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Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences; Board on Life Sciences; Division on Earth and Life Studies; Board on Science Education; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Trust and Confidence at the Interfaces of the Life Sciences and Society: Does the Public Trust Science? A Workshop Summary Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2015 Sep 23.

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Trust and Confidence at the Interfaces of the Life Sciences and Society: Does the Public Trust Science? A Workshop Summary

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3What Do We Know About Public Trust in Science

“We have to understand better what the perceived risks are—that suggests where we would go to look for the perceptions of trust.”

—Cary Funk

“When you talk about trust you have to know the way a group thinks , how they interact, how they communicate, how they educate. You have to know what their roles and relationships are. What are their values? Their practices? What are the expected behaviors?”

—Phyllis Pettit Nassi

Drawing from social science research, survey data, and experiences in community engagement, workshop speakers shared available evidence on public perceptions of science and the factors that may erode their trust.


“We know it pays to be mindful of trust because it's much easier to destroy than it is to build back up after it's eroded,” opened Cary Funk of the Pew Research Center. She noted that low levels of trust in government, the media, and the criminal justice system are examples of why it is important to be mindful of the role that trust plays in public debate. Funk shared data from several large public opinion surveys that provide insight into public perceptions about science and scientists. The data show “some good news and bad news,” about public trust in science, she said. First, the good news. Data on public confidence in institutions from General Social Survey8 demonstrates that confidence in the scientific community has remained relatively stable since 1973.9 “Trust does not look to be on the decline over time,” Funk said. The GSS data also show that 95% of surveyed individuals agree that scientists are “helping to solve challenging problems,” and 88% agreed that scientists are “dedicated people who work for the good of humanity,” (Figure 3-1). However, Funk emphasized that data suggests there may be an “ambivalence about science,” in the American public. In the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Life Sciences Surveys, 50% of respondents strongly or somewhat agree that, scientific research has created as many problems for society as it has solutions, and near 50% of respondents strongly or somewhat disagreed (Figure 3-1).

Figure 3-1. Confidence in the Scientific Community 1973 to 2013.

Figure 3-1

Confidence in the Scientific Community 1973 to 2013. Data from the General Social Survey on the percent of US adults that say they have a “great deal of confidence” in the in the people running these institutions. SOURCE: Funk Workshop (more...)

Figure 3-2. VCU Life Science Surveys on whether scientific research has created as many problems for society as it has solutions.

Figure 3-2

VCU Life Science Surveys on whether scientific research has created as many problems for society as it has solutions. Data collected between 2001 and 2010 that demonstrates a consistent near even divide in US public opinion about science. SOURCE: Funk (more...)

Funk also shared data from the GSS and VCU survey on perceived motives of scientists relative to other groups. These data suggest that scientists are more trusted than, for example, religious leaders10 or elected officials11. However, for select scientific topics, trust in the motives of scientists may not be particularly high. For example, in a 2001 VCU Life Sciences Survey, only 39% of respondents said they trust information on stem cell research “a lot” when it comes from scientific or medical researchers. However, this level of trust was higher than the 15% and 4% of respondents who reported that they had a lot of trust in the same information when it came from religious leaders and members of Congress, respectively. Funk interpreted other results as suggesting that the public may be anxious about the ability of scientists and government to ensure public safety and well-being around certain issues like genetic research. When taken as a whole, Funk emphasized that the data suggest there is trust in scientists' motives and expertise, but the members of the public are skeptical about specific issues and the ability of scientists and government to keep the public safe around those issues.


Phyllis Pettit Nassi of the Huntsman Cancer Institute shared her observations about public trust in science in the context of Native American History and Native Americans' experiences with majority culture in the United States. Nassi provided context to her remarks by explaining that culture shapes beliefs, customs, values, practices, roles, relationships, expected behaviors, and how people interact with each other. All of these factors influence peoples' trust in science. She said that in her work, which involves community-based health education and research, trust in science is critically important. Native culture respects traditional practices that contribute to survival, it emphasizes respect for, and understanding of the environment and the land, and it has a belief system in which spirituality is intimately connected to health. However, because of historical events, Native communities face multiple challenges today, including markedly less favorable health indicators, lower insurance coverage and educational attainment, and high smoking and poverty rates. Nassi pointed to the Indian Boarding School System—a federal policy that aimed to educate Indian children and assimilate them into European language and culture–as an example of historical trauma and unresolved grief in many Native communities that impacts their contemporary responses to scientists' efforts to conduct research in their communities. Historical experiences continue to challenge the communities' trust in mainstream U.S. institutions including research and healthcare, and these challenges are exacerbated by a multitude of cultural differences that impact how individuals and institutions interact with one another. Nassi contrasted differences between traditional culture and mainstream American culture (Box 3-1), and she said that these differences create meaningful challenges for trust in science.

