As Trust in Institutions Erodes, Science Rides High

As the public has slowly but surely lost confidence in many institutions over the decades, confidence in scientists has remained steady.

“My core argument is: People like scientists,” said John C. Besley, a communications professor at Michigan State University who studies public opinion about science and helps scientists be more strategic in their communications.

Why does it matter? Because when people make decisions on controversial issues, the core confidence in information – or lack thereof – translates as well.

In the longest-running longitudinal survey, done by the National Opinion Research Center since 1973, people who expressed a “great deal of confidence” in the scientific community has remained fairly consistent at or above 40 percent. (By contrast, Congress is below 10 percent and the media barely higher than 10 percent.)

If you dig deeper, as the National Science Foundation survey has done since 1983, large majorities of Americans think scientists help solve problems, work for the good of humanity and want to make life better for average people. (On the other hand, half think scientists are “odd and peculiar.”)

The high confidence in scientists carries over to most other nations as well. The exceptions, Besley said, are areas where authoritarian control eroded trust – such as areas of Africa or former communist bloc states like Bulgaria.

The high regard for scientists even holds true when people are asked about controversial issues like global warming, stem cell research and GMOs. A National Science Foundation survey in 2006 found people dismissive of advocates and elected officials on those issues, but broadly open to the influence of scientists and researchers.

Besley said scientists have much in common with journalists: the desire to ensure your integrity, establish your competence and a determination to get it right.

This program is funded by Fondation Ipsen and under the aegis of the Fondation de France. NPF is solely responsible for the content.

John C. Besley
Ellis N. Brandt Professor, College of Communication Arts and Sciences, Michigan State University
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