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Americans Are Fascinated by Scientists, But That Doesn't Mean They Trust Them

An unexpected twist.

CARLY CASSELLA, SCIENCE AF
9 MAR 2018

The American public is fascinated by scientists, but that doesn't mean they always trust them. A new survey from the 3M State of Science Index reveals the complex attitudes that many people have towards scientists and science itself.

 

The survey asked just over 14,000 people from developed and emerging countries questions like, "Would you rather have dinner with Lebron James or Elon Musk?" and "Do you trust science?" - and the results are surprisingly complex.

In an unexpected twist, it was found that most Americans prefer scientists over pop culture icons and athletes. For instance, 72 percent of those surveyed said they would rather have a meal with Bill Gates than Taylor Swift, and 59 percent preferred a dinner date with Elon rather than LeBron.

Yet while it seems most Americans are captivated by science and drawn to interesting scientific thinkers, strangely enough, there's still a lot of skepticism.

Of all the Americans surveyed, the study found 27 percent were skeptical of science, 13 percent do not trust science, 18 percent do not trust scientists and 19 percent do not believe in scientific claims.

These numbers make more sense when you consider that many Americans hold beliefs that directly contradict the scientific consensus – think human-caused climate change, GMOs and vaccines. But where is all of this suspicion coming from?

There are several potential explanations for this skepticism, one of which is the low level of perceived scientific understanding.

 

According to the survey, 71 percent of Americans said they only know a little about science overall and 18 percent said they knew nothing at all. In comparison, only 14 percent said they knew a lot.

The lack of scientific understanding may stem from the fact that many Americans believe science is an elite concept too intellectual for them to comprehend. For instance, it was found that 19 percent of Americans agreed or somewhat agreed with the idea that only geniuses can become scientists.

However, the results can also be explained by the way skeptics understand the application of science. For instance, on a global scale, when people were asked if they found science boring, 49 percent of science skeptics said they somewhat or fully agreed.

Plus, compared to science enthusiasts, many skeptics from around the world were unable to see how science has benefited their daily lives.

Untitled designRearrangement from 3M State of Science Index Survey

"To contextualize that, nearly half of people who question science are missing out on the ways it could be making their lives better," reads the study.

"One option could be approaching those skeptics and finding ways to make science more relevant, personal and relatable to them."

 

So if more people could find the value of science in their daily lives, would their trust for the scientific method improve?

The results certainly suggest this is the case, although the idea is hardly conclusive. While 21 percent of science skeptics from around the world said they never think about the impact of science in their daily lives, only 9 percent of science enthusiasts agreed.

Retired astronaut and 3M spokesperson Scott Kelly says this study just goes to show how much attitudes toward science need to change.

"We need to stop thinking about science as something only people who are 'science minded' can achieve," Kelly told NBC News MACH.

"There is no science gene. It might come easier to some people than others, but the field is open to anyone who is willing to put in the hard work."

Whether skeptics take science for granted or are unaware of the integral role it plays in society or their daily lives, it is clear with nearly a third of the world identifying as skeptics that we need to improve the way people think about science.

Science AF is ScienceAlert's new editorial section where we explore society's most complex problems using science, sanity and humor.

 
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