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Pew survey results showing Americans’ trust in scientists


A newly released Pew Research Center survey has some interesting details about American’s attitudes toward science and scientists. The data has implications for our efforts here at SBM, and I think it contains some encouraging news. It deals with both public attitudes, as well as demographic factors that influence those attitudes, such as education level, knowledge, and political affiliation.

The first item in the report deals with vaccination – the question is, “The benefits of the measles vaccine outweighs the risks.” Overall 88% of responders agreed that the benefits outweigh the risks. This is not too bad, but is a bit low if our goal is herd immunity, which for many vaccines requires something closer to 90-95% compliance. Confidence in the measles vaccine increased with education and income level, and was 93% among college grads and post-grads, and 95% among those in the upper income. This suggests that education can have an effect, and pushes acceptance into the herd immunity range.

Further, political affiliation had essentially zero effect on this question. This finding is in line with previous surveys which have also found that vaccine attitudes are not partisan. In fact, prior research has shown that those with anti-vaccine attitudes display a “super Dunning Kruger” effect – they know the least about immunity and the causes of autism while thinking they know the most, even more than experts. The problem is that they are filled with misinformation that gives them the powerful illusion of knowledge.

At least in this case efforts at debunking misinformation and spreading accurate information should have a positive effect, especially when combined with promotion of critical thinking skills (such as an understanding of the pitfalls of conspiracy thinking). Vaccine denial may be one of the exceptions to the otherwise general inadequacy of the knowledge deficit model of science communication. The other known exception is opposition to genetically modified organisms, which again displays a super DK phenomenon where GMO opponents have the least knowledge of genetics but think they have the highest.

The rest of the Pew survey focused on general attitudes toward science and scientists, with some mixed news. The percentage of Americans who report a fair or great deal of confidence in medical researchers was the highest, at 87%, with scientists in general at 86%. These numbers are also up from 2016, at 84% and 76% respectively. This might suggest that in a politically chaotic time the public turns more to institutions they think are objective or at least non-partisan.

These numbers are also higher than any other institution – military (82%), religious leaders (57%), news media (47%), business leaders (46%),, and at the bottom elected officials (35%). This generally high level of confidence in the institutions of science is certainly helpful to our efforts to increase scientific literacy and improve understanding of medical science in particular.

But politics does complicate this overall confidence in science. Only 60% of Americans said that scientists should play an active role in policy debates about scientific issues, while 39% agreed that scientists should stick to establishing scientific facts and stay out of policy. These numbers were also heavily influenced by political affiliation, with 73% of Democrats and only 43% of Republicans favoring scientist involvement in policy discussions. This suggests that for many people support of the institutions of science is thin, or restricted to the abstract. But they don’t want scientists “meddling” in policy – even on scientific issues.

Another question puts this into further context. “The scientific method generally produces accurate conclusions,” vs “Can be used to produce any conclusion the researcher wants.” This is the problem with such forced-choice false dichotomy surveys – I think that both of these statements are simultaneously true, and I am not even sure how I would have answered this question. The problem is, there is simply too much nuance in this topic, and of course regular readers know that we spend a great deal of time at SBM exploring that nuance.

I would summarize my own attitude as – the scientific method, when properly applied, can produce generally accurate conclusions, eventually. However, this only works in the aggregate, over multiple studies and multiple researchers, with replication and other factors being carefully considered. For individual studies the scientific method can be twisted to produce any result the researcher wants. We have discussed at length researcher degrees of freedom, P-hacking, and publication bias, for example. The scientific method is neither a magic wand nor a scam – it works, but only if properly and carefully employed.

What all these Pew findings suggest is that respect for science and scientific institutions is high, but many people reserve some skepticism about the findings of science and the role of scientists in public policy. This skepticism seems to be dramatically influenced by political affiliation. In fact, on this question about the accuracy of the scientific method, the researchers broke it down by scientific knowledge and party affiliation. Among Democrats, scientific knowledge had a significant effect, with confidence ranging from 86 to 67 to 52% for high, medium, and low scientific knowledge respectively. For Republicans the numbers were 59, 52, and 51% respectively.

Essentially being a self-identified Republican mostly erased the positive effect that scientific knowledge has on confidence in the scientific method. This likely has a complex set of causes, but one issue stands out – that of climate change. What previous data shows is that, for Democrats, increased scientific knowledge positively correlates with acceptance of the consensus on climate change (and is generally high). For Republicans, however, there is an inverse relationship – increased scientific knowledge correlates with lower acceptance of the science of climate change. For this issue, there is no knowledge-deficit problem. Political affiliation is the dominant factor.

What does all of this mean for our efforts at SBM? I think generally there is some good news – confidence in science and scientists is high. In some medical areas, like vaccines and genetics, there is a knowledge deficit problem that can be fixed, and there is also a misinformation problem that can also be fixed. The data also suggests that we should continue our efforts to explore the relationship between science and medicine.

There is caution in the numbers as well. Politics still has the power to trump science and facts. Further, this and other data suggest that when science is attacked over a single political issue, it reduces confidence in science in general. This is something that we at SBM have been warning about for a long time. We often file this under the indirect harm of alternative and unscientific medicine. Attacks on the institutions and methods of science over one issue tend to depress confidence in science and practitioners in general, which makes the public more vulnerable to charlatans and snake-oil peddlers. When you claim that magic water works, even if you are relying on placebo effects, that has negative ripple effects in society.

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Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.