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Science of Science Communication 2.0, Session 4.1: Trust in/of science 

I swear this was a huge coincidence but this week's session -- #4 -- in Science of Science Communication course ver 2.0 is ... trust in/of science!

The reading packet, distributed about about a week ago, had excerpts from 2009 Pew Report.

But for sure, live version of the class-- happening in few hrs -- will be focusing on 2015 version. Reason is less b/c of substance of 2015 Report (which is pretty much identical to 2009) than b/c of Pew's disappointing decision to hype the 2015 version in a manner that exploited popular misconceptions about declining status & authority of science in U.S. society.  Why that misconception exists and how various actors use it were among the major themes of the assigned readings!

But since I've now said so much about that, I'll just post some questions & open th floor to the "virtual class" participants to have their say.

But before I do, let me just note that next week the topic is -- (mis)communication of perceptions of vaccine-risk perceptions! We are nothing if not topical in this class!

  1. Do the NSF Indicators’ “public science attitude” items measure “trust” in science or of scientists?

  2. Is the Fiske/Dupree study consistent with the public opinion survey results reflected in the NSF Indicators?

  3. Is the Fiske/Dupree experiment internally valid? Externally?

  4. Did the media appropriately characterize the Fiske/Dupree sudy? If not, why not?

  5. Does Gauchat’s study support the inference that individuals who identify themselves as “conservative” are distrustful of science?   Is the study internally and externally valid?

  6. Did the media appropriately characterize the findings of the Gauchat study? If not, why not?

  7. Does the Jelen & Lockett study support any inferences about the relationship between religiosity and political partisanship, on the one hand, and trust in/of science? Is the study internally and externally valid?

  8. Does disbelief in evolution evince distrust in or of scientists?  Is acceptance of evolution a valid measure of “trust” in or of science? How are these last two questions related?

  9. What explains the perception that there is distrust in or of science, either in the public generally or among particular segments of it?  Does the Kahan study suggest an answer? Is that study valid, internally and externally?

  10. Are conflicts over who trusts or distrusts science something to worry about? Do they affect the quality of the science communication enviornment?

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Reader Comments (20)

Dan -

You ask this:

==> "Does Gauchat’s study support the inference that individuals who identify themselves as “conservative” are distrustful of science? Is the study internally and externally valid?"

And I ask you whether the following has any bearing on the question about "conservatives" "trust" in science:


Medical experts reacted with alarm Monday as two top contenders for the Republican presidential nomination appeared to question whether child vaccinations should be mandatory — injecting politics into an emotional issue that has taken on new resonance with a recent outbreak of measles in the United States.


I'd say that what we have here is a clear example of Republican/"conservative" politicians exploiting distrust in science for political expediency. We saw the same with the Ebola "crisis" in the U.S. And, of course, HPV vaccinations.

Perhaps there are parallels, where Democratic/"liberal" politicians similarly try to exploit distrust in science for political expediency?

February 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@ Joshua

Well maybe Christie and Paul have saved "liberals" from the charge that "the anti-vaccine movement is a liberal thing."

Chris Christie sidesteps vaccine science

Paul: Vaccines can cause 'profound mental disorders'

Obama: Vaccinate your kids

February 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

Near as I can tell, there isn't a clear signal of ideological orientation either way in public views about vaccines. Yet, check out this article:

Some 2500 comments, a large % of which are people affiliated with one partisan identity absolutely convinced that people affiliated with another partisan identity are either lunatic anti-vaxers or lunatic anti-anti-vaxers.

February 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


I don't think anything Christie does bears on validity of Gauchat's study design.

I don't think it supports much of any other sort of inference either, other than that Christie is a clown, which is not news.

I certainly hope that people will refrain from blaming large groups of people, defined in cultural or political or religious terms, for being "anti-sciene" just b/c a prominent person w/ their characteristics takes a positon that is genuinely stupid. If you want to see how Repubicans feel about vaccine safety, you know where to look.

February 3, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@ Dan Kahan

What's not to like about "science" and "scientists," as long as they tell you what you want to hear?

The rub comes when science and scientists start telling you what you don't want to hear, as is increasingly the case with climate science/scientists and those who don't want to believe in AGW.

