messenger on a bicycle

Do people trust science?

There is a growing lack of trust in society’s critical institutions. This includes science and the scientists who carry it out. This is bad news…

There is an impression going around, pushed by some politicians and the media, that science is not to be trusted. 

This view gained serious traction until COVID-19 came along. Then politicians clamoured to share the stage with the health scientists who could not only provide reassurance to the public but also bear the brunt of public wrath if recommendations went wrong.

The impression that science and scientists are not trusted may actually be true, but then people seem not to trust anybody. 

A recent report by the Pew Research Center in the US looked at data from surveys of around 1,500 people representative of the general public in each of 20 different countries with mature or emerging economies across Europe, the Americas, and the Asia-Pacific including Australia. 

In all the surveyed countries at least a third of those surveyed trusted scientists to suggest what is in the best interest of the public. 

This is about the same proportion who said they trusted the military. 

Compare that with what people said about the trustworthiness of business leaders (9% believed them), news media (12%), and the national government (13%) and we’re talking about at least a 20 to 30% increase in preference for science over these other influential groups.

Interestingly, though, the same survey data suggests that two-thirds of the people said it was better to rely on individuals with practical experience to solve pressing problems whilst only one third considered experts best to solve problems.

Practical beats intellectual. 

It makes good sense to follow the ‘been there, done that’ person on a trek through the jungle but if the decision is about whether or not to cut the jungle trees down for timber and use the land for agriculture, then jungle survival is not the only expertise needed. 

Forestry, agriculture, soil science, policy and planning, finance, cultural heritage, social development, biodiversity values, conservation… Many experts would have valuable input.

I am not sure what is more disturbing, that only one in ten people trust their government to do the right thing or that they prefer the tradesman to the academic. 

Research is good

A large majority of people in all 20 countries (82% on average) thought government investments in scientific research were important to the country. 

A little over half went as far as to agree it is important for their country to be a world leader in scientific achievements. 

So science is good.

But recall that across all the countries only a third thought scientists ‘do what is right for the public’. 

Science but maybe not scientists at least compared with other prominent groups and institutions in the society. 

This is all very interesting how modern societies view and are likely to use the evidence that science generates and view the messengers. It suggests that whilst the majority of people think science is important and should be invested in, there is a lot of difficulty in understanding where this science should come from and a perception that scientists do not solve problems. 

Love the process, don’t believe the messengers.

Why are scientists not trusted?

Recall that two out of three people did not trust scientists to suggest what was in the public interest. Why might this be? 

Here is a list of the common reasons 

  • Scientists are fence-sitters
  • Normative (opinionated) science is common 
  • Scientists can’t make a decision
  • Scientists deliver too many inconvenient truths
  • Cognitive dissonance on the part of the listener 
  • Science takes way too long
  • Contradictions in what science means

We describe these reason in more detail in a related post on Why are scientists not trusted? But there are more than enough logical as well as illogical reasons for people to doubt both scientists and science.

Should people trust scientists?

Yes, but…

In classic scientist style, sustainably FED says “yes, you should trust science and scientists” but be careful. Some of the reasons in the list above are real and require the application of healthy scepticism. 

A significant majority of people do not trust either the scientific messages or the messenger.

This is a problem today and will become more acute as global sustainability is recognised as critical for human survival. At some point soon, the majority need to not only trust science but look to scientists for answers to everything from food production to saving rare species.

The way to build trust is for more people to understand how science works.

The majority need to become healthy sceptics to equip themselves with the tools to know the evidence, evaluate it, and apply it to critical decisions.

And you can be one of the first to gather the skills.

Enrol in sustainably FED’s Healthy Sceptic eCourse.


Hero image modified from photo by Ana Moreno on Unsplash

Mark

Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

Add comment

Follow us

Don't be shy, get in touch. We love meeting interesting people and making new friends.

Most discussed