'Shocking' New Poll Finds Trust in Scientists Low Among Both Republicans and Democrats - Ya Think?

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

There is an old saying that goes something like, "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." Turns out, according to a new poll, it is a fairly good description of how Americans, surprisingly on both ends of the political spectrum, are feeling about the nation's scientists and their effects on society at large. That distrust may be well-earned due to the disastrous handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., but how might that affect any sort of public health issue in the future? 

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The Pew Research Center survey polled 8,842 American adults between September 25 and October 1. As might be expected, the pandemic did little to boost Americans' confidence in its scientists. In January 2019, 73 percent of Americans felt that "science has a mostly positive effect on society." By November of 2021, that number had fallen to 65 percent, and as of October of 2023, 57 percent of Americans say science has been a positive thing for society. It is interesting to note that the Pew Research Center has polled Americans' trust in science at least once a year since 2019.

Scientists themselves have also taken a hit when it comes to the American public's trust level. The poll found that trust in scientists is now around 73 percent, 14 points lower than during the initial stages of the pandemic. Those who say they have a "great deal" of confidence in scientists took an even bigger hit, going from 39 percent in 2020 to just 23 percent in 2023.

The most compelling aspect of the poll is when results are broken down along ideological lines, but those results may also be expected. Among Republicans, 38 percent said they have "not too much" or "no confidence at all" in scientists. However, that is up from a dismal 14 percent who felt the same way at the height of the pandemic in April of 2020. Compare those numbers to Democrats and Democrat-leaning Americans polled. They had a very different view of science and scientists in November 2020, when confidence among that group was at 55 percent. Those in that group who say they have a "great deal" of confidence in scientists are currently at 37 percent. Overall, 86 percent of Democrats say they continue to have a "fair amount" of confidence in scientists.

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But as with most things in a very politically divided America, researchers concluded that views on science and scientists are divided along political lines more than ever with, to the chagrin of the federal government, conservatives and Republicans who were not afraid to ask questions about the myriad of COVID mandates put into place during the pandemic. It didn't take long for Republican and conservative-leaning Americans to see masking and double-masking requirements, shutdowns of businesses, vaccine mandates, and keeping kids out of classrooms as a means of government control. That idea was on full display as so much power went to the heads of Democrat governors like Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who outlawed the sale of items in the garden section of hardware stores.    

The fact that health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continually changed COVID guidelines, creating a confusing maze of do's and don't do's for Americans, didn't help. Dr. Anthony Fauci has become more famous for his flip-flopping positions on all things COVID-related than he did for any possible reliable medical advice. From saying wearing masks, even for small children, was recommended to saying as late as May of 2023 that masks really were not effective, Fauci became the face of everything that was handled wrong about the pandemic. During a September CNN interview, when discussing a possible uptick in COVID cases, Fauci lamented that, “I am concerned that people will not abide by recommendations."

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Despite their new-found wariness of science and scientists, the good news from the poll is that 78 percent think that government investment in scientific research is, on the whole, good for society, and 52 percent of Americans believe it is "very important" for the U.S. to be leading the way in scientific achievements. But it is a good bet that Americans will ask many more questions and be a bit more skeptical about the next nationwide health emergency. 

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