Survey Says: In Science We Trust
    By Becky Jungbauer | October 4th 2010 02:19 PM | 7 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Becky

    A scientist and journalist by training, I enjoy all things science, especially science-related humor. My column title is a throwback to Jane


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    A new poll by Nature and Scientific American, out in SA's October 2010 issue, notes that scientists have had a tough year - the "leaked 'Climategate' e-mails painted researchers as censorious," the H1N1 outbreak "led to charges that health officials exaggerated the danger to help Big Pharma sell more drugs," and the Harvard investigation that found holes in a professor's data. Nature and SA wanted to know - does the public1 still trust scientists?

    The two polled readers using an internet survey on their Web sites, and more than 21,000 people responded.2 Here are the results:

    How much do people trust what scientists say?

    Surprisingly, a lot, and more so than friends or family or non-governmental organizations. Trust by topic was equally eye-opening - evolution scored the highest (how much people trust what scientists say about evolution), while flu pandemics scored the lowest.

    I was surprised by the topics on the bottom of the list - and that people trust what scientists say more about vitamins and supplements than depression drugs or flu pandemics,3 especially given that depression drugs are FDA-regulated but vitamins are not. I wonder whether respondents read this as "pharmaceutical company scientists" or pharmaceutical scientists unaffiliated with Big Pharma. I'm definitely going to trust the latter more than the former, given the underlying impression of conflict of interest.

    I thought the level of trust in elected officials and religious authorities was interesting - scientists in the U.S. are typically painted as liberal, democratic, atheist/agnostic, but not all are. This was a global survey, so people are coming from ex-U.S. countries and contexts.

    Build Labs, Not Guns

    Given the liberal brush with which scientists are painted, I suppose this next result didn't surprise me. But I highly doubt anything will come of it, given the money and power defense departments hold.

    The graphic shows, by country, what respondents think should be first to go in tough economic times ("If science funding were to be protected, which spending areas should be cut instead?"). The orange bars are defense spending, with an average of 75 percent of respondents selecting this option. The yellow bars are social welfare (selected by 15 percent of respondents worldwide). The purple bars are education, selected by only 3 percent of respondents worldwide.

    A Tale of Three Nations

    The survey asked whether scientists should be involved in politics, and three countries - the U.S., Germany, and China - were compared with the rest of the world. Germany's Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has an honorary doctorate in quantum chemistry, and many of China's leaders are engineers. Yet Germans think scientists should get involved in politics (only 8 percent said scientists should stay out of politics), while Chinese do not - 45 percent said scientists should stay out of politics.

    Given the number of political issues that need to be addressed in the
    coming years that are directly impacted by science - climate, energy,
    health, technology - I would think scientists should play a larger role.

    Investing in science

    This is the most "well, duh" result of the survey, given the respondents' demographics. A majority think investment in basic science lays the foundation for future economic growth, and is one of the best ways to stimulate the economy and create jobs. I don't know of many scientists that think, "Eh, let's cut science funding and go whole hog in underwater basket-weaving."

    Fears about technology

    What technological efforts need to be reined in, or at least closely monitored? This one had a few surprises, at least in my opinion.

    I'd think that nanotech wouldn't be scary, as so many people across so many fields use it. I was also surprised by the percent nervous about GM crops, but the question said environmental and health risks - I think if the survey split the two out, asking about environmental risks and then asking about health risks, the numbers would change.

    Us Vs. Them

    Europe and the U.S. differ on comfort with risks associated with nuclear power and GM crops, but are pretty on par with risks associated with nanotech.

    Denial Isn't a River in Egypt

    There seems to be an uptick in the number of people who are more certain than less certain that humans are changing the climate. But there are still a sizable number of people that are less certain, and a big chunk of people whose views have not changed. (And finally the U.S. isn't at the bottom of the heap in something - France and Japan have bigger percents of people who are less certain climate change is caused by humans.)

    The magenta-colored pieces indicate views have not changed - worldwide, that's about 46 percent. The orange pieces indicate the respondent is more certain that humans are changing the climate - 40 percent. The yellow piece indicates people are more doubtful that humans are affecting climate change - 14 percent. The ratio of more to less certain respondents, worldwide at 2.9, is highest in Italy and China (tied at 3.8) and lowest in Japan (1.6).


    The main takeaway from this poll is that the scientific community isn't uniform in its beliefs, and where you're from definitely affects your opinions. Other than that, I don't think you can use this poll for much of anything - the polling audience is anything but random. Less than one percent of the population has a Ph.D. degree (overall, so even fewer with scientific Ph.Ds), and this survey has 19 percent of respondents with a Ph.D. Plus the poll was conducted online on two scientific Web sites. The argument can be made that people going to the Scientific American site are probably less scientifically "educated" than those going to Nature, but they still have an interest and some level of scientific literacy.

    Still, the idea is interesting, and the results show that not all scientists think alike.

    1 Caveat: the scientifically-literate public
    2 Obviously, you are going to get a more scientifically literate audience, and possibly a more scientifically biased (predisposed toward science in a positive manner) audience, given the source of the poll. In fact, SA notes, 19 percent of respondents had a Ph.D. Attitudes did differ among respondents, though, so just because you read up on science doesn't mean you feel the same way as the next person. The replication of this survey among the general lay public would likely be really difficult; results for the current survey cannot be extrapolated to represent the whole world's view.
    3 A note on flu pandemics - in the U.S., 69 percent of respondents trusted
    what scientists say about the topic, while in Europe only 31 percent of
    respondents trust scientists. Members of the WHO panel that recommended
    stockpiling antiretrovirals had ties to pharma, and this revelation had
    a LOT of coverage in Europe, whereas there was little fanfare in the


    Junk data is junk.

    I read this exact same article on the train a couple weeks ago and I didn't even bother to finish it. I already knew the outcome. The minor details aren't really that important.

    I'm surprised that something like this made it past the editors. It's just a bad study/survey all around.

    It's a survey of some pretty specific groups - these were all obviously readers of Nature Publishing Group publications so some of the results were predictable.  But what was the flaw in the methodology compared to any other survey?  They included journal-only subscribers and then a pop science magazine (likely only subscribers for SciAm, I don't know) so some of the results were more obvious - a strong acceptance of evolution and then a gradual decrease in belief as more money becomes involved in the issue, like drugs and flu vaccines.
    "1 Caveat: the scientifically-literate public" Can't help wondering how much recency plays a part in surveys like this? With so much changing in Science research/teaching/general media, as well as the earlier versions taught to earlier generations, to me the results are at best patchy, inconsistent and unreliable.... Just like those surveyed .. One person's Science is another's BS Which consensus of Science, if any are 'the public' to rely on? Aitch
    "Angela Merkel, has an honorary doctorate in quantum chemistry"

    Her degree checks out alright - she was actually researching, too. It is not just an honorary degree.
    Becky Jungbauer
    You are correct; she is published and everything. I should have clarified. Thankfully intelligent people are in power in some countries, which is more than I can say for a huge chunk of the U.S.
    Nice, but if Nature&Scientific American (Nature Publishing Group) really wanted to get a feel for how the general public thinks, surveying visitors to their sites is not the right way to go about it...readers of SA and Nature are hardly a representative sample of the general public. All this really tells us is what readers of Nature and SA think. That said, it's an interesting poll in that even this audience(SA & Nature readers) clearly exhibits a comparatively high level of concern about possible environmental impacts of genetically modified crops - a little surprising, in fact. The contrast between the US and Europe is especially striking.
    Becky Jungbauer
    I agree with you - I want to know what the general public thinks! And the GM crop result surprised me too.