Americans are divided along party lines when it comes to confidence in scientists and their role in making policy, according to a survey released Friday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Overall, trust in scientists is increasing in the United States, with 86% of Americans saying they have at least “a fair amount” of confidence that scientists are acting in the public interest, up from 76% three years ago. Today, more people have confidence in scientists than in religious leaders, business heavyweights and even public-school principals.
But just 27% of Republicans have “a great deal” of confidence in scientists, the survey found. Among Democrats, it’s 43%.
Most Democrats also believe scientists should play an active role in policy debates, according to the survey. A majority of Republicans, however, believe that “scientists should focus instead on establishing sound scientific facts and stay out of such debates,” said Cary Funk, director of science and society research at Pew.
More than 40% of Republicans say the scientific method can be manipulated by researchers to produce a desired result, the survey found, while 7 in 10 Democrats believe the scientific method generally produces accurate conclusions.
A majority of Republicans also believe scientists’ judgments are just as likely to be biased as other people’s, whereas most Democrats say that scientists make judgments based solely on the facts.
But generally speaking, “trust in scientists tends to be higher than it is for many other groups in society, particularly the news media and elected officials,” said Funk. “Among those groups, we’ve seen trust go down over time and remain very low.”
Despite President Donald Trump’s downplaying of the climate crisis, for example, a Monmouth University poll released last year found that a growing number of Americans, including most Republicans, believe that climate change is happening, a shift in public opinion from three years earlier.
About 8 in 10 Americans said the climate is changing, causing extreme weather. Two-thirds of Republicans said the same thing. A majority of Americans, 54%, considered it a “very serious” problem, the poll found.
Few say researchers are transparent, admit their mistakes
Pew’s survey looked at a representative sample of more than 4,400 US adults and found that, despite growing confidence in scientists, few Americans believe doctors and researchers admit their mistakes.
Just 13% of those surveyed say medical research scientists take responsibility for mistakes all or most of the time, and just 15% say that researchers are always or mostly transparent about potential conflicts of interest with industry groups.
“But what was interesting is when we ask people about the factors that influence their trust in findings, on the whole you see a majority saying that when they see research findings where the data is openly available, that leads to more trust,” said Funk. “When they see data findings where there has been an independent review, a majority said that would increase their trust.”
Minority groups have less faith in doctors
About three-quarters of Americans say they have positive views of doctors, but just 20% believe that doctors who engage in professional misconduct face serious consequences all or most of the time, the survey found.
Race also seems to play a role. Over 70% of people who are black, and over 60% of people who are Hispanic, say misconduct among doctors is at least a “moderately big problem.” A majority of white people, in contrast, say that it isn’t.
Older Americans also view their doctors more positively than younger adults. About two-thirds of people 50 and older say doctors care about their patients’ best interests most or all of the time, compared to just half of those under 50.
While the survey didn’t speculate on reasons behind the trends, “this study is part of our ongoing work to look at the intersection of science and society,” said Funk.
“We’re looking at science issues because they are civic issues,” she added. “These are science issues that raise broader social, ethical or policy issues for society.”