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26Dec 2013

Huffington Post Survey Says Americans Don’t Trust Scientists or Science Journalists. Should They?

Faye Flam

The Huffington Post apparently conducted a poll on whether people trusted scientists or science journalists. They found that “people have little faith,” as they put it in the headline to a piece about the results.

That news nugget may make you mad or it may make you sad, but if you look closely at what’s being presented, you’ll see there’s really nothing but a blank canvas upon which you can project your feelings.  Here’s the crux of the story:

In a new HuffPost/YouGov poll, only 36 percent of Americans reported having "a lot" of trust that information they get from scientists is accurate and reliable. Fifty-one percent said they trust that information only a little, and another 6 percent said they don't trust it at all.

Science journalists fared even worse in the poll. Only 12 percent of respondents said they had a lot of trust in journalists to get the facts right in their stories about scientific studies. Fifty-seven percent said they have a little bit of trust, while 26 percent said they don't trust journalists at all to accurately report on scientific studies.

It sounds bad, but there are a few key pieces of information we need to make sense of this poll. First, how does the level of trust in these professions compare to that in other professions? The story doesn’t say.

Second, has there been any change? Are people now distrustful whereas back in the good old days they were trustful? The story doesn’t say.

And most importantly, it’s not clear whether the survey respondents are saying they don’t trust scientists or science journalists no matter what, or simply that they don’t trust us until they see a good, logical argument backed by evidence.

If you asked me whether I trusted scientists, I’d say it depends. It is part of our job as journalists to question claims. The survey didn’t have “it depends on the logic of their argument and the strength of their evidence” as an option – the closest answer was probably the middle one, which is what most people checked off.

There’s no reason people should have blanket trust in journalists either. They should expect us to be clear and complete so they can follow the logic and evidence behind any given claim we’re presenting. But the poll doesn’t appear to offer anything along these lines as an answer.  

As it stands, there isn’t much real information in this poll or accompanying story about the public’s attitude toward science. It’s an empty box spun in a way to suggest we should be very upset because the poll has uncovered an erosion of public trust in scientists and science writers. 

If anything, a look out in to the real world would suggest the public is too trusting. Clearly many people trust Eben Alexander that he journeyed to heaven and back, since he’s a neurosurgeon, which isn’t really a scientist but sounds science-y. Or for a less obvious example, should we want people to trust Freeman Dyson when he tells us that we don’t need to worry about the environmental impact of fossil fuels because future generations will come up with a technological fix for global warming? He’s not just a scientist but a highly respected one.  

The problem may come down to a misplaced emphasis on trust. Trust isn’t really the right word to describe what scientists or science journalists should expect from the public.

For the most part, after all, scientists don’t trust other scientists. The may trust the scientific method, and they may trust the consensus view, but they demand evidence of their peers.

The beauty of good science is that you don’t have to trust scientists – the burden is on them to provide arguments based on reason, mathematics and evidence. Look at the mountains of evidence Charles Darwin piled up in “On the Origin of Species”. It was exhaustive and painstaking. If Darwin didn’t think he was entitled to automatic trust, why should anyone else?  

It may be tempting to associate lack of trust in scientists with climate denial or creationism. But climate deniers and creationists don’t necessarily distrust scientists. More likely, they simply trust the wrong ones - preferring Michael Behe to Richard Dawkins, or in the climate arena, trusting Richard Lindzen over Richard Alley.

In a world where all those outspoken characters wear scientist hats, what use is trust? What people need to navigate this complicated landscape is critical thinking. The untrusting, skeptical thinkers are more likely to reach the conclusion that humans share a common descent with all life, and that fossil fuel burning contributes to climate change. That’s where critical thinking will lead. Trust could lead you anywhere.

What’s rewarding for me is hearing someone say, “I never thought I could understand that topic, but your story made me realize I can.” Perhaps what we should be striving for is not encouraging people to put more trust us, but to put more trust in their own abilities to reason. 

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