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Trusting Scientists and Science Journalists — A New Poll Suggests the Public is Skeptical

The Polar Express (film)

The Polar Express (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent poll conducted by YouGov and the Huffington Post suggests that Americans tend to feel that scientists alter how their findings are reported to suit political or sponsor priorities, yet feel strongly that science in the abstract is a force for good. The public also doubts that science journalists are reporting scientific findings accurately, with the poll suggesting skepticism about the influence of politics and funders here, as well.

The survey is weakened by the fact that the two questions — whether scientists or science journalists are influenced by political or financial pressures — are in practical terms the same question. That is, most of the public only knows the science that is reported through the mass media, so their view of scientists is largely framed by media outlets, aka science journalists. As we currently live in an age of overtly political television outlets (FOX News, MSNBC) and politicized social discourse, it’s not surprising that the public believes politics influences science. This interpretation is given more credence by the fact that declared Republicans have less trust in science overall — as the Republican sphere is more politicized and more subject to corporate powers than other political spheres. In both cases, concluding that these doubts redound to scientists is an error by proxy, as most real science never reaches the mainstream media.

Misgivings about the role of funders are also likely generated by larger societal effects, especially when you consider how corporate powers (Rupert Murdoch and media consolidation in general) have increased the perception that management is at the news desk. Add to this court decisions like Citizens United and the big scandals involving pharmaceutical companies and scientists colluding to actually commit fraud — items that get more than their fair share of airplay — and it’s no wonder the public is skeptical about scientists.

You are your PR. Scientists and science are being portrayed selectively within media frames that are both funded by and subject to political and corporate powers — major television networks being chief among these, but their siblings in newspapers, radio, and the Web following suit.

The good news is that Americans appear to have a strong faith in science in the abstract.

So, how do we narrow the perceptual divide between real science and science in the mainstream media? That’s a more difficult question. Science is increasingly specialized and difficult to translate across disciplines, to say nothing of the gargantuan task of translating current science to the public. It’s tempting to say that access might provide an answer, but access is passive, and in the cluttered media landscape, the public needs something active and engaging, not just another search result.

Another question is, Does this matter? While the public has some say over science funding, the trust in science in the abstract shown in this poll suggests that funding isn’t at issue. Perhaps instead of framing this as, Do Americans trust scientists? we need to realize that the real problem here is that Americans don’t trust mass media outlets.

That is a more addressable concern. As with most things in science, asking the right question is essential. Which brings this all to a recursive, circular conclusion — the poll itself smacks of corporate or political motivations. Clearly, it wasn’t rigorous or thoughtful enough to be helpful or very informative. So, when it comes to mass media dabbling in the sciences, I, like most Americans, remain skeptical.

About Kent Anderson

I am the CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., the home of the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, JBJS Case Connector, JBJS Reviews, JBJS Essential Surgical Techniques, the JBJS Recertification Course, PRE-val, and SocialCite. Prior to this, I was an executive at the New England Journal of Medicine. I also was Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Discussion

32 thoughts on “Trusting Scientists and Science Journalists — A New Poll Suggests the Public is Skeptical

  1. Kent, it is not mass media dabbling in science it is that the GOP is now a southern party that is basically made up of uneducated people. These are people who do not understand the difference between a scientific theory and religious theory. They believe in social darwinism and think it is evolution, etc.

    The distrust seems to follow economic ups and downs. Historically, that old time religion is more popular during depression than in good times or during times of social change. Times like today.

    Posted by Harvey Kane | Dec 26, 2013, 6:36 am
    • Gee Harvey, you manage to slander the Republicans, the southerners and the religious all at the same time, but I doubt your claims hold up statistically. Are women also stupid, as they too show greater skepticism? On the other hand I have seen polls indicating that among scientists Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 or 4 to one, which may play into the results. Republicans become engineers.

      Posted by David Wojick | Dec 26, 2013, 10:53 am
  2. I do not see a problem here. Most people take the middle ground on trust. It is unfortunate that the poll uses the term “a little” for the middle ground, because a little sounds smaller than the middle. It is quite reasonable not to trust an entire social group “a lot” and the results reflect this. Nor are the big swings a surprise. Republicans are less trusting than Democrats, women less than men, and trust declines with age. The percentages with no trust are very small. Science per se is held in high esteem. It all sounds about right as far as the demographics of belief are concerned.

    If you want to mount a campaign go after older Republicam women and good luck with that.

