Image credit: (source)

A new review from Princeton University indicates that, while Americans believe that scientists are informed and educated, they also believe that scientists are untrustworthy.

Over the course of the last few days, the internet has been abuzz in light of a new review published by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. The review, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), has been cast as a document which reveals that Americans hesitate to trust scientists—despite the fact that scientists are seen as being educated and intelligent. Reports go on to state that, while the review indicates that scientists, over all, are not trusted, they are particularly not trusted if they appear to be pushing a particular political or social agenda or if they do not appear “warm” and “friendly.”

And this is the story that got plastered across the headlines…

Image credit: Snip from Google News search for “scientists trustworthy”

This raises some interesting questions. For example, if we cannot trust experts in the field if they are arguing in favor of a particular agenda, who exactly are we to trust? Who is more qualified to speak on particular social and political issues than experts whose work directly impacts these issues? But though these are important questions, there are larger concerns.

Namely, the findings do not seem to indicate that scientists are unfriendly or untrustworthy. 

Breaking Down the Data

Lead author Susan Fiske, who is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and a professor of public affairs, used an online survey in an attempt to discover whether or not previous studies on Americans’ perceptions of scientists are accurate. In her article, Fiske notes that scientists are seen as being educated and competent, and she asserts that “distrust is low.” Yet, in the abstract, she writes, “Scientists have earned audiences’ respect, but not necessarily their trust,” which seems like a slightly misleading assertion given the ultimate findings. However, throughout the rest of the article, Fiske provides an honest breakdown of the data and its significance.

Indeed, in the rest of the paper, Fisk notes that scientists fall in the middling range. They are not the warmest or most trusted, but they are generally respected and given serious consideration. The below graph shows where scientists fall.

American adults completed an online survey rating common jobs on their public images of being warm and trustworthy as well as competent and capable. The graph above displays how standard professions are perceived by Americans. (Credit: Susan Fiske/Princeton University)

Fish also attempted to provide a viable way forward in light of her findings: “This gap [in trust] 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.”

Ultimately, Fiske’s research does not show that scientists are seen as a blight by Americans. Instead, her research demonstrates that, although expertise is an essential ingredient for credibility, appearing trustworthy is equally as important. To this end, her review reinforces the idea that humans have evolved to detect (and focus on) an individual’s intent—we try to determine intent first in order to quickly separate friend from foe. As a result, the public may perceive scientists that do not agree with their own ideas as being cold and uncaring. This makes it less likely that the scientist will be trusted.

Thus, Fiske’s research is valuable in that she argues (and reinforces the idea) that scientists need to present their research in a friendly way and, perhaps, in a matter that caters to the beliefs or assumptions of their audience (as this will make them more likely to be viewed as “warm” and, therefore, trustworthy). In the end, it has to do with rhetoric, with how scientists present both themselves and their research. And Fiske’s research raises some very valid concerns.

Press releases, scientific publications, lectures…they all have very large audiences. It is nearly impossible to cater to the needs (beliefs) of all individuals in the audience, which makes it very difficult for the scientist to know how to communicate effectively. Moreover, if the expert is not able to offer suggestions or comment on the significance in relation to the wider culture for fear of disagreements and distrust, individuals will have to wade by themselves through (very often) murky and convoluted waters. Given these issues, the study can be used as a notable focal point to prompt discussions on how scientists should communicate with the public.

In short, Fiske asserts that scientists are generally trusted, but that they need to try and appear warmer, more compassionate, and less argumentative—they should convey empathy for the natural world and for humanity. It is a simple, straightforward assertion…so one has to wonder where Princeton got their headline.

Image via

The Princeton Review

In the press release from Princeton, it states:

…scientists, engineers and lawyers are seen as competent, but they are not seen as warm. This brings forth emotions like envy and distrust among Americans. Other professions, like writers, police men and bus drivers, are relatively neutral in terms of both warmth and competence.

This is slightly confusing as, looking at the graph, it is clear (or it seems clear, if the graph is accurate) that scientists actually rank higher than police officers when it comes to warmth and trustworthiness. Indeed, scientists are seen as just about average (and as Fiske notes, individual’s views varied depending on what specific field the scientist was in. As such, some scientists fell above, and some below, the middle mark).

The Way Forward

The irony of a study on trust being cast in a (somewhat) misleading light does not escape me. However, I hesitate to state that the review was intentionally cast in a way that is sensationalist and misleading. From personal experience, I know that other readers scrutinize headlines must more than the author does, and I know that the author is not always aware of how headlines will be interpreted. As a result, unjust accusations of clickbaiting abound. But nevertheless, we can all acknowledge that (to a greater or lesser degree) this is an issue.

So where are we to go from here?

Scientists (and universities) want their studies to be read. People do not want to read studies unless they are saying something interesting. So data is sometimes skewed in the press releases; quotes from leading authors are carefully scrutinized, nitpicked, and edited for desired effect; and the information goes out. This isn’t such a big issue, as the information is usually clarified within the article itself (the title and main caption from Princeton may be a bit misleading, but anyone who reads the article would leave with a sense that the public doesn’t distrust scientists that much, though things could be better).

So here’s one of the primary problems as I see it: People don’t read beyond the headline. If you need proof of this, please see this post.

Even if a post does clarify the information in a way that is accurate and understandable, it does not matter because it is not being read. So although we should definitely be discussing how much the public trusts scientists, it seems like the first concern should be how to get individuals to really listen to what scientists are saying—how do we encourage people to read about findings, how do we help them become invested in conducting further research and interrogating methodologies? Ultimately, if people are doing this, then they will be able to tell, for themselves, whether an individual is trustworthy.

What do you think is the primary issue with the communication of science information? And is there any way to overcome this barrier? Leave your thoughts in the comments…


Share This Article