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Public trust in science and scientists is declining, new survey from Pew Research Center finds

December 07, 2023
By: Michele Hujber

Fifty-seven percent of Americans say science has had a mostly positive effect on society, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center. While the percentage of those with favorable views of science might seem like good news, the number is significantly less than at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in January 2019, when 73% of Americans declared positive views. Confidence that scientists will act for society's benefit has also declined.

The Pew survey highlights differences in survey responses between Democrats and Republicans. The decline in the number of Republicans who say science has had a mostly positive effect on society is significant. The percentage of Republicans with a positive view of science’s effect on society has dropped from 70% in January 2019 to only 47% in October 2023. (All percentages for Republicans and Democrats in this article include independents who lean towards the respective parties.) In 2023, the number of Democrats who believe science has had a mostly positive effect on society still outnumbers the number of Republicans who have the same opinion: 69% of Democrats expressed this positive view of science on society in the October survey. But the percentage of Democrats expressing that opinion dropped from 77% in 2019.

Julia MacKenzie, the Chief Program Officer for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), said she was not “wildly” surprised by the findings of the Pew survey. “We know that science and scientists don't operate in a vacuum,” she said. “And we know that, in general, the survey underscores this as well. Trust is down, and polarization, political and otherwise, is up.”

She noted that building trust in science is a large part of what AAAS does and that "in some ways, what we do is more important than ever in these times.”

Confidence that scientists themselves will act in the best interest of society has declined since early 2020, according to the Pew report. And unlike views about the impact of science on society, which are more positive in correlation to the level of education regardless of party affiliation, confidence in scientists is higher among Democratic college graduates: 45% of Democrats with at least a bachelor’s degree say they have a great deal of confidence in scientists. In contrast, only 12% of Republicans with at least a bachelor's have high trust for scientists.

MacKenzie believes that the decline in trust for science and scientists may have resulted from the intense focus on scientific research during the Covid-19 pandemic and some of the public's misunderstandings about the scientific process.

“The Covid-19 pandemic laid bare the complexity of communicating when the science is moving in real-time with huge societal repercussions,” she said. She suggested that scientists could have explained the scientific process better, which, she said, "embraces a level of uncertainty.”

“The basic structure of a scientific paper is (to show), ‘Here's what I did. Here's what I found. Here's what I think it means. Here's what else it might mean.’ And (the scientist is) passing that off to others transparently so that they can continue to work on it, illuminate new findings, and further refine what we think is accurate.”

However, MacKenzie noted that the public often believes that the scientist did something wrong if a scientific paper is retracted. But, she explained, "A healthy ecosystem puts out findings and then sometimes needs to retract them." For example, changing recommendations for wearing masks resulted from the normal scientific process rather than fraud or misrepresentation by scientists, as some people came to believe.

Explaining the scientific process and demystifying the retraction process are high priorities for Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science. In an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, he wrote, "It’s time for everyone involved in recording the progress of science to start talking about its woes as well as its glories in plain language, without delays and before scandal forces the conversation. For all the triumphs of the scientific process, mistakes are part of it, too. Whether they are allowed to erode trust is up to us."

science, pew