Americans Don’t Trust Scientists, New Research Claims

A great number of the world’s most prominent scientists come from the United States, including James Watson, Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, to name a few. The country has also achieved some of the greatest scientific innovations in history, including the Polio vaccine and the first manned mission to the moon. The U.S. contributes more than any other country to the advancement of science, despite the fact that a significant portion of their population rejects some of the most basic facts of the field.

Scientific facts like the theory of evolution remain controversial topics in some parts of the U.S., despite evidence their validity. Although politics and religion may have caused a significant number of people in the United States to refuse to acknowledge these important facts, another angle might be able to explain why some people in the U.S. do not believe these scientific truths despite the mountain of evidence behind them. According to researchers from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, the answer is simple – Americans simply do not trust scientists.

The institute’s review was published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and was first reported by phys.org. According to the reviewers, Americans do respect scientist and believe them to be competent. However, they are not entirely trusted, mainly because they do not appear to be “friendly” or “warm”.

Susan Fiske, psychologist and lead author of the review, says this can be explained by the possibility that some Americans tend to see scientists as having an agenda.

“Scientists have earned the respect of Americans but not necessarily their trust. But this gap can be filled by showing concern for humanity and the environment. Rather than persuading, scientists may better serve citizens by discussing, teaching and sharing information to convey trustworthy intentions.”

To arrive at their conclusions, Fiske and her team asked a group of participants to list down typical American professions. Among the most common listed by the participants were the job titles “teacher,” “nurse,” engineer,” “professor,” “doctor” and “scientist.” Fiske involved a different group of respondents to rate each profession based on how they think the general American public perceive them regarding warmth and competence.

The respondents rated teachers, nurses and doctors as warm and competent because they evoked emotions of pride and admiration. Garbage collectors, prostitutes and dishwashers, on the other hand, were rated as being cold and incompetent. Scientists and engineers were seen as competent but not warm because they evoke emotions of envy and distrust, according to the researchers.

To solve the growing American distrust of their scientists, Fiske suggests that scientists need to change their tone, from being a persuasive one to becoming one like a teacher – ready to teach and discuss with the general members of the public.

Fiske added that the people’s negative feelings towards scientists aren’t necessarily born out of ignorance.

[Image from U.S. Army REDCOM/Flickr]