    Posted by David Wojick | Dec 26, 2013, 8:58 am
    • The main point is that the poll is flawed — the two questions are inseparable in practice. So I don’t put much stock in it at all, and the flaw is precisely what leads to skepticism — that is, the media has a bias it wants to validate, so it undertakes a flawed poll to validate it, then broadcasts the headline in terms that are far too definitive. If they had concluded that the public doesn’t trust mass media, and left it at that, I would have found that to be a more correct conclusion.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Dec 26, 2013, 11:15 am
      • So I think we disagree. It may well be that the media has created the skepticism regarding the scientists, but the poll results sound about right to me, at least for Americans who are skeptical by nature.

        Posted by David Wojick | Dec 26, 2013, 11:26 am
      • Am I to believe that there are no rich people behind outlets that do not stridently embrace the right, or is it that a particular narrative just doesn’t want to admit that there are also rich liberals who also want to manipulate information to their own ends? Just wondering.

        Posted by Bryan J. Maloney | Dec 30, 2013, 12:51 pm
  3. Spot on, Kent. When I saw the HuffPo article as the Front Page headline, my heart sunk. Then after looking more closely at the methods and the actual questions asked, my tension went away. I tend to cling to the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators that have scientists second only to firefighters in public-viewed prestige. There is a great need to insure the public know and understand the actual science and not just what the media (and their funders) what to spin for you.

    Posted by Matt Russell | Dec 26, 2013, 11:26 am
    • One could think that the NSF results are funder hype. Keep in mind that most people’s contact with science news is via diets and drugs, where hype is standard fare.

      Posted by David Wojick | Dec 26, 2013, 12:38 pm
      • Very true.

        Posted by Matt Russell | Dec 26, 2013, 12:55 pm
        • For example, this morning I got 33 spam email messages, of which 13 or just under 40% were based on scientific claims. No wonder people are skeptical. Journalism has little to do with this.

          Posted by David Wojick | Dec 28, 2013, 11:25 am
  4. The quality of journalism generally has declined in the internet era due in no small part to the difficulty in monetizing news. Journalists are under great pressure to produce a high volume of eye and ear catching headlines, bylines and fast moving narrative. The low hanging fruits of science scandal (cold fusion, evidence tampering and even the fabricated scandals like global warming conspiracies) are more easily fitted into this template than explaining the significance of string theory. Under such pressure it is not surprising that journalists follow the path of least resistance.

    Posted by Frank Lowney | Dec 26, 2013, 11:57 am
    • My personal favorite is the Hadron Collider destroying the world with a black hole.

      Posted by David Wojick | Dec 26, 2013, 12:40 pm
  5. I wonder if the public would put greater trust in science as presented in books published by university presses because of the prestige of the imprint? There are plenty of books about science published by such presses that are accessible to the general public, unlike most of the highly technical literature found in STM journals.

    Posted by Sandy Thatcher | Dec 26, 2013, 1:23 pm
    • The problem is that nothing is more accessible than television right now. Kudos to people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, the Mythbusters, and Morgan Freeman, who work hard to bring good science to television in compelling formats. People who buy books about science from university presses are highly literate science readers already.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Dec 26, 2013, 6:42 pm
      • Any info on who was sampled and how? Matt mentions a HuffPo article. If you just sampled people who are interested in science you might get a very different result.

        Posted by David Wojick | Dec 27, 2013, 6:04 am
  6. On the basic medical sciences front, I can say that there is very good reason for people to mistrust science “journalists”. The quality of articles in this field is so bad I have had to stop laughing. Alleged “professionals” still use stupid turns of phrase like “have the gene for” and probably couldn’t, themselves, understand the difference between “gene” and “allele” if they took a two-semester course entirely on “The difference between ‘gene’ and ‘allele'”. When something like epeginomics comes up, forget it. They might as well just be grabbing words at random from a textbook. Our culture would never tolerate this level of incompetence in a sportswriter.

    Posted by Bryan J. Maloney | Dec 30, 2013, 12:56 pm
  7. Does the poll define what a “science journalist” is? Because some who report on science topics have no idea what they’re writing about.

    Posted by Timothy Rinehart | Dec 31, 2013, 11:52 am
    • I doubt this is true, although no one can possibly be knowledgeable on a wide swath of science.

      Posted by David Wojick | Dec 31, 2013, 4:17 pm
      • Clearly you haven’t read The Guardian lately. Most media outlets have long ago fired their in-house science writing staffs. Some rely solely on picking up wire stories these days, and many have found that they can get free labor out of bloggers, offering them a byline and exposure and little to no pay. The resulting quality varies enormously, particularly for outlets that are desperate for copy, using a business model that relies on generating pageviews to create add impressions, and hence, are willing to take any articles they can get their hands on, the more sensational, the better.

