A new survey has been published that shows a deep rift in America regarding trust in science and scientists. As you might expect, Republican support for science is falling dramatically, while Democratic support is increasing. This trust gap in science and medicine has widened substantially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic according to the new survey.
Let’s take a look at this data which shows some worrisome trends, even among Democrats, who theoretically support science more.
The science trust survey
This survey was conducted by the General Social Survey (GSS), which has been conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago since 1972. The GSS has studied the growing complexity of American society monitoring changes in both social characteristics and attitudes currently being conducted in the United States.
This year’s survey of America’s trust in science included interviews of 4,032 American adults between 1 December 2020 through 3 May 2021. Results for the full sample have a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Twenty years ago, there was no difference in the trust of science between Democrats and Republicans, although it was still below 50% for each. But over the two decades, the confidence in science has dropped to 34% for Republicans and increased to 64% for Democrats.
Overall, 48% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in the scientific community. But there is now a 30-point gap in confidence between Democrats and Republicans, up from a 9-point gap in 2018. A lot of that is probably a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, where Donald Trump and his Republican sycophants pushed pseudoscientific nonsense about masks, vaccines, herd effect, ivermectin, and hydroxychloroquine.
To be fair, even among Democrats, I am surprised that the number isn’t much higher, although it appears to be in line with science trust numbers found in Europe.
A similar pattern, though not as dramatic, was observed for trust in medicine. Overall, 38% of Americans reported a great deal of confidence in medicine in 2021, though Democrats were a bit higher, at 45% than Republicans, at 34%. Again, I am surprised at how low the number is for Democrats, although this may also reflect a combination of factors from the cost of healthcare to accessibility to other social factors.
Those of us who fight for science are not surprised by these results. The COVID-19 pandemic not only brought us people who were pushing medications that had zero effect on the course of COVID-19, like the aforementioned ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, but they were also passing disinformation about vaccines. They’re even pushing urine as a treatment for the disease. Yes, urine.
It’s not just COVID-19 and vaccines that affect Americans’ trust in science. Anthropogenic climate change is pushed as a liberal scam by Republicans despite the scientific consensus being strongly in support of climate change and that humans cause it. We are destroying our planet with greenhouse gases, yet in the US (and, admittedly, many other countries), the right couldn’t care less about it. They’ll keep digging coal, the health of the planet be damned.
And look at genetically modified organisms. Despite the solid scientific consensus that GMOs are safe and necessary, many on the left attack it using the same exact logical fallacies and pseudoscience employed by climate change and vaccine deniers. It’s so frustrating.
Part of the problem with the COVID-19 pandemic is that we were watching science progress, which can appear to be chaotic and mistake-prone. People think that science is dogmatic, and once something is announced, it is a fact.
But those of us who know science understand that every conclusion is provisional — once more evidence is provided, scientists reserve the right to change their minds. Finality requires a consensus to be reached, among a large group of scientists who are experts in the field. And that takes time.
Furthermore, during this pandemic, a lot of pre-print articles, which haven’t been peer-reviewed or accepted for publication, have become a staple for science journalists who want to be the first to write about something new about the disease. The problem with this is that most of these pre-print articles will never be published.
So, to many of us, scientific and medical information about this pandemic seems to move in new directions every morning. But over the long haul, we have solid data that face masks work and the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.
The other thing is that is highly problematic, as I’ve written before, science is hard, very hard. Bad science or pseudoscience is easy. One side will say “take this horse dewormer pill and you’ll be cured of COVID-19.” The science side will say, “take this vaccine and you may be immune to the current variant of the disease, but we’re unsure how it may work with other variants, so we probably need a booster vaccine. And yes, the vaccine causes minor adverse effects with extremely low risks for myocarditis.”
People fall asleep with the complicated sentence about vaccines, whereas the one pill to cure the disease is so much easier to understand.
Of course, people with their Google University science degree think their one or two hours of “research,” which generally means employing confirmation bias to find data to support their pre-ordained conclusions, is equivalent to the thousands of hours that a real scientist has invested to know what they know about vaccines, climate change, GMOs or whatever.
I once read a story about Dr. Jonas Salk, who essentially invented the polio vaccine, that when he walked into a restaurant, he would get a standing ovation from everyone. Republicans, Democrats, and Independents would cheer him. I am sure he never had to pay for a meal in a restaurant. And polio, although a serious disease, killed around 1-3 thousand people a year in the USA compared to the 800,000 that have died of COVID-19 over the past two years.
In today’s world, if Dr. Anthony Fauci walked into a restaurant, half would be cheering, half would be booing, and he’d need a security team in case some crackpot attacked. But I doubt he needs to pay for his dinner.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson once said:
The struggle continues, trying to get the general public to embrace all of the science the way they unwittingly embrace the science in their smartphones.
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