Trust and mistrust in Americans’ views of scientific experts

Public opinion Science Policy Public trust United States of America

In an era when science and politics often appear to collide, public confidence in scientists is on the upswing, and six-in-ten Americans say scientists should play an active role in policy debates about scientific issues, according to this survey.

The survey finds public confidence in scientists on par with confidence in the military. It also exceeds the levels of public confidence in other groups and institutions, including the media, business leaders and elected officials.

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. And, while political divides do not carry over to views of all scientists and scientific issues, there are particularly sizable gaps between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to trust in scientists whose work is related to the environment.

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 survey shows.

Main findings:

  • 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.
  • When Americans gauge the kinds of things that would influence their faith in scientific findings, their verdict is clear: Open public access to data and independent committee reviews inspire the most confidence in scientists and boost their trust in research findings.
  • A majority of U.S. adults (54%, including equal shares of Democrats and Republicans) believe the public should play an important role in guiding policy decisions on scientific issues; 44% say public opinion should not play an important role because the issues are too complex for the average person to understand.
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