reported in The Huffington Post: http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/tabsHPScienceandPolitics20170428.pdf