September 24, 2021

Do you trust science? These five factors play a big role

Thousands march in Washington, D.C. to fight for science.

Vlad Tchompalov/Unsplash

SEATTLE—Are you excited about that new migraine treatment you saw in a TV ad, or do you need more information? Do you trust news outlets when they say your risk of catching the novel coronavirus is low, or would you rather hear it from a government official? 

How you answer questions like these could determine how much trust you put into science, when other factors such as gender, education level, and cultural background are taken into account. That’s according to a presentation made yesterday at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science.


Here are the five factors that matter most:

The scientific topic

In an analysis published by Pew Research earlier this week, Cary Funk, the director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center, asked a representative sample of the public and scientists who are AAAS members about scientific topics ranging from animal research to childhood vaccines. While the public and scientists agreed on some topics, like whether the International Space Station was a good investment (64% of the public and 68% of scientists say it is), they vastly differed on their views of genetically modified (GM) foods. Only 37% of the general public said they felt that GM foods are generally safe to eat, compared with a whopping 88% of scientists.

Your persona 

In a separate study, Kyle Block, a global market researcher at Gradient Metrics, a data analytics company, and colleagues used a set of 43 questions to understand key differences in U.S. personas. These included ranking their level of agreement with statements like: My city council should make more decisions based on scientific thinking; As I grow older, I’ve become less interested in the world around me; and I’m comfortable publically admitting when I’m wrong. 

The answers allowed the team to establish six “mindset” groups ranging from people who prefer “stories over statistics” to “truth warriors” who think it is our ethical duty to be informed about science. The results revealed the different motivations people have when deciding whether or not to trust science. Those in “stories over statistics” group, for example, were more likely to make a decision based on intuition and anecdotes, while the “truth warriors” look for evidence that cannot be refuted. This methodology could serve as a resource that scientific outreach groups like the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative can use as a starting point for developing a tailored approach to engaging with the public on science.

Your gender and culture 

Globally, men perceive themselves to be more knowledgeable about science than women. But this doesn’t necessarily equate to higher scientific understanding and literacy among men. That’s according to the Wellcome Global Monitor report presented by Patrick Sturgis, a professor of quantitative social science at the London School of Economics. The disparity between genders was highest in Northern Europe, where men were 17% more likely than women to say they know “some” or “a lot” about science. 

This disparity was notably lower in the Middle East, where men were just 3% more likely to say they knew “some” or “a lot” about science. North America fell at the mid-lower end of the spectrum, with men 7% more likely than women to say they knew “some” or a “lot” about science. Globally, this gap was not significantly impacted by education levels, indicating that social factors such as relative self-confidence might be more important than a science education. 

Your political party  

Your political party affiliation might impact your perception of how science works, according to the data presented by Funk. While this difference is negligible among Republicans and Democrats with a low amount of scientific knowledge, 40% of Republicans with a high amount of scientific knowledge (as based on an 11-item survey) said that the scientific method can be used to produce any conclusion the researcher wants, rather than accurate results. In contrast, just 14% of Democrats with high scientific knowledge fell into this category, with 86% saying the scientific method produces accurate results. 

The messenger

The public also has higher perceived levels of trust in certain professional groups that typically communicate science over others, according to the report presented by Sturgis. While 83% of the public is likely to believe scientific advice that comes from a doctor and a nurse, only 55% said they trust scientific information when it comes from a government source.

Overall, Funk said at the meeting, “we need to be more flexible when thinking about how to reach the ground level with the public.” Only through understanding the mindsets of individual groups and tailoring outreach methods accordingly can scientists make a measurable impact on public trust of science.

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