April 6, 2017

Public confidence in scientists has remained stable for decades

Recent surveys by Pew Research Center and other organizations have shown wide public divides in the U.S. over climate change, food science and other science-related issues. But public confidence in the scientific community as a whole has remained stable for decades, according to data collected by NORC, an independent research organization at the University of Chicago. The group’s 2016 General Social Survey results, released March 29, show that 40% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the scientific community, while half (50%) have only some confidence and 6% have hardly any confidence.

Public confidence in scientists stands out among the most stable of about 13 institutions rated in the GSS survey since the mid-1970s. While a similar share of Americans report having a great deal of confidence in the medical community, that confidence declined in the early 1990s and has ticked downward again in more recent years, from 41% in 2010 to 36% in NORC’s most recent survey. 

Public confidence in the scientific community and in medicine is higher than in many other institutions. Confidence is highest for leaders of the military, with 53% expressing a great deal of confidence. At the opposite end of the spectrum, just 8% of Americans express a great deal of confidence in the press and 6% say the same about Congress. On average, confidence in institutions is lower today than it was in the mid-1970s.

A 2016 Pew Research Center survey found similar results when asking respondents about their confidence in certain groups and institutions to act in the best interests of the public.

Americans expressed the most confidence in the military to act in the public interest, followed by medical scientists and scientists. In that survey, 84% of U.S. adults had either a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in medical scientists and 76% had at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest.

By contrast, majorities of Americans had not too much or no confidence in the news media, business leaders or elected officials to act in the public interest. Confidence in K-12 school leaders and religious leaders fell in the middle on the list of groups and institutions.

In the same 2016 survey, majorities across social and demographic groups had at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists and medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public. Confidence in scientists and medical scientists to act in the best interests of the public was higher for those with more education. For example, 89% of those with a postgraduate degree had at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists, compared with 64% of those with a high school degree or less.

Topics: Business and Labor, Science and Innovation

  1. Photo of Cary Funk

    is an associate director for research at Pew Research Center.

  2. is a research associate focusing on internet, science and technology at Pew Research Center.

3 Comments

  1. Jon Cleland Host2 weeks ago

    Why are “religious leaders” not included on the graph of trends over time? I see that Americans today generally don’t have much confidence in religious leaders (data above), but has that changed over time?

  2. Anonymous3 weeks ago

    Re “Confidence in K-12 school leaders and religious leaders fell in the middle on the list of groups and institutions”:

    In making this statement, do the researchers assign more weight to “much vs. little” than to “more vs. less”? Because an arithmetic comparison of “much”+”more” vs. “little”+”less” shows that, if either institution is considered “in the middle”, it should be the news media:

    The news media shows 38% much/more confidence vs. 61% little/less confidence.
    K-12 leadership shows 34% little/less confidence vs. 66% much/more confidence.

  3. Packard Day3 weeks ago

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Upton Sinclair__________________Modern day translation: If your multi million dollar federal grant requires you to believe “a popularly held truth,” it behooves you to retain a certain amount of moral flexibility as you prepare to express your scientific opinions or interpret any new empirical data.