Public Confidence in Science Is High, but Declining

Mental ArithmeticWe can point to any number of symptoms. The rise of measles because of skepticism about vaccination comes to mind. Certainly, we hear from people who reject scientific concepts about obesity. So it’s no surprise to us that a new report in PNAS documents high but declining public confidence in science.

Arthur Lupia, David Allison, and colleagues authored the analysis. They note these trends mirror broader trends of declining confidence in public institutions. Nonetheless, they tell us that we have important opportunities to strengthen public belief in science.

Critical Transparency and Objectivity

Lupia et al are quite clear that the answer to this trend is not to insist on casting out skepticism:

“In particular, efforts to increase public confidence in science should not be premised on the assumption that society would be better off with higher levels of uncritical trust in the scientific community. Indeed, uncritical trust in science would violate the scientific norm of organized skepticism and be antithetical to science’s culture of challenge, critique, and self-correction.

“Instead, researchers, scientific organizations, and the scientific community writ large need to redouble their commitment to conduct, communicate, critique, and – when an error is found, or misconduct detected – correct the published record in ways that both merit and earn public confidence. These actions are needed especially with societal and technological changes regularly provoking and amplifying questions about the trustworthiness of scientific activity.”

In this, they are precisely correct. Any effort of persuasion is most effective when you give them strong reasons to believe. Merely telling people what you want them to believe can be counter-productive.

Robust Confidence in an Age of Cynicism

Yes, we take heart from the fact that confidence in science is high relative to almost every other public institution. Elected officials, business leaders, journalists, and religious leaders all inspire much lower levels of confidence.

A tension between cynicism and skepticism is stronger than ever in public sentiment. To build trust in this age requires objectivity that welcomes skepticism, and transparency that removes any reason for cynicism. This is how we make progress in the embrace of science.

Click here for the paper by Lupia et al, here, here, and here for further perspective.

Mental Arithmetic, painting by Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky / WikiArt

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March 11, 2024

One Response to “Public Confidence in Science Is High, but Declining”

  1. March 11, 2024 at 10:24 pm, Allen Browne said:


    I like – “ To build trust in this age requires objectivity that welcomes skepticism, and transparency that removes any reason for cynicism. ”