Many members of the science and science policy communities have grown increasingly concerned lately about what they see as a decline in the general public's trust in science. Frequently cited examples include the common failure to follow COVID public health guidelines or to take the issue of climate change seriously enough to adopt significant changes in individual behavior or support changes in public policy. Discussion then often shifts to debates about how to restore that trust.
The basic premise, however, is wrong. There is no real evidence that the public has lost trust in science per se. On the contrary, most surveys show that most of the public does trust, has confidence in, and respects science and scientists. Therefore, problems around expert advice and the public are best considered one societal issue at a time and should be viewed in terms of how scientific advances intersect with such variables as individuals' values, economic and other interests, or politics. The most effective remedial strategies typically start from that perspective.
Actually, people respect and trust scientists
Trust in science and scientists among the public is unquestionably critical to their being able to meet their obligations to serve society, but trust does not seem to be a major problem itself. Virtually every survey suggests that the public holds scientists and science in high regard and believes that science benefits humanity. People also generally believe that scientists are motivated to help society. For example, the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators has reported every two years since the 1970s that over 70% of the US public consistently believes that the benefits of scientific research outweigh its harmful effects, and another 10% believes the benefits and harms are roughly equal. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago has repeatedly compared the level of confidence the public has in various professions since the early 1970s, finding that the scientific community consistently ranks second, behind only the military, in public confidence.
Of course, the word "confidence" is neither a synonym nor a perfect proxy for the concept of "trust," although people occasionally use it that way. For example, having confidence in scientists' abilities to make vaccines that are effective is not the same as having trust in science more generally. People can have substantial trust in science without strictly following science-based recommendations.
Surveys show that science still scores high even when the general public is asked directly about its trustworthiness. For example, a 2017 survey by the nonprofit group ScienceCounts reported that more than 70% of the public trusted scientists to "tell the truth" and to "report their findings accurately." Moreover, the group reported more recently that trust levels have increased since the COVID pandemic began. A separate survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019 found that 86% of the public was at least moderately confident that scientists act in the public interest--a number that was actually higher than in 2016. Altogether, these surveys demonstrate that, in fact, trust or confidence...