The newest round of the Pew Research Center’s polls of Americans’ attitudes toward science and scientists was issued on Tuesday. Basic public trust in scientists has declined since the peak of the pandemic in 2020, according to their observations. However, when the numbers are looked at closely, the issue is always more complicated than it appears.
Scientists’ declining popularity during this time period reflects a larger trend of declining popularity across many professions, which began before the epidemic. With one notable exception, Republicans are more inclined than other political parties to believe that scientists should not be involved in policymaking.
Large enough (over 10,000 participants and six years of data for some questions) and long enough in the running, the Pew polls should reveal trends. Results have been positive for scientists in general, with the scientific community being among the most respected in the United States and the public largely accepting the validity of scientific findings.
The results of the most recent polls have not altered the overall picture. Eighty percent of respondents said they had “a great lot” or “good amount” of faith in medical scientists to work in the public’s best interest. The scientific community and the armed forces both scored 77%. No other category had a higher percentage than 70%.
This confidence morphed into staunch backing for scientific endeavours generally. More than 80% of respondents agreed that research investments benefit society at large, and a comparable proportion affirmed that maintaining the United States’ position as a scientific leader was crucial. Thus, any potential downsides in the particulars are taking place against a backdrop of popular support for the scientific enterprise and the people engaging in it.
One is that, according to a survey conducted in 2020, public faith in scientists was at an all-time high during the outbreak’s early days, when only 12% of respondents indicated they did not believe scientists. The percentage of people who don’t trust scientists increased to 22% in 2021 and has been about the same since then (23% in the most recent survey).
A few crucial pieces of background information are provided. One is that the level of distrust is identical to that which existed in 2016. Further, whereas only 21% of the general public claimed they had a lot of faith in scientists in 2016, 28% of the general public made that claim in the most recent study. It’s also crucial to note that there appears to have been a general fall in trust beginning around the year 2020. During this time, more and more citizens began to show scepticism against the armed forces. The same goes for government officials, clergy, academic and corporate heads, and the like.