No wonder the public doesn't trust scientists.  Who'd trust these guys? (Wiredforlego)
No wonder the public doesn’t trust scientists. Who’d trust these guys? (Wiredforlego)

What do you call 5,000 scientists at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.

No, people aren’t yet replacing scientists for lawyers in these sorts of jokes. But if a new study out in Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by Fiske and Dupree turns out to be true, they may soon be.

In an online survey, people lumped scientists in with CEOs and lawyers in that all three are seen as highly competent but cold. All of these professions earn respect but not trust.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly why the public is so distrustful of scientists. Some of it undoubtedly comes from public figures who call into question established scientific facts.  Since they can’t dispute the science, they need to go after the scientist. Enough attacks like this and people will start to believe that scientists can’t be trusted (or even worse that facts can’t be trusted). This is especially obvious with discussions about global warming.

Of course, politicians aren’t the only reason. It doesn’t help that some scientists get their funding from sources with a vested interest in the outcome. Think scientists at tobacco or big oil companies. Nor does it help when scientists from big pharmaceutical companies cover up or skew results to sell their merchandise.

Not trustworthy? (Wikimedia Commons)
Not trustworthy? (Wikimedia Commons)

Turns out it isn’t just such obvious conflicts of interest that can cause distrust because of funding sources either. Academic scientists with no industry ties are distrusted by some because they get their funding from the government. And the public’s trust in the government is even lower than their trust in scientists!

Another problem is, as usual, the media. When they focus on the minority of scientists with conflicts of interest and/or who cheat, people may start to believe all scientists are like that. This is especially true when people have never met a scientist in real life.

And there is the usual problem of scientists being prickly and hard to understand. And…the list can go on and on.

But whatever the reasons, there will be a temptation by scientists to ignore their growing unpopularity. After all, they will probably get to continue to design experiments and solve some of the fundamental mysteries of life, the universe and everything no matter what the public thinks of them.

This head-in-the-sand approach would be a big mistake for lots of reasons. One is that public mistrust may eventually translate into less funding and so less science. But the biggest reason is that a mistrust of scientists and science will have profound effects on our future.

Ignoring Science at Your Own Peril

Science often reveals things we don’t want to hear (inconvenient truths). In these cases, scientists need to be able to explain the science so that people will see what needs to be done to ensure a happy and healthy future. This is much harder to do if people don’t trust the messenger.

Distrust of scientists is affecting our ability to deal with global warming. (Wikimedia commons)
Distrust of scientists is affecting our ability to deal with global warming. (Wikimedia commons)

An example of this is global warming. No one really wants to give up fossil fuels.They are relatively cheap, we have an infrastructure in place to get most people the energy and power they need, and fossil fuels have worked out pretty well for the last century or two.

Unfortunately, they are responsible for at least some part of global warming. And global warming could be very, very bad (rising seas, dead corals, famine, disease, biodiversity loss and so on).

Given these facts, we really should be talking about what to do next. We could decide that the economic costs of eliminating fossil fuels are higher than the costs of dealing with the consequences or we could decide that we need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels. If we go with the latter, then we need to decide how quickly to transition to an economy powered by something other than fossil fuels.

This isn’t happening. Instead, at least partly because of a distrust of scientists, we are wasting our time discussing whether global warming is due to anything humanity is doing. (And before that we wasted our time discussing whether global warming was real at all.) And global warming isn’t the only issue like this.

Vaccination rates in some parts of the country (including Marin County) are getting dangerously low.  If they fall much lower, there may not be enough people vaccinated to prevent outbreaks and protect those who can’t or won’t be vaccinated. This is despite the fact that science has shown conclusively that vaccines are very safe and do not cause problems like autism.

Both of these problems (as well as others) result at least partly from some people not trusting scientists. The mistrust of scientists is affecting our future in potentially dangerous ways.

What this means is that it is imperative that scientists regain the public’s trust. Part of this is not under their control. Scientists can’t do much about politicians or the media bashing the profession to get ahead but Fiske and Dupree do suggest a few things scientists might be able to do.

Warmer Scientists

Regaining trust is never easy but scientists do start out with the advantage of being seen as competent. So it should be easier for them than for some of the low competence, low trust professions. Here are some suggestions based on the findings in the study:

Do not advertise your political leanings. People tend to trust people like them and since most scientists are left-leaning, this means that many conservatives don’t necessarily trust them. The obvious answer is to focus on the science not on your own politics.

Better legos are a start. (Wikimedia Commons)
Better legos are a start. (Wikimedia Commons)

Teach don’t persuade. People distrust scientists who try too hard to persuade. One idea would be to present the facts and let people decide instead of telling them what to think. This will take a lot of work since communicating the science in an understandable way is not in the wheelhouse of most scientists.

Be clear about your funding sources. This is the big one. If people don’t trust a scientist’s funding source, they won’t trust the scientist or his or her findings.

For this scientists need to not only be very clear about who their funding source is, but also why it won’t affect their results. For example, imagine a vaccine scientist who reports that she receives funding from the NIH. This scientist thinks she has done enough but for some people she may not have.

Many people think that the government and big pharmaceutical companies are in cahoots and so telling your audience you are funded by the government may not be that helpful. Instead, the scientist might want to emphasize how big pharmaceutical companies have little interest in vaccines because they aren’t big moneymakers or something along those lines to show why government funding is OK.

Scientists are people too. An active campaign to humanize scientists couldn’t hurt either. This might not seem relevant until you think about what arguments about funding sources are actually saying about what people think of scientists.

If the thousands of vaccine scientists were just interested in funding and vaccines really were bad, then these scientists are putting millions of kids at risk just to keep their funding. Same thing with the thousands of climate scientists. If humanity is not impacting the environment, then climate scientists are willing to risk the world’s economy just to secure their funding.

Talk about a lack of trust! If any of this were true, scientists would quite simply be some of the worst people in the world. And of course, they aren’t.

This troubling trend needs to be halted and even reversed. Scientists have a lot of work to do to regain the public’s trust but it will be well worth it. Both for scientists and the public.

Why Scientists are Seen as Competent but Untrustworthy (and Why it Matters) 6 October,2014Dr. Barry Starr

  • Blüdbjorn the Fortitudinous

    “When they focus on the minority of scientists with conflicts of interest
    and/or who cheat, people may start to believe all scientists are like

    You mean like Wakefield? Oh, wait. He’s a persecuted hero. My bad.



Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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