And how is it possible to extract the debate over AGW from its larger context, the debate over energy? The end of cheap and plentiful energy is the overarching issue, the issue which those on both the "left" and "right" sides of the cultural divide are in complete and total denial about.

It doesn't come up much in these debates, but the left has its own pet fantasies when it comes to the energy debate, every bit as detached from factual reality as those of the right. To wit:

The the rapid phaseout of this system [nucelar and carbon energy] and the simultaneous creation of a global wind/solar power infrastructure with the capacity to deliver the minimum energy consumption required for the world standard life expectancy for all children born on our planet (roughly 3.5 kilowatt/person). We demonstrate that this goal is achievable in 20-30 years using current technology, with a projected 9 billion people in a world with primary energy production corresponding to roughly 32 trillion watts (now it is 18 trillion watts); go to for our 2011 "A solar transition is possible" and much more.

The chances of increasing total global energy production by 90% percent over the next 20-30 years, while at the same time doing away with 90% of the world's existing energy infrastructure, all "using current technology" mind you, has about as much chances of happening as donkeys flying.

Those on each side of the left-right cultural divide live in their own respective fact-free fantasylands. It's just that events have wrecked havock on the carbon energy utopia a few years before the warts on the wind and solar energy utopia have come to light.

What do you think will happen when science and scientists start telling those on the left that their wind and solar utopia is a myth?

February 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

Dan -

==> "I don't think it supports much of any other sort of inference either, other than that Christie is a clown, which is not news.

You seem willing to be critical of actions that add to the pollution of the communicative environment in other situations. Why not this one? I'm not suggesting that anyone is "anti-science" as a general attribute, but Christie and Paul and Cuomo and Gohmert, and Nkki Haley and MSNBC and Fox News, etc. all contribute, in their own way, to a polluted and politicized scientific communication environment by exploiting the political and commercial value of sensationalism and fear-mongering.

When Paul and Christie seek to capitalize on partisan identifications by attacking evidence-based, science-related public health policy implementation, and by appealing to ignorance as a public health policy alternative, it's a potential problem, IMO.

Best case scenario is that Paul and Christie take political hits not unlike Tod Akin with that whole "legitimate rape" embarrassment. But I wouldn't be surprised if the CDC took a measurable (perhaps temporary) public opinion hit among "conservatives" with the whole anti-evidence-based science messaging during the Ebola fear-mongering.

February 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Christie is a first-rate fucking asshole. But it doesn't follow that people who call themselves Republicans are "anti-science," "distrust science," or are "anti-vaccine."

To conclude otherwise -- *that* is polluting the #scicomm enviroment.

I have no clue why he thought it was politically smart to say what he did. If he is trying to politicize vaccines, we should definitely not help him out by assimilating childhood vaccines into the boring, stupid, illiberal, reason-annihilating "anti-science" game.

February 3, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


Agreed, although it is remarkable how infrequently people even hear scientists saying anything other than what they want to hear. The motivation to believe that scientists agree w/ one's own group on contested issue is about as far as can be from "distrusting" them.

February 3, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I don't think it supports much of any other sort of inference either, other than that Christie is a clown, which is not news.

His statements on vaccines don't support that conclusion, even if they support less savory conclusions about his principles. But for the recent outbreaks in the news, it could easily have been a reasonable political calculation, on the assumption that anti-vax voters are more attached to their position on that question than pro-vax or vax-agnostic voters. And if he was a fool to ignore those recent outbreaks, well, he's not the first politician to fall a little bit behind the news cycle.

Are conflicts over who trusts or distrusts science something to worry about?

I think we'd all agree there are negative consequences to the finger-pointing over who distrusts scientists more. But isn't it also potentially useful? I see the corrective conversation fairly frequently, in which one commenter or writer reminds others that in fact distrust of scientists doesn't break down as conveniently as people would like to assume (and, increasingly, citing the CC project). That opens up a related and more difficult conversation about how we, personally, distrust scientists—how we form our opinions, whether they're reliable, how much they're influenced by our communities, etc. There aren't many ways to get people to think about that, and most efforts will founder on the perceived identity threat. A discussion about someone else's perceived distrust of science can be an easier way to get people to think about their own.

