Survey examines Americans’ trust in science

May 1, 2007

by Dennis Chaptman

When it comes to forming opinions on controversial scientific issues, Americans show a strong deference to the views of the scientific community, according to a study co-authored by a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher.

Dominique Brossard, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, says a random survey of 1,500 New York state residents shows they lean heavily on scientists as they form opinions on agricultural biotechnology.

In fact, for many citizens, deference to scientific authority serves as a convenient shortcut that replaces information from mass media or a technical knowledge of issues such as genetically engineered foods.

"We trust scientists to the point that we defer to them," says Brossard, who conducted the study with Matthew C. Nisbet, an assistant professor of communication at American University. "And that raises the question: We want to trust scientists - but do we want citizens to go so far as to blindly defer to experts?"

Brossard says the American educational system is where citizens learn to lean heavily on the scientific community for answers on science policy.

"Transmitted to citizens by the educational system and popular culture, deference to scientific authority …  means that when science controversies do occur, deference likely generates among Americans an almost natural pro-science or pro-technology view," according to the research, published in the spring 2007 International Journal of Public Opinion Research.

There are factors, however, that compete with Americans' trust in science, she says, including environmental orientations and religious values. For a number of issues, religious perspectives are likely to compete strongly with deference to science - as has been shown in debates over issues such as embryonic stem-cell research and evolution, she notes. But Brossard adds that a green orientation has not become part of the social fabric here as strongly as it has in western Europe.

Brossard says the study raises some concerns for citizens as they weigh scientific issues.

"Let's not forget that technical innovations have not only scientific consequences, but ethical, legal and social implications. It's not necessarily good for citizens to think that scientists should have the final say," she says. "Scientists are good at what they do. But how much trust is too much trust?"

Brossard notes that few citizens have the motivation or ability to go beyond deference toward scientific authority when judging the potential of new technologies. With this in mind, scientists need to make sure the use the trust granted them responsibly when engaging the public on controversial science.