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.