A new study shows that although the American public views scientists as competent, they feel they lack warmth, friendliness and trustworthiness. Not everyone can be as cuddly as Neil deGrasse Tyson, I guess.
The review by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs comes to the conclusion that Americans don’t trust scientists, especially those seeking grant funding or pursuing persuasive agendas.
“Scientists have earned the respect of Americans but not necessarily their trust,” said lead author Susan Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and professor of public affairs. “But this gap can be filled by showing concern for humanity and the environment. Rather than persuading, scientists may better serve citizens by discussing, teaching and sharing information to convey trustworthy intentions.”
Fiske and Cydney Dupree, a Princeton graduate student studying psychology and social policy, tested respondents for opinions and reactions to 42 common jobs. Doctors, teachers and nurses were, of course, considered the warm, caring and competent ones while people like dishwashers and garbage collectors were looked at with both disgust and contempt for their profession and their supposed low skill set.
Scientists fell in the middle, with some acknowledgement they were competent but not belief they were warm or caring.
Fiske says that when scientists are trying to communicate with the public, they need to keep in mind that they might be fighting an uphill battle to be trusted.
“Science communicators arguably need to know about this possible type of response to them,” said Fiske. “From this view, scientists may seem not so warm. Their intent is not necessarily trusted and maybe even resented.”
If this sounds like something relevant to the debate about climate science in America to you, you’re not the only one. Fiske also specifically polled people about climate scientists.
Her surprising findings was that the group polled actually found them slightly more trustworthy than scientists dealing with other issues. Research grant money was the biggest sticking point, hurting the public’s trust in their motives somewhat. People were more likely to trust climate scientists who focused on teaching and communication.
“People are not idiots. The public’s issue with science is not necessarily ignorance,” said Fiske. “So, the road to communicating climate science starts with some advantages. The public has some knowledge. Climate science communicators have effectively conveyed much evidence, which should encourage their continuing to educate and communicate. Just like other communication, science communication needs to continue to convey warmth and trustworthiness, along with competence and expertise.”
Image from Young Frankenstein