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Demonstrators at the 2017 March for Science in Washington, D.C.

Molly Adams

The public mostly trusts science. So why are scientists worried?

AUSTIN—Some scientists might be surprised by a piece of good news buried in Science and Engineering Indicators, a massive report released by the U.S. National Science Board last month. Overwhelmingly, surveys showed, Americans think that science is a good thing. Since 1979, surveys have shown that roughly seven in 10 Americans believe the effects of scientific research are more positive than negative for society. Yesterday, here at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science, communications expert John Besley of Michigan State University in East Lansing talked to attendees about why trust in science remains high—and why so many scientists think otherwise.  

Besley chatted with Science about his take-home points from the session. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: What’s the most important lesson for scientists?

A: I think scientists need to recognize how much confidence most Americans have in our community. If we keep emphasizing this idea of a decline in trust, we communicate from this sort of defensive position. Instead, I think we should recognize how lucky we are that we get to explore some interesting things, and we should be excited about sharing it with people who might be interested.  

Q: Why do you think that the scientific community sometimes uses “defensive rhetoric”?

A: I think it’s normal to be worried about how others view us, and I think we’re often very attuned to negative voices. It’s possible to forget that the loudest voices aren’t necessarily the most important or common. 

John Besley

Michigan State University

Q: So how do you recommend scientists communicate with the public?

A: We have to think about this as sharing what we’re learning—we should share it respectfully, we should share it with humility, and we should include all that we do as the scientific community to ensure that what we’re sharing is valid. I tell a lot of scientists to talk about their motivations. You could say, “Well to be an objective scientist, you just talk about what you found,” but that’s sort of a sin of omission if you don’t tell people why you chose that topic. People genuinely want us to be open about those things. 

Q: Do you expect trust in science to decline?

A: Nope—there’s no evidence there to suggest that. The science knowledge measure has been pretty stable for a long time. There is some evidence by other scholars that even though there’s overall stability, there has been some divergence, particularly in the confidence measure, between people who identify with one part or ideology than another. But still, the big picture is that there’s still quite a bit of stability. If anything, I’m amazed how stable Americans’ views about science have been over the last 10 or 20 years. It’s interesting too because other things haven’t been stable. Trust in the medical community has come down over time, interest in environmental pollution has come down over time, and worry about various technologies has gone up. Given how positively people view science and scientists, stability is a good thing. 

Check out all of our coverage of AAAS 2018.