Recent surveys by Pew Research Center and other organizations have shown wide public divides over science-related issues such as climate change and food science. 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.
Overall, 44% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the scientific community, while 47% have only some confidence and 7% have hardly any, according to the group’s 2018 General Social Survey, released March 19. This is roughly the same share as in 2016, when 40% said they had a great deal of confidence in scientific leaders. (The 4-percentage-point uptick does not reach statistical significance.)
Public confidence in the scientific community stands out as among the most stable of about 13 institutions rated in the GSS since the mid-1970s. Confidence in medicine has been somewhat less stable, however. It declined in the early 1990s and has ticked downward again in more recent years, from 41% in 2010 to 36% in 2016 and 37% in NORC’s most recent survey.
Public confidence in the science community and in medicine is higher than in many other institutions. Confidence is highest for leaders of the military, with 60% expressing a great deal of confidence. At the opposite end of the spectrum, just 13% 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 2018 Pew Research Center survey found a similar pattern 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 scientists. In that survey, 79% of U.S. adults had either a great deal or 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.
In the same 2018 survey, majorities across social and demographic groups had at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists to act in the best interests of the public. Those with more education were more likely to have confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests. For example, 89% of those with a postgraduate degree had at least a fair amount of confidence in scientists, compared with 71% of those with a high school degree or less.
Public trust in medical scientists is similar; in a 2016 Center survey, 84% of Americans said they had a great deal (24%) or a fair amount (60%) of confidence in medical scientists to act in the best interest of the public.
Note: This is an update of a post originally published April 6, 2017.