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More on public "trust of scientists": *You* tell *me* what it means!

Okay, so I've done a good number of posts on "trust" in science/scientists. The basic gist of them is that I think  it's pretty ridiculous to think that any significant portion of the US public distrusts the authority of science -- epistemic, cultural, political, etc. -- or that partisan divisions in regard to trust in science/scientists can plausibly explain polarization over particular risks or other policy-relevant facts that admit of scientific inquiry (vice versa is a closer call but even there I'm not persuaded).

So here's some more data on the subject.

It comes from a large (N = 2000) nationally representative survey administered as part of an ongoing collaborative research project by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and CCP (it's a super cool project on reasoning & political polarization; I've been meaning to do a post on it -- & will, tomorrow"!).

The survey asked respondents to indicate on a 6-point "agree-disagree" Likert measure whether they "think scientists who work" (or in one case, "do research for") in a particular institutional setting "can be trusted to tell the public the truth."

The institutions in questions were NASA, the CDC, the National Academy of Sciences, the EPA, "Industry," the military, and "universities."

We had each subject evaluate the trustworthiness of only one such group of scientists.

Often researchers and pollsters ask respondents to asses the trustworthiness of multiple groups of scientists, or of scientists generally in relation to multiple other groups.

One problem with that method is that it introduces a "beauty pageant" element in which respondents rank the institutions.  If that's what their doing, one might conclude that the public "trusts" a group of scientists or scientists generally more than they actually do simply because they trust the others even less.

So what did we find?

I'll tell you (just hold on, be patient).  

But I won't tell you what I make of the findings. 

Do they support the widespread lament of a creeping "anti-science" sensibility in the U.S.?  

Or the claim that Republicans/conservatives in particular are anti-science or less trusting in science than they were in the past.

Or do they show "the left" is in fact "anti-science" -- as much so or more than "the right" etc.

You tell me!

Actually, I'm sure everyone will come to exactly the same conclusion on these questions.  Here as elsewhere, the facts speak for themselves!

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Reader Comments (5)

Thanks for the data. The R^2 of 0.02 made me smile. I think that the survey is still a beauty contest. For instance, my trust in the scientists in each category varies widely by subcategory. I trust industrial scientists studying how to make steel much more than I might trust scientists touting a new potential drug. Actually, it is not the scientists that I trust so much as the institution's PR department. I trust university scientists coming up with a new plastic more than I do climate change scientists. Again it is the PR folk that I am actually judging not the scientists themselves. Often I trust the scientists in fields that are not newsworthy and are non-political more than I trust the ones whose funding depends on the dust storms of current political battles.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEric Fairfield

--> "Or the claim that Republicans/conservatives in particular are anti-science or less trusting in science than they were in the past."

First, perhaps it is a mistake to conflate "anti-science" and "less trusting in science."

Second, it would be nice to have data on how respondents answer a question, directly, about their level of trust in our society's scientific institutions. Eric's point is well-taken - more specific information is more useful, but....

I would guess that the total (trust in society's scientific institutions) would not equal the sum of the parts (adding up trust in individual scientific institutions). I think it's a little like the discrepancy between favorability of Obamacare overall and favorability of its individual parts.

Also, also, I suspect that many members of the public have relatively little knowledge of what the CDC, NASA, EPA, and NAS represent. So in that sense, I'm not sure exactly what you're finding out when you ask about the level of trust in those specific institutions. To really make sense of those data, it seems to me, you need to accompany the research with some kind of assessment of respondents' knowledge of, definition of, etc. awareness of, those institutions.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

--> "Or the claim that Republicans/conservatives in particular are anti-science or less trusting in science than they were in the past."

I am curious as to how cross-sectional data will inform that question. Even data from respondents who are asked directly about their change in view over time would be suspect, IMO, unless there were some kind of a "pre-test" to measure levels of trust. Recall bias is a bitch.

May 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan -

Don't know if you've seen this:

May 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-- hadn't seen!
(Pretty funny that they expect to find they are more "science literate" than US. Only items in standard battery where US doesn't do better has been evolution -- b/c it doesn't measure science literacy in US)

May 23, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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