I'd prefer it if the conversation wasn't necessary, of course. But in lieu of a way to convince everyone, forever, that their political opponents aren't the science-mistrusting bastards they're made out to be, we should think about ways to use this conflict to improve the science communication environment.

February 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterColin

@ Dan Kahan said:

The motivation to believe that scientists agree w/ one's own group on contested issue is about as far as can be from "distrusting" them.

I agree. This circles back around to the "status & authority of science in U.S. society" that you mentioned in your original post. Here's how Robert H. Nelson puts it in Economics as Religion:

Since the eighteenth century...the authority of God as a source of absolute truths of the world -- the essence of the historic claim to authority of Jewish and Christian religion -- has been superceded in many areas of society by the rise of science.

The status & authority of science in U.S. society reigns almost unchallenged, and that's why almost everyone scrambles to put the imprimatur of science upon their interests and their passions. This places a horrible corrupting influence on science.

Would you agree, however, that the immense status & authority which science enjoys derives almost entirely from its triumphs in the material realm, and not those in the social-political-moral realm? "Public opinion took a good while to connect science with practical benefits such as bridges and machines," Jacques Barzun writes of modern science in its formative period in the 17th century. (Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence)

But here's the conundrum: What happens when science and events start telling people that the era of cheap and abundant energy (and other natural resources) is over? That's the subtext, after all -- the underlying but inexorable message -- of AGW. All of a sudden science switches roles, for science is no longer Santa Claus, but the Scrooge. What happens to the status & authority of science then?

Those on both extremes of the cultural spectrum blast anyone who dares articulate such heresies -- apostates who point out the gathering dark and looming clouds of the limits of the biosphere -- as being "Malthusian." And the reason is this: the overarching theology of both those on the right and the left is the Religion of Progress, along with its long list of progenitors dating from the 14th century: humanism, modernism, the Enlightenment, Positivism, the American way of life, etc.

Here's how Elizabeth Kolbert, in her review of Naomi Klein's latest book, This Changes Everything, puts it, in a very mundane but easy to understand fashion:

To draw on Klein paraphrasing Al Gore, here’s my inconvenient truth: when you tell people what it would actually take to radically reduce carbon emissions, they turn away. They don’t want to give up air travel or air conditioning or HDTV or trips to the mall or the family car or the myriad other things that go along with consuming 5,000 or 8,000 or 12,000 watts. All the major environmental groups know this, which is why they maintain, contrary to the requirements of a 2,000-watt society, that climate change can be tackled with minimal disruption to “the American way of life.” And Klein, you have to assume, knows it too. The irony of her book is that she ends up exactly where the “warmists” do, telling a fable she hopes will do some good.

February 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

@ Dan Kahan said:

I have no clue why he [Christie] thought it was politically smart to say what he did.

I have a theory. Maybe Christie fancies himself as a "problem-solver."

And if one fancies one's self a "problem-solver," as Hannah Arendt called them in her essay "Lying in Politics," and one doesn't have a problem, then one has to create a problem. And that's so even if it means trumpeting the fictions of the arch enemy.

If we take a look at what's going on now in the energy debate on "the left," that's exactly what Arun Gupta is doing in this article. He channels the Great Satan himself, Rex Tillerson, president and chairman of ExxonMobil.

For what we find is that Gupta has now become a propagandist for the Great Satan. He sits along-side the devil himself and parrots some of the very same talking points that the apostles of carbon do in their recent manifesto, ExxonMobil's The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040, released in December.

Instead of "exposing the futuristic fantasies deployed by the fossil fuel companies to perpetuate their dominance," so as to "thwart and discredit those who seek to perpetuate the Reign of Carbon," as Michael Klare does here, our problem-solver instead goes about proselytizing the same myths and lies that the commissars of the Reign of Carbon do.

I mean seriously, you couldn't make this stuff up. What's the motive?

Maybe the late Robert Hughes hit the nail squarely on the head when in Culture of Complaint he notes that, in the culture wars,

Somewhere along the line the obvious fact that rap and hip-hop are not the agents of a desired or feared apocalypse, that they are just another entertainment fashion, gets lost. And it is lost because one side needs the other, so that each can inflate its agenda into a chiliastic battle for the soul of America. Radical academic and cultural conservative are now locked in a full-blown, mutually sustaining, folie à deux, and the only person each dislikes more than the other is the one who tells both to lighten up. Such is the latest mutation of America's puritan heritage.

