US public’s trust in science shows growing partisan gap

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On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center released the latest iteration of its surveys of Americans’ views of science and scientists. On the most basic level, they see a drop in the public’s opinion of scientists since the height of the pandemic in 2020. But, as always, the situation is more complex when the numbers are examined closely.

In general, there was a drop in trust of almost every occupation during that time period, and in the case of scientists, this largely represents a return to pre-pandemic popularity. The exception is that nearly everyone is less likely to say that scientists should get involved in policy decisions, with Republicans feeling especially strong in this regard.

The good news

The Pew surveys are large, with more than 10,000 participants, and have been done for long enough (six years for some questions) that trends should be apparent in the data. And the results have generally been positive for scientists: Science as a whole is widely supported, and scientists are one of the most highly respected groups in the US.

Nothing about that big picture has changed with the latest polling. When asked about whether they were confident that a group would act in the best interests of the public, medical scientists were the most highly rated, with 80 percent of the participants saying they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in them. The military and scientists, in general, were tied for second at 77 percent. No other groups were above 70 percent.

That trust translated into strong support for science in general. Over 80 percent of the participants said investments in research are worthwhile for society, and a similar number said it was important for the US to be a global leader in science. So any potential negatives in the details are taking place against a backdrop of widespread support for the scientific endeavor and the people engaged in it.

The top graph shows the US public's trust in scientists returning to 2016 levels. The lower graph shows that scientists remain among the most trusted groups in society.
Enlarge / The top graph shows the US public’s trust in scientists returning to 2016 levels. The lower graph shows that scientists remain among the most trusted groups in society.

So, about those negatives…

One is that trust in scientists had been trending upward and peaked in the early days of the pandemic, based on a survey done in 2020, when only 12 percent of the public said they lacked trust in scientists. By 2021, this mistrust had nearly doubled, with 22 percent saying they lacked trust in scientists; it’s stayed in roughly the same place (23 percent) in the latest survey.

There are a few pieces of important context there. One is that this is the same level of mistrust seen back in 2016. And, back in 2016, only 21 percent of the public said that they had a great deal of trust in scientists; that number has risen to 28 percent in the latest survey. Another important bit of context is that trust seems to have declined across the board since 2020. The number of people expressing distrust in the military rose over this period. Same for the police, religious figures, school administrators, and business leaders.

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