Box Icon

BOX 3-1

Cultural Factors That Influence Trust in Science.

Referring to the challenges of conducting research in Native communities, Nassi explained, “It's harder because of our past…when anything has to do with the federal government, and that's where most [research] money comes from… there's that caution. There's that fear.” She stressed the need for adequate time to prepare for new projects, including getting to know the community and doing an adequate job of explaining the project. She said, “I ask for a year before we start anything. Become part of the community. We want to participate, but we're afraid of what has happened.” The object of distrust, “it's not the science, it's the scientists,” Nassi emphasized.


Declan Fahy of American University added to the discussion with his research on the rise of “celebrity scientists” and how these intermediaries help the public become more engaged in science12. Fahy focused on the careers of Carl Sagan, Stephen J. Gould and Neil deGresse Tyson as examples of the rise of “celebrity” scientists—scientists who are widely known to, and trusted by the lay public.

Before the public can trust science, it first needs to “make sense of science” Fahy said. Fahy described three levels of scientific literacy13 that contribute to the ability of members of the public to make sense of science:

  • Knowing basic science facts and ideas.
  • Knowing how science works, including knowledge about scientific thinking, the role that evidence plays in drawing conclusions, the different types of studies that are conducted in various research settings, and the peer-review process.
  • Knowing how science really works, which includes understanding competition among scientists, the role of uncertainty, evidence, and scientists' drive for excellence.

Fahy explained that the ability to facilitate an understanding of how science really works is a key aspect of why celebrity scientists like Sagan, Gould and deGrasse Tyson have enjoyed so much success as science communicators. He noted that Sagan is an early example of a scientist who took advantage of the “emerging media culture to take [his] message about science directly to public audiences.” Fahy said that Sagan's ongoing dialogue with the public was a dramatic departure from the traditional, inwardly-focused scientific communication described by Marcia Kean of Feinstein Kean Health Care. He emphasized that Sagan's openness toward the public is largely responsible for his enduring appeal.

But how do a few scientists become well-known, trusted figures while most remain unknown to the public? Fahy said that for celebrity scientists, “professional authority at the start [of their careers] is grounded in, and draws from science itself.” Both Gould and deGrasse Tyson established their expert authority in traditional academic settings before they started moving toward more public-facing interactions. Highlighting the dichotomy between the two settings, Fahy first discussed “expert culture”– the culture of academia, scientific journals, and specialized activities in which celebrity scientists first establish themselves as legitimate authorities in their respective fields. He then described a “public culture” involving citizens and groups that consume these ideas. Fahy said that over time, scientists like Gould and deGrasse Tyson became proficient at moving between the expert and public cultures, never losing their legitimacy in either.

One way that these scientists helped the public engage with science was by communicating directly with the public through non-academic publications. Both Gould and deGrasse Tyson wrote for Natural History magazine. In this role, Fahy said they enhanced public understanding of the scientific enterprise by describing how science develops, and by explaining concepts like uncertainty and the strength of evidence in ways that promoted scientific literacy and trust. He suggested that the ability of these scientists to write effectively for non-academic audiences was a critical aspect of their ability to bridge the gap between the expert and public cultures. By extending their legitimacy outward to embrace a wider audience of non-experts, these celebrity scientists were able to draw the public into science by helping it to understand “how science really works.”

Another way that these celebrity scientists helped bring the public into science was by voluntarily blurring the distinction between their public and private lives. DeGrasse Tyson's autobiography discussed the professional challenges he faced because of his race, and Gould shared his experiences as a cancer patient through his writing. Fahy explained that the scientists' willingness to share their stories demonstrated to the public that scientists are “regular people” whose personal concerns mirror their own. These shared experiences promoted trust in science because they forged experiential bonds between scientific figures and the public, a notable departure from the “golden circle” described by Kean. Fahy's concluding remarks stressed the importance of scientists' ability to move between expert and public cultures, particularly at a time when public discourse about science is heavily influenced by new, public-facing media and information sources with which scientists historically have little experience.


Tim Caulfield of the University of Alberta emphasized that discussions about the alleged “war on science” should begin with two questions:

  • Why don't some members of the public trust scientists when there is so much supporting evidence for their findings like with climate change and vaccine safety?
  • Why do people believe conspiracy theories such as the Food and Drug Administration is deliberately preventing the public from receiving cures for cancer14?