        Posted by David Crotty | Dec 31, 2013, 5:07 pm
        • I only read the Guardian for laughs. But are you saying the wire services have no qualified science writers? As for the bloggers, isn’t that us?

          Posted by David Wojick | Dec 31, 2013, 6:34 pm
          • I’m saying that quality varies enormously, and that everyone relying on the same few wire stories reduces the amount of information available (and the pool of writers). It also should be noted that what we generally do as bloggers, offering opinion and analysis, is a very different thing than reporting or journalism.

            But accuracy and fact checking seems no longer part of the media’s business model:

            http://www.esquire.com/blogs/news/we-broke-the-internet

            Posted by David Crotty | Jan 1, 2014, 11:04 am
            • I was a science journalist for ten years and I never did any fact checking. I often worked from the press release or if it was really important from the journal article. My job was to translate this stuff into lay language for my audience and to say why it was worth their bother to know about. Policing science was not part of the job.

              Moreover my beat ranged from physics and chemistry to psychology and economics so I knew very little about most of what I wrote about. No human could. Anyone who knows something about a specific scientific topic and blames a science journalist for knowing less does not understand the cognitive situation.

              I am reminded of the parallel foolish criticism that science education is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is because science is a mile wide and there is only enough time to go an inch into it. Same for journalism.

              Posted by David Wojick | Jan 1, 2014, 11:37 am
              • No one at any of the publications you wrote for did any work whatsoever to verify the accuracy of what was in your articles? You did no research into the matters yourself and just regurgitated the press release? You didn’t seek out comment from other scientists, other authorities? Yikes.

                I do understand your point, and it often goes for science editors as well–my former boss called it “skating across the surface of science.” That doesn’t require a deep knowledge of every field, but it does require an ability to understand science in general and to acquire at least a basic understanding of a field quickly, if only to speak the language of the participants and enable the sort of translation you describe above. It requires a certain skillset which not everyone possesses and should not be dismissed as having little value or being common to anyone who wants to write an article.

                Posted by David Crotty | Jan 1, 2014, 11:52 am
              • The time to write an article was typically 2 to 4 hours from first awareness. Once in a while if it were a big story there might be some research or investigation, but only rarely. It is a mill.

                Posted by David Wojick | Jan 1, 2014, 12:12 pm
                • And that’s a big part of the problem. As noted in the linked essay above, speed is more important than accuracy. This results in the reporting of much that upon examination turns out not to be true. Which taints the credibility of everything that gets published, and of science in general. But hey, more pageviews means more ad revenue.

                  Posted by David Crotty | Jan 1, 2014, 12:26 pm
              • I do not agree. I cannot recall anything I reported in ten years as not being true. False information is extremely rare in science publishing. Mind you I was working in electric power, not health, but even there I expect that what scientists report is mostly correct.

                Nor is it a problem that journalism is what it is and not something else. The problem is that people want it to be something it is not. I have little sympathy with people who think that the way the world is is somehow wrong.

                Posted by David Wojick | Jan 1, 2014, 1:43 pm
              • Exaggeration is not false information. This was just bad editing. The correct finding is that Facebook will be dead if this trend continues, not that it is now dead. These kind of mistakes are uncommon.

                Posted by David Wojick | Jan 1, 2014, 2:26 pm
              • If a probably incorrect conclusion drawn from a very small sample from an incomplete data set from a halfway done study is to be considered “exaggeration”, then you may be interested in my new perpetual motion machine. It is indeed a machine that produces motion. The “perpetual” bit may be an exaggeration though…

                Posted by David Crotty | Jan 1, 2014, 5:52 pm
  8. Great post. It makes me realize that as a non-scientist I am at the mercy of science journalists to know and understand the latest scientific endeavors and discoveries. If the mere act of observing a scientific event can change its outcome, how much more so can the act of writing about it! Terry Portillo http://generationhr.wordpress.com/

    Posted by generationhr | Dec 31, 2013, 3:52 pm
  9. A good example here:

    http://gigaom.com/2013/12/30/facebook-is-dead-and-buried-or-what-happens-when-academic-research-goes-viral/

    How much of the spread of inaccurate information here was due to the researcher himself and how much was due to a non-existent set of journalistic standards in the outlets that let him exaggerate so?

    Posted by David Crotty | Dec 31, 2013, 5:08 pm

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