Science has been doing something right in the last few years. That number is up over half, to 35 percent.(2)
What changed? The administration? Republicans can argue President Trump made "evidence-based" policy part of the lexicon, cutting off programs that didn't have proof showing they were helping the public and making EPA more transparent. Democrats can argue trust in science has surged because trust in government has declined during the Trump years.(3)
Regardless of how you choose to frame it, what is most comforting is that 86 percent of people at least have a fair amount of confidence in science. In these polarized times, there needs to be a place where people can come together.
But it isn't all balloons and ponies on both sides. When it comes to "a great deal of confidence" in science Democrats are 43 percent while Republicans have 27 percent - but both groups have less trust in academic science than the applied science fields.
Those numbers mean 15 percent of Democrats have a "great deal" of confidence while 10 percent of Republicans surveyed do. Neither is great in that context but I predict it will not be shown in its proper context, it will be framed as 43 versus 27 percent and I predict that will be highlighted by a whole lot of people in journalism with a political axe to grind, and some in science too.
That is a big part of the problem.
But first, let's look at why there is a difference at all. It probably has a sociological component, like politics, which is why I can predict with a great deal of confidence a small difference will be framed as a large one, and one that has nothing to do with science acceptance or science literacy. Democrats have more trust in all institutions (except corporations) than Republicans do, they even want more government, and academia is overwhelmingly Democrats. During the early President G.W. Bush years, blogging was still nascent and the curve of political skew in academic science that began in the 1970s was still trending down, so academics were somewhat limited in their ability to wear their politics on their sleeves. Fewer of them were also willing, but now those early activists have tenure, they are selecting employees who match their ideologies, and social media makes it easier than ever to talk about politics, which can make it transparent how much bias there is. Though fewer than half of academics say they are officially Democrats, only 6 percent will admit to being Conservative, which leaves a large swath of people who have never voted Republican but claim an Independent label.(4) The public knows this, and implicitly or overt, it undermines confidence in academic science as a neutral public good.
Given that, a "fair amount" of confidence will have to be good enough. It's even a welcome relief to see how high it is among Republicans, when they are trusting a demographic so keen to dislike them. What is the chance Democrats would give as fair a rating to Fox News, for example, as Republican do toward scientists?
Applied science is more trusted than academic
Applied sciences may have higher trust levels than those in basic research fields which dominate academia because the public has a generous definition of science. To the public, psychology, diets, social anthropology, sociology, etc. are considered science even though to scientists they lack fundamentals of science, such as a theoretical framework, scientific method, replication. etc. A working dietitian, for example, gets higher trust than an academic nutrition Ph.D. and people trust a doctor with a medical practice over a Johns Hopkins medical researcher. Only in environmentalism does practical expertise not matter; people who trust environmentalists trust academic environmental scientists as much.
One worrisome part is that politicization of science by the science community may have set policymaking back. Only a slight majority (54 percent, even among Democrats and Republicans) believe the public should be involved in policy decisions on scientific issues. Most say the issues are too complex. It's not too complex, the majority of the public are not dumb, people are being whipsawed by daily media accounts of some new doom, of government-funded epidemiologists claiming chemicals in our floors are killing us, and scientists being unwilling to call out other academics who are undermining confidence in published science but being eager to call out those outside their political party or others 'safe' to criticize, i.e., they won't have to see any of them in the hallway.
Given all that, it is a testament to Americans that trust in science has increased, because everything else about culture is working to lessen its credibility.
(1) If you know anything about the science literacy of the average person, and then consider 50 percent know even less, it is easy to feel good about 21 percent.
(2) Pew Research Center nationally representative survey conducted Jan. 7 to 21, 2019, among 4,464 adults 18 years of age or older who live in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is plus or minus 1.9 percentage points.
(3) Who's right? Both are. That is the nature of politics, it is like arguing about the behavior of ghosts when every random noise can be evidence. As a guy who co-wrote a bestselling book criticizing politicization of science I have noted the pox on both their houses. My concern about California's anti-vaccine movement in 2011 came to pass, even though surveys said the anti-vax movement was not happening on the west coast. That's because surveys are not behavior and I looked at data instead, where California had more vaccine exemptions than the rest of the country combined, almost all of it in coastal enclaves where some schools had vaccine uptake of under 30 percent in students. But on surveys, anti-vax people say they are pro-choice about vaccines, not opposed to them.
Climate change surveys also don't tell us much about actual denial. Republicans will more often deny climate change but instead say the science is on their side and that climate change is not a worry. Yet unlike with vaccines, in their behavior, they are no different than green Democrats. They recycle, they conserve energy, they care about the environment. No one cares about the environment as much as rural communities, and they voted Trump in 2016.
(4) When female academics have less than 50 percent of tenure slots at universities, there are claims of bias and demands to make positive changes, but when it comes to conservatives, excuses about individual choice flow easily. As if conservatives would not want $120,000 a year jobs for life where they can say anything and never be fired. Yet conservatives do not have it the worst when it comes to hidden bias against giving them jobs in schools - handicapped people do.