Why Do Americans Distrust Scientists?
James graduated from Middlebury College and so several times a year the college magazine arrives in our mail. The fall edition is especially interesting with a cover story on how it is that an increasingly large segment of the nation distrusts scientists. It is a fascinating read.
Like most U.S. adults, I believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat; scientists believe otherwise. In a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), just 37 percent of the general public said that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods. By contrast, 88 percent of AAAS scientists say that such foods are safe. And that 51-point gap? It’s the largest opinion difference between the public and scientists on any issue surveyed. It’s larger than the differences in opinions on whether humans have evolved over time (98–65 percent); whether childhood vaccines should be required (86–68 percent); whether climate change is mostly due to human activity (87–50 percent). (In all of these cases, scientists represent the higher numbers.)
So, you tell me: Should I have led with an anecdote about genetically modified food, since on no issue are scientists and the public further apart?
I guess that’s to be debated.
What really isn’t up for debate is the main takeaway from the Pew report, which is that “citizens and scientists often see science-related issues through different sets of eyes.”
I wanted to know why, so I turned to a psychologist, a philosopher, a political scientist, and a physicist to shed light on this issue.
We touch on the subject of trust, and Dickinson said that when we view our governing institutions as out of touch with our concerns, as a significant portion of the electorate does, “we increasingly are willing to discount what they tell us is the truth. And if you don’t trust the government, why should you trust the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health?” The populist movement that has aligned itself with Donald Trump on the right and with Bernie Sanders on the left has further exacerbated these inclinations, Dickinson said. “One of the hallmarks of populism is a distrust of elites, and that seems particularly pronounced in this election cycle. And science can be a part of that.”