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Americans’ confidence in scientists rises, but so does partisan divide

In 2019, 86 percent of Americans had at least “a fair amount” of confidence that scientists act in the public interest — up three percentage points from the previous year.

An estimated 10,000 demonstrators marched from Cathedral Hill Park to the Minnesota State Capitol on Earth Day 2017 during the March for Science in St. Paul.
MinnPost file photo by Corey Anderson

Americans have more confidence in scientists than they did a few years ago, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.

In 2019, 86 percent of Americans had at least “a fair amount” of confidence that scientists act in the public interest — up three percentage points from the previous year. And within that group, 35 percent express “a great deal” of confidence — a significant jump from the 21 percent who gave that response in 2016.

“Public confidence in scientists [is] on par with confidence in the military,” the report says. “It also exceeds the levels of public confidence in other groups and institutions, including the media, business leaders and elected officials.”

The report is based on a survey conducted in January of a nationally representative sample of 4,464 adults across the United States.

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A matter of trust

The survey asked respondents about their attitudes toward scientists in general, but also about scientists in three fields: medicine, nutrition and environment. Interestingly, practitioners in those specialties tended to be more trusted than researchers working in the same fields:

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.

Despite expressing overall confidence in scientists, Americans remain highly skeptical about their integrity. Less than one in five of the people surveyed said scientists are transparent most or all of the time about their potential conflicts of interest with industry.

“More than half of Americans (57%) say they trust research findings more if the data from the study is openly available to the public, and 52% say they trust research findings more if they have been reviewed by an independent committee,” the report says. “In contrast, a majority of Americans (58%) say industry funding makes them trust scientific findings less.”

A partisan divide

The survey also revealed a significant partisan divide among Americans’ attitudes toward scientists — a divide that has grown in recent years.

In the latest survey, 43 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans said they had “a great deal” of confidence in scientists acting in the public interest, a gap of 16 percentage points. In 2016, the difference was narrower — 11 percentage points.

A majority of Democrats (73 percent) say that scientists should take an active role in shaping science-related policies, while a majority of Republicans (56 percent) say scientists “should focus on their research and stay out of policy debates.”

The amount of scientific knowledge that people possess affects these attitudes — if they’re Democrats. Among the people in the survey who demonstrated a high level of factual knowledge about science, more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans — 86 percent versus 40 percent — thought scientists should be actively involved in policy debates.

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More Democrats than Republicans — 62 percent versus 40 percent — were also more likely to say that the judgments of scientists are based on facts. It is perhaps not unsurprisingly, therefore, that Democrats were also more likely to say they trust the scientific method. Among the survey’s respondents, 70 percent of the Democrats said the scientific method generally produces accurate conclusions, compared to 50 percent of the Republican respondents.

“Knowledge and information can influence beliefs about these matters, but it does so through the lens of partisanship, a tendency known as motivated reasoning,” the report says.

Other findings

Here are some additional findings from the report:

  • Democrats are more trusting of environmental scientists than Republicans when it comes to their competence, concern for the public and the accuracy of information they provide. For instance, 47% of Democrats trust environmental scientists to provide fair and accurate information about their work all or most of the time, compared with 19% of Republicans.
  • Opinions about government-funded research differ by politics. Among conservative Republicans, just 9% say that government funding increases their trust in research findings, while 41% say it decreases their trust. In contrast, liberal Democrats are more inclined to say government funding increases (34%) rather than decreases (21%) their trust in scientific research.
  • A large majority of black Americans (71%) say misconduct by medical doctors is a very/moderately big problem, compared with 43% of whites – a gap of 28 percentage points. Hispanics (63%) are also more likely than whites to describe doctors’ misconduct as a big problem. In addition, a larger percentage of blacks (59%) and Hispanics (60%) say misconduct by medical research scientists is a very big or moderately big problem, compared with 42% of whites.

That last finding “could be related to inequities in health care and outcomes, among other issues faced by black people and other nonwhite Americans in medical treatment and research,” the report notes. “Examples include the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male” and the case of Henrietta Lacks, both of which involved individuals who were subject to research studies without their knowledge or consent.”

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FMI: You can read the report online at the Pew Research Center’s website.