Sun. Oct 2nd, 2022
Image of a collection of research sample tubes.

Marcel Kusch/Getty Images

In recent years, the Pew Research Center has monitored the American public’s views on scientists and science-related issues. This year’s survey finds a continuation of a worrying trend: The American public has growing trust in scientists, but that is mainly due to increased respect among Democrats.

The timing of the survey was such that Pew was able to add a number of questions about the COVID-19 pandemic and the policy response to it. The parties also showed differences in their views on policy responses, as you would expect. But they also differ in how they view simple, easily confirmed facts.

Some good news, some bad news

Pew has been researching a group of more than 10,000 US residents for four years, balanced to reflect the country’s demographics. The number is high enough to give a very good representation of public opinion, and the length of time is now sufficient to see consistent trends rise above annual swings. This makes it a fantastic resource for following the public’s changing perceptions of science and its role in society.

Some of that change is clearly positive. When asked whether they were confident that scientists would act in the public interest, 39 percent had a lot, and another 48 had a decent amount. That’s up from 21 percent/55 percent just four years ago. When asked the same question about medical researchers, 43 percent were very confident, and another 46 percent were fair, compared to 24/60 in 2016. Growth over that time has been steady, indicating that this was not a one-off increase due to the pandemic.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the shift has been driven entirely by people who identify as or lean toward Democrats. Republicans are not part of the growing support for the research community.

Over the past four years, confidence in researchers has grown among Democrats, but not Republicans.
enlarge Over the past four years, confidence in researchers has grown among Democrats, but not Republicans.

Pew Research

Those positive views are accompanied by a shift in the role of science and scientists in policy issues related to the field. Just a year ago, just over half of the public believed that public opinion should play an important role in guiding scientific policy decisions. This year, 55 percent of the survey group thought that public opinion should not have to play an important role, largely choosing the answer “because these problems are too complex”. Accordingly, 60 percent of participants felt that scientists should play an active role in shaping these policy decisions.

But again, this view was much more common among Democrats. Seventy-five percent of them advocated that scientists participate in policy decisions, and 60 percent believed that scientific experts are better at making these decisions. In contrast, only a third of Republicans thought scientists are better.

Pandemics and Facts

It is clear that the ongoing pandemic has made science-oriented policy decisions a major concern. But here, as elsewhere, people filter their decision-making through the lens of bias. There is now strong evidence that social distancing policies are reducing the rate of new infections. But less than half of Republicans think this is the case; nearly 70 percent of Democrats, on the other hand, do. In testing, the gap is similar, but even wider. Seventy-five percent of Democrats think our testing capacity is too low, a conclusion shared by many experts. Only a little over a third of Republicans do.

More broadly, Republicans are hesitant to point out reasons for the ongoing spread of the pandemic in the US. Most Democrats, on the other hand, cite the virus itself, our lack of testing and the lack of effective social distancing.

Democrats are more willing to point out reasons for the virus spreading than Republicans.
enlarge Democrats are more willing to point out reasons for the virus spreading than Republicans.

Pew research.

But the most striking feature of the partisan rift is that it extends to basic facts. It is well known that the US has the most cases of all countries so far. Even if we adjust to a per capita measure, the US puts the US above any country other than Spain, which is about to eclipse it. Among Democrats, two-thirds believe that the number of cases in the US is higher than in most other countries, while acceptance is increasing among the highly educated. However, among Republicans, only 30 percent do, and nothing changes as education levels rise.

It is purely factual that the US has more SARS-CoV-2 infections than other countries.  Yet there is a partisan division about it.
enlarge It is purely factual that the US has more SARS-CoV-2 infections than other countries. Yet there is a partisan division about it.

Pew Research

About the only place the two sides agree is that state governments have had more science-oriented policy responses than the federal government.

So overall, the big picture is good: the public continues to trust scientific experts to serve the interests of the public and is generally in favor of a greater role for science in policy making. These trends already existed before the pandemic and the crisis has done little to change them. But beneath that picture lurks a disturbing trend, with just one party becoming increasingly familiar with scientific input on policy issues and a widening gap in willingness to accept information generated by scientific analysis.

But there is good news, in that younger Republicans are much more moderate in their views of scientists, falling somewhere between their elders and Democrats.

By akfire1

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