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Americans' trust in scientific expertise survived polarization, Trump attacks on science

UMSI News.

Wednesday, 03/13/2024

Americans' basic confidence in science and scientific expertise was unshaken by the Trump administration's attacks on scientific expertise, and has remained high during the last six decades, according to an analysis led by the University of Michigan.

Trump's attacks on scientific experts—exemplified by criticism of Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—increased the level of partisan polarization in the United States and made the question of scientific expertise more salient to many Americans. The proportion of adults who had no attitude about scientific expertise in 2016 dropped significantly during the four years of the Trump Administration.

"The proportion of Americans with a low level of trust in scientific expertise rose from 3% in 2016 to 13% in 2020," said lead researcher Jon D. Miller, a research scientist emeritus at the Institute for Social Research's Center for Political Studies. "But that increase was more than matched by a rise in the proportion of Americans with a high level of trust in scientific expertise, from 23% to 58%."

The views and actions of the Trump administration with regard to such topics as climate change, environmental protection and the COVID-19 pandemic were widely condemned as a Republican war on science. But even among conservative Republicans, the proportion with a high level of trust in scientific expertise rose more between 2016 and 2020 than the proportion with a low level of trust.

"When people aren't particularly interested in science, they tend not to have a high level of trust or distrust in it. But the pandemic gave everybody a new reason to be interested in science," said co-author Mark Ackerman, U-M professor of information, electrical engineering and computer science, and learning health sciences.  

The study's analysis of changes between 2016 and 2020 was conducted against a background of data from a series of national public opinion surveys starting in 1957. These surveys show that Americans consistently express a high degree of appreciation of the benefits of science and technology and a relatively low degree of apprehension about their dangers over the last six decades.

In 2016, interest in science and technology, college-level study of science and technology, and level of education were the strongest predictors of appreciation of the benefits of science and technology—with trust in scientific expertise running a close fourth. Fundamentalist religious belief was by far the strongest predictor of apprehension about the dangers of science and technology.

The situation was similar in 2020, except that civic scientific literacy became a stronger predictor of appreciation of the benefits of science and technology, suggesting that a basic level of scientific understanding enabled people who were previously uninterested in science and technology to come up to speed with regard to current events, especially the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"The Trump administration's contempt for scientific and technological expertise was rightly a cause for concern, but our study shows that the American public was by and large unaffected," Miller said. "But it will be necessary to continue to improve the public's understanding of science and technology to ensure that it is equipped to weather any future storms." 

The study was published in the journal Science and Public Policy. Besides Miller and Ackerman, the authors are Belén Laspra and Carmelo Polino of the University of Oviedo (Spain), Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education, and Robert Pennock of Michigan State University.

Study: Citizen attitudes toward science and technology, 1957-2020: Measurement, stability, and the Trump challenge


Contact: Morgan Sherburne, 734-647-1844, [email protected]