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Pew: Post-COVID, Trust in Science Dropped Significantly

Most other institutions have taken a hit in trust as well. But what would it take for science in particular to pull out?

The slogan Trust the Science!, squawked from so many outlets in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak, may have backfired — if Pew Research findings are any guide. Public trust in science has continued to decline, both among Democrats and among Republicans:

Overall, 57% of Americans say science has had a mostly positive effect on society. This share is down 8 percentage points since November 2021 and down 16 points since before the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

Brian Kennedy and Alec Tyson, “Americans’ Trust in Scientists, Positive Views of Science Continue to Decline,” Pew Research, November 14, 2023

As Kennedy and Tyson point out, declining trust is not a new phenomenon; there has been a slow decline in trust in most other institutions as well for some years now: “Smaller shares of Americans express confidence in business leaders, religious leaders, journalists and elected officials to act in the public’s best interests.” Where science is concerned, the trend was much more pronounced among Republicans than among Democrats but both groups showed a significant decline.

History of science, concept. Isaac Newton with Apple in hand

Here’s one reason the COVID years may have contributed to declining trust in science: “Trust the Science!” became equivalent — not to trust in Isaac Newton or your local GP — but trust in whatever confused, confusing, or contradictory policy panicked bureaucrats demanded our unquestioning adherence to. And trust was demanded despite the damage anyone could see coming…

That part is easy to understand: When science means moon landings and cutting edge medical treatments, not many people are naysayers. When “science” means, for example, closing the schools for months or years, disadvantaging lower income children who were not at high risk of serious illness anyway, questions rise and loyalty starts to wane.

The damage to science done from within

Here’s an additional, underlying reason for a gradual erosion of trust in science: the damage currently being done by pressure groups. Consider, for example, the effect of the war on math, waged across our educational system. When the universal language of science is sinking under the weight of claims about trauma and privilege, working scientists cannot expect to be taken as seriously as they once were. If 2+2 can really = 5, we are losing the language in which they can be taken seriously.

That’s also what happens to biology when school systems are encouraging the idea that male and female are not fixed biological categories among humans? Some life forms are, it is true, physically genderfluid. But that is irrelevant to the primate mammalian biology which is the reality for all humans. With us, in reality, these physical categories are fixed and viable exceptions are rare.

We need not agree with the Darwinian atheism espoused by well-known biologists Richard Dawkins, Colin Wright, and Jerry Coyne to share their concern about such developments. If alternative psychological beliefs now rule in biology class, biology is equivalent to therapy as a source of truth. That is, it’s a source of truth only to those who happen to experience it that way.

The outcome can only be that people will begin to regard statements by biologists as equivalent to statements by people who happen to be in the spotlight — maybe information worth knowing, maybe not. Certainly not statements about what is known from nature. And that’s a far cry from the position science used to occupy when it was not co-opted so much by pressure groups.

And yet…

And yet, curiously, 78% of respondents, averaged across all demographics including the political divide, want government to continue to invest in science. The roughly half of Americans who think it important that the United States be a world leader in science (52%) is largely unchanged. That implies that, at some level, even the disillusioned believe that science can in principle be reformed and continue to fulfil its promise. But surely that depends on people in science recommitting themselves to first principles like mathematics as a form of truth and evidence as the basis of biology.

The insanity of the COVID years will fade in memory… it is already fading. But the war on basic principles in science like math and evidence is only beginning. The lowest point will be reached when it makes more sense for a fair-minded person to doubt than believe in whatever is called science in those areas affected by the culture wars. With luck, we won’t reach it. But we will need more than luck.

You may also wish to read: Polls: Trust in mainstream U.S. media still in free fall Both the New York Times poll and Gallup poll illustrated that this week. The media don’t seem to want to discuss it, perhaps because an honest discussion would include acknowledging a fundamental change in their purpose.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Pew: Post-COVID, Trust in Science Dropped Significantly