February 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

Dan -

There is a space between thinking that Republicans are, on average (or as compared to Demz on average), "anti-science" and thinking that something like this:

Is politically meaningful.

Or this:

Or this:

What does it mean? I don't really know. But it exists.

February 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


The way conflict entrepreneurial talking heads describe things is not data for me; it is what I try to correct w/ data.

this line of conversation started w/ your saying that an infernce from what an individual Republican said could be used to assess whether an empirical study used valid methods ... I'm truly lost at this point about what the point of this exchange is-- I think for you it is whether Republican party is bad; but this is a "class session" on public opinion, how to measure it, what it says about trust in science etc -- and it can't be the case that the former position, even if correct, determines how to deal w/ the latter issues

February 4, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

Ok, one more comment and then I'll drop it...

==> "this line of conversation started w/ your saying that an infernce from what an individual Republican said could be used to assess whether an empirical study used valid methods"

What I am describing is not simply an individual response, but an example of a pattern whereby Repubilcan politicians leverage fear and anti-science messaging for political purposes I don't know the impact of such messaging and I don't think that kind of messaging is unique to Republican politicians - but I am questioning whether the pattern is common (I tend to thing that it is), and if so, whether it is meaningful (I tend to think that it is).

With the measles vaccination issue, we have a number of Republican politicians stepping up to argue that there is some inherent conflict in place between evidence-based public health policy as implemented by scientists and scientific institutions and individual freedoms and rights. We also see pundits - such as those at MSNBC, who are seeking to exploit that messaging from Republican politicians, for their own political gain.

I think that these patterns have some interaction with the question of public trust in science, and further, they certainly have interaction with polluting the science communication environment.

==> "I think for you it is whether Republican party is bad;"

Yes, you keep going there. Wrongly. And you keep interpreting my point to be that Republicans are "anti-science." Also wrong. I don't think that Republicans are bad or that they are "anti-science." But I think there is a clear pattern where prominent Republican politicians are leveraging fear and anti-science sentiment to undermine evidence-based science and I think it is reasonable to speculate that such efforts might have a meaningful impact on "trust in science," with the caveats that the impact might not be direct, and that the very notion of measuring "trust in science" is extremely complex. Will Republicans be more likely to throw out their GPS devices because Republican politicians attack the CDC? Not likely. Will they be likely to have greater distrust in public health policies emanating from the CDC in the future? I think likely so - and I think at some level that would be reflective of something not entirely a different animal from increased distrust in science. Similarly, I think the kind of rhetoric that we see from Republican politicians in response to the increases in measles infections is likely to have meaningful impact on future funding of science. Again, not an animal that is completely unrelated to "trust in science" even if not exactly the same.

==> "I'm truly lost at this point about what the point of this exchange is..."

Just as you are lost about that, I am lost as to why you keep misinterpreting my point even though I have corrected your misinterpretation many times.

==> "but this is a "class session" on public opinion, how to measure it, what it says about trust in science etc -- and it can't be the case that the former position, even if correct, determines how to deal w/ the latter issues."

So not wanting to interfere with your instructional objectives, and wondering whether there would be any point point in continuing with a seemingly established pattern of mutual misunderstanding, I'll drop it here, at least for this post.

February 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


You still get "A" for class participation (plus extra credit for thumbing nose at "teacher")

February 4, 2015 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan


IMO your attributions about Christie ("clown", "asshole" etc) are illustrations of framing an issue in a culturally objectionable manner. And probably polluting the communication environment too.
Furthermore, as best as I can recall, the data such that has been presented in this blog does not support the attribution.

Your response probably also illustrates a theory as to why the strategies that arise from your work don't seem to get much traction -- they can be difficult to follow in the midst of difficult situations.

Thinking about this with you (and I'm using this to rehearse how I want to respond in the future) something like the following would be more productive:
"Taking off my scientist's hat and speaking as a citizen, in my opinion, I don't think it supports much of any other sort of inference either, other than that Christie is a clown."

P.S. I confess to having a knee jerk compulsion to challenge teachers about their knowledge.

April 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCortlandt Wilson

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