Chesapeake Quarterly
Do Americans Trust Scientists?
Drake squatting by sampler
Ecologist Bert Drake, of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, crouches next to one of his team's research pods. The structures are part of a project to gauge the effects on marsh plants of rising carbon dioxide levels in a changing climate. Photograph, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

JUDGING ONLY FROM HEADLINES, it can seem like American citizens and scientists are frequently at odds. Scientists say it is highly certain that the atmosphere and oceans are warming, that humans evolved from other species, and that the earth is billions of years old. Many Americans disagree.

According to scholars of science communication, this discord over what science has reliably proven masks underlying conflicts over political values and religious interpretations on certain questions like evolution.

But such highly publicized fights don't mean that Americans are down on science or scientists altogether. Consider that a 2012 survey found that 80 percent of Americans would be happy if their son or daughter wanted to become a scientist. In a 2014 report, the National Science Foundation summarized findings from this and other surveys that collectively pointed to a broad and growing amount of public support for science - and for scientists to play an active role in influencing public policy:

Views about the value of science
  • 87 percent of respondents "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that science and technology will foster "more opportunities for the next generation."

  • 83 percent "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that "even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government."

  • 72 percent said the benefits of scientific research "strongly" or "slightly" outweigh harmful results. About 7 percent said science creates more harms than benefits.

  • Compared with residents of other countries, Americans held more favorable views and had more factual knowledge about science and technology.

What people know about the environment
  • There may be room for environmental scientists to help educate the public: About 27 percent of survey respondents chose a "4" or "5" when asked to assess their knowledge of the causes of environmental problems — using a five-point scale that went from "1" for "know nothing at all" to "5" for "know a great deal." 14 percent chose "4" or "5" to describe their knowledge of environmental solutions.

Views about scientists
  • 41 percent of survey respondents expressed "a great deal of confidence" in leaders of the scientific community, and nearly half (49 percent) expressed "some confidence." Only 7 percent expressed "hardly any confidence at all." Among other types of leaders, only those in the military drew higher public confidence in 2012, with 53 percent of respondents voicing a "great deal of confidence" in them. Compared with other leadership groups, scientists and engineers were more likely to be seen as supporting what is best for the country rather than their own narrow interests.

  • 86 percent of survey respondents agreed that "most scientists want to work on things that will make life better for the average person."

  • Scientists have room for improvement on their coolness quotient, though: 36 percent of survey respondents saw them as "apt to be odd and peculiar people."


Sources: University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey; International Social Survey Program; National Science Foundation

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Chesapeake Quarterly and Bay Journal teamed up in 2014 to produce a series of articles about sea level rise, coastal flooding, and the Chesapeake Bay. Articles appeared in both print and online. This 72-page, full-color report compiles this content along with a new foreword to offer a comprehensive look at the subject. Download a pdf of the report here.

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