Trusting science in an age of distrust

Trusting science in an age of distrust

The results of three European surveys of public perception of science from Germany, Switzerland and Sweden break some urban myths

What does trust in science actually mean and why is it key? Trust becomes especially important when people cannot fully control a technology or scientific innovation. Indeed, trust “rests not only on the assumption that one is dependent on the knowledge of others who are more knowledgeable, it also entails a vigilance toward the risk to be misinformed,” according to the authors of a book entitled, Trust in Science and the Science of Trust edited by Bernd Blöbaum, professor of science communication at the University of Münster, Germany. Today, it is unlikely that we know the scientists who worked on a specific project or an innovation personally in most cases. Therefore, trust in the context of science and research is often rather trust in the system of science, in its institutions, rules and methods.

One way to assess trust in science is through public surveys of citizens’ attitudes towards science and research. Recently, the results from national surveys of about 1,000 people each in GermanySweden and Switzerland were presented on 22nd of November 2017 at public event in Brussels. Their findings show a clear ambivalence of people towards science and the applications of research, which overall show distrust towards scientists motives rather than about science itself.

Conflicting views

In most cases, in every day life, people trust the application of research–be in their car, while using their smartphones or taking novel medicines. People do not question whether the brakes in their cars work. Nor do they lack confidence in whether a digital message gets delivered. And people do not question whether a pill entails the right substances and if it is safe. People trust the researchers who developed their car and those who designed their smart phone. They also trust the methods applied for the development of new pharmaceuticals.

Yet, people in all three countries surveyed display ambiguous relationships with trust in science and research.

On the one hand, the number of respondents who state that they do not trust science and/or research is quite low–between five and ten percent. In all three surveys, between 50% and 60% of respondents say that they rather or completely trust science. Furthermore, and despite current discussions about decreasing trust in scientific expertise and experts, these numbers have remained stable over the years.

Selective trust

On the other hand, the number of people being undecided vis-a-vis their trust towards science is quite remarkable. It is also higher than for any other questions included in the surveys.

Comparisons between countries have to been drawn carefully because each survey uses different methodologies. However, these three surveys lead to interesting observations. For example, people distrusting science can be found within all age groups and both among men and women. Only people’s level of education make a difference–which is only small, in some cases–with better educated respondents trusting science more.

What remains unclear is why some people have such distrust.

The surveys deliver some answers to this question. For example, the German science barometer shows that distrust in scientists stems from the fact that people mostly question the motives – rather than the expertise or the integrity – of scientists. For example, 76% of respondents agreed rather or fully that the dependency on funders is one reason for distrusting scientists, in the latest survey wave in July 2017.

In addition, only a small minority of people surveyed in Germany the previous year in 2016 declared to trust the statements from scientists on GMOs– with 17% recorded –when asked about such specific issue.

Scientists perception

Furthermore, no all scientists are equal in the view of the public. Indeed, the Swedish and Swiss survey show that scientists’ affiliation matters. Scientists at universities are trusted more than scientists working for industry.

In the case of the Swedish survey, the focus has been on trust in researchers, specifically. The survey includes a question on trust in research in general in 2017. It was followed by an open-ended question asking the respondents to explain their reasons for choosing that specific level of confidence. Those with the lowest levels of trust justified it by saying that they had a lack of personal knowledge to have an opinion on the matter. Or others suggested that their distrust was linked to the fact that money or different agendas are driving the research.

By contrast, reasons for having a high level of trust relate to personal qualities of researchers. Others mentioned that they cannot but trust researchers. The people positioned at the “middle level” thought so because of the shifting quality of research. However, the most common answer was that respondents were not able to verbalise a specific reason.

Relative confidence

Taking all of these results together suggests that we might not face a crisis of trust in science yet.

However, doubts with regard to some research-related topics definitely exist among citizens in the countries surveyed. Some relatively small segments of the population even distrust researchers and their motives generally, leading to a low trust in science, which may erode further.

Ricarda Ziegler

Ricarda is a strategy officer at the German science communication organisation Wissenschaft im Dialog. She is also responsible for the German science barometer.

Mike S Schäfer

Mike is professor of science communication at the University of Zürich, Switzerland, where he is also director of the Center for Higher Education & Science Studies (CHESS).

Maria Lindholm

Maria is director of research at VA (Vetenskap & Allmänhet – Public & Science), a Swedish CSO dedicated to stimulate dialogue and openness between science and society.

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One thought on “Trusting science in an age of distrust”

  1. Congratulations for the information about the book “Trust in Science and the Science of Trust” edited by Bernd Blöbaum, it is a pity that the public opinion has confidence in unresponsible opinions widely published in press and and networks, ignoring the mass of scientific knowledge.
    Obviously, the education in schools does not prepare the citizens to a correct appreciation of the best source of information.