Caulfield discussed several interrelated factors that he believes may be contributing to an erosion of public trust, at least for some science issues. Some of the factors stem from the scientific community itself. The perception of some members of the public that the scientific process is not working stems from scholarly editorials15 and research publications16 that suggest that most findings in published scientific literature are not true or that “results are greatly exaggerated”, Caulfield said. Methodological shortcomings in study design, researcher's conflicts of interest, and inappropriate statistical analysis are a few of the concerns cited. Layered on top are “concerns about retractions” and the perception that “scientists cannot make up their minds” (Figure 3-3). Caulfield emphasized that repeated conflicting headlines in media, for example in health research, leads some members of the public to stop listening to health messages because the messages are perceived to be unreliable.

Figure 3-3. Conflicting Messages About Science.

Figure 3-3

Conflicting Messages About Science. Caulfield shared images conflicting headlines on the health effects of chocolate, eggs, red meat, red wine, and bacon to illustrate conflicting public messages about science. SOURCE: Caulfield Workshop Slide 12.

Some factors that may contribute to erosion of public trust in science stem from outside of the scientific community, such as hype and exaggeration of scientific findings by the media and scientific facts or advice given by popular non-scientist celebrities. For example “the popular press greatly exaggerates the definitiveness of vitamin D research.”17 Health advice given by celebrities also contributes to public confusion, noted Caulfield. For example, a systematic review on the advice given by Dr. Oz found that almost half of the TV celebrity's advice conflicts with scientific literature18. “When you have that kind of confused message around science, it is no surprise that the public is so incredibly confused”, Caulfield said.

Caulfield challenged workshop attendees to consider why the public should be expected to trust the scientific establishment when its leaders appear to have limited confidence in the peer-review process and the conflicting results it generates.

Overall, the information shared by speakers concerning what is known about public trust in science suggested a complex landscape in which personal characteristics like culture, religion, values, and personal histories—when combined with science's own shortcomings like inconsistent findings and conflict of interest–can promote lack of trust in both scientists and the scientific enterprise. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania talked about the concept of ethos, the ethics or credibility of a person, from classical literature. Ethos was thought to reside in the speaker and to the extent you were a person of good reputation, you increased your ethos. What the classics got wrong, she said, is the belief that credibility resides in a person and stays there; they failed to account for the fact that the audience brings its own values and can ascribe good or bad traits to the speaker. Trust can be taken away from a person over time. It's easier to make negative perceptions stick due to a phenomenon that social scientists call the “negative asymmetry of information.” For example, in the 2000 elections—Al Gore lost his credibility as his opponents sent out the message that he believed he invented the Internet.

Further using politics as an example, Jamieson said we elect presidents to act in unanticipated events. We want strong, competent, honest and trustworthy leaders whom we believe will act in our best interest. She thinks scientists, as communicators, need to convey warmth and competence better, traits associated with credibility and ultimately trustworthiness19. Jamieson said we're at a point that the adjectival traits of scientists are in question.—not “science” but “scientists.” She emphasized that no one is questioning the scientific method, they are questioning whether scientists adhere to it. All the things causing concern about science—such as the problem in being able to reproduce results in medical and other research--risk the good standing of the scientific enterprise.



The General Social Survey has gathered data on contemporary American society, including trends, attitudes, behaviors, and attributes, since 1972. “Confidence in the scientific community,” NORC at the University of Chicago, https:​//gssdataexplorer​


Smith, T.W. and J. Son, Trends in Public Attitudes about Confidence in Institutions. General Social Survey 2012 Final Report (NORC at the University of Chicago, 2013).


VCU Center for Public Policy, VCU Life Sciences Survey (VCU Life Sciences, 2001).


Smith TW and J. Son. 2013. General Social Survey 2012 Final Report. Trends in Public Attitudes about Confidence in Institutions. NORC, Chicago


Fahy, D., The New Celebrity Scientists. Out of the Lab and Into the Limelight (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2015).


Durant, J. “What is scientific literacy?” European Review 2, no. 1(January 1994): 83-39.


Oliver, J.S. and T. Wood. “Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States.” JAMA Internal Medicine 174, no. 5 (May 2014): 817-818.


Horton, R. “Offline: What is medicine's 5 sigma?” The Lancet 385, no. 9976 (April 2015): 1380.


Ioannidis, J.P.A. “Why most public research findings are false.” PLOS Medicine 2, no. 8 (August 2005): e124.


Caulfield, T.C., M.I. Clark, J.P. McCormack, C. Rachul, C.J. Field. “Representations of the health value of vitamin D supplementation in newspapers: media content analysis.” BMJ Open 4, no. 12 (December 2014): e006395.


Korownyk, C. et al. “Televised medical talk shows—what they recommend and the evidence to support their recommendations: a prospective observational study.” BMJ 349 (December 2014): g7346.


Fiske, S.T. and C. Dupree. “Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics.” Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences 111, suppl. 4 (April 2014): 13593–13597.

Copyright 2015 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK321981


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