In a time of climate-change denial and vaccine resistance, scientists worry they are losing public trust. But it's just the opposite, a survey released Friday finds.
Public trust of scientists is growing. It's on a par with our trust of the military, and far above trust of clergy, politicians and journalists.
The survey by the Pew Research Center finds 86% of those surveyed say they have a fair amount or a great deal of faith that scientists act in our best interests. And that's been trending higher – it was 76% in 2016.
The proportion of people who say they have a "great deal" of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest increased from 21% in 2016 to 35% in 2019.
But the picture isn't entirely rosy. "It tends to be kind of a soft support," says Cary Funk, director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center and co-author of the report.
The public doesn't entirely trust scientists to do their jobs well or to act in the public interest, she and her co-authors report.
"When you look at issues of scientific integrity, we see widespread skepticism," she says. Less than 20% of those surveyed believe scientists are transparent about potential conflicts of interest with industry all or most of the time. The public is also skeptical that scientists regularly admit their mistakes.
In short, most people recognize that scientists, like everyone else, can be motivated by personal interest as well as the loftier goals of science and medicine.
People are most likely to trust practitioners, the kinds of people they may actually interact with. For instance, 48% of respondents say doctors make fair and accurate research statements and recommendations all or most of the time compared with 32% for medical research scientists.
Another example: 60% of those surveyed say dietitians care about people's best interests, compared with 29% of those who say the same of nutrition research scientists. Only 24% say nutrition scientists provide fair and accurate information.
The survey doesn't explore the reasons for that, though human nutrition studies are notoriously difficult to conduct and the findings from one study often conflict with others. (Is coffee good for you this week?)
The survey also finds some differences based on partisanship. While Democrats and Republicans have similar views of medical researchers, doctors and dietitians, there is a split over environmental scientists. There, 70% of Democrats, and those who lean Democrat, say they have a mostly positive view of environmental research scientists, versus 40% of Republicans and those who lean Republican
"One thing I think is striking," Funk says, "is that when we ask people what factors move their trust, when they hear about scientific research where the data is openly available they say that increases their trust."
That's encouraging news for scientists who are pushing for "open science," in which data and computer code are made widely available so it's easier to check someone else's work. That's part of an effort to improve the reliability and reproducibility of scientific findings.
The survey also identifies factors that increase public skepticism. The majority "say when they hear about industry funded research they say that tends to decrease their trust," Funk says.
Trust issues are by no means unique to science. John Besley, a professor of public relations at Michigan State University who studies public opinion about science, says there's a trend in the United States toward lower public trust in general. He's been tracking these trends in a related survey, conducted by the National Science Board, which governs the National Science Foundation.
Looking more broadly at public trust of people and institutions, "overall trust in other people has gone down," Besley says. He's curious to know how much the weaknesses identified in the Pew study "are really about scientists versus how much are a general distrust of everybody, sort of a general cynicism," he says.
And considering that scientists are bucking that overall skeptical trend, they come out looking even better, he says.
Doubts about climate change and vaccine resistance are special cases, Besley notes. They relate to deeper issues not directly related to trust in science, so they should not be taken as an overall indication of public attitudes toward scientists.