America has been the destination of dreams for people around the world. Their desire to come here seeking the opportunities it offers is built on the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship our country inspires. We are world leaders in economic opportunity, science, and medicine. Advances in these fields have changed the world, often for the better.
So, it is dismaying when the Pew Research Center reports that only “57% of Americans say science has had a mostly positive effect on society. This share is down 8 percentage points since November 2021 and down 16 points since before the start of the coronavirus outbreak.”
Its study found that just over one-third of Americans think the impact of science has done as much good as bad for society.
“The share of Americans who say science has had a mostly positive effect on society has fallen and there’s been a continued decline in public trust in scientists,” Brian Kennedy and Alec Tyson of the Center write.
“When it comes to the standing of scientists, 73% of U.S. adults have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests,” the study found. However, those results show how deeply the COVID-19 pandemic and the pervasive distrust sowed by some in the knowledge and motivations of those most respected in science and medicine eroded America’s faith in them.
Our trust level in scientists was 87% before the pandemic, which is 14 points higher. Those polled saying they had a “great deal of confidence in them” fell from 39% to 23%. Today, 27% of Americans doubt scientists act in the public’s interest, an increase from only 12% four years ago. Findings for those in medical sciences mirror those of scientists in general, the study found.
Those in the sciences aren’t alone is seeing declining faith among the American public. Business and religious leaders, journalists, and elected officials are all thought less of today than they were just a few short years ago. It is a troubling trend.
The widening gap between the views of Republicans and Democrats across a broad range of issues and attitudes has become a dominant feature of American political life, Pew said.
“Declining levels of trust in scientists and medical scientists have been particularly pronounced among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents over the past several years,” the Pew study found. “In fact, nearly four-in-ten Republicans (38%) now say they have not too much or no confidence at all in scientists to act in the public’s best interests. This share is up dramatically from the 14% of Republicans who held this view in April 2020.”
Unsurprisingly, this widening gap accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic as deep divisions over vaccines were developed to prevent the disease.
Democrats lost faith, too. Before the pandemic, 55% of Democrats had a great deal of trust in scientists, but today that percentage sits at 37%. However, they still have considerably more general trust in science, with 86% saying they have a fair amount of faith that they are working to benefit society.
Among Republicans, the area of sharpest decline was in their faith that science has a “mostly positive effect on society.” It has fallen from 70% in 2020 to just 47% today, Pew found. That compares to 69% of Democrats seeing scientific research and innovation as positive.
While losing faith in scientists, 78% of Americans still say government support of scientific research is important.
Aviva Phillip-Muller, Richard Petty, and Spike W.S. Lee are three professors who have studied why people distrust science. Their work has looked “at decades of research on attitudes, persuasion, social influence, social identity, and information processing.”
In a story published in “The Conversation,” they list four principal reasons people reject science:
1) Information comes from a source they perceive as non-credible. They may lack credibility because of perceived bias or association with the opposite political party. The scientific discovery process itself may have sown doubt that is now exploited.
Discovery happens through debate, trial and error, and experimentation that eventually leads to proof. However, people remember the early trial and error, not the eventual successful result.
2) Identity within social, religious, and political groups is the most powerful influence in our acceptance of information as trustworthy or wrong. Information that threatens our status within our chosen groups, that puts us at odds with those we share the most meaningful times in our lives, is rejected out of fear of becoming an outcast. Our pride is tied to those groups to which we belong.
3) When scientific information contradicts what people believe is true or good, they feel it is disturbing. They resolve their discomfort by simply rejecting the information’s source and the science behind it.
4) A basic trait of those who are inherently conservative and cautious is a higher intolerance for scientific research findings that create uncertainty. Liberals tend to be more open to new information and change, the researchers found.
We would add a fifth category – manipulation. It benefits foreign actors who would destabilize America’s effectiveness in the world to sow dissension and distrust through misinformation. They know from centuries of study of political persuasion, propaganda, and social manipulation the right triggers to influence those susceptible to doubt and conspiracy.
“Political forces are powerful contributors to anti-science attitudes. This is because politics can trigger or amplify all four of the key reasons for being anti-science,” the researchers say.
Why is this growing distrust so important to our future?
As has been shown on the issues of climate change and vaccinations, it takes only a few in the scientific community combined with the power of spreading misinformation on the internet, to create a powerful base of distrust.
Now a growing number of children aren’t being vaccinated against deadly diseases. Efforts to slow climate change are frustrated. As we lose faith in our institutions, we are more vulnerable to deceit. We become less tolerant of those who believe differently and more accepting of violence against them.