Who Do You Trust? (Science Edition)

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In a sea of skepticism, while politicians scrape the bottom of global trust rankings, scientists more frequently bask in the warm glow of public confidence. A recent study suggests that not all lab coats are created equal and that a moral compass, rather than knowledge, is critical.

Scientists are routinely considered trustworthy. A poll of “global citizens” ranked trust in scientists as the highest, with, no surprise, politicians as the lowest across all nations. A new IPSOS One study finds that not all scientists are equal and offers a formula for trust.

The researchers polled 2780 participants on their trust along four parameters for various types of scientists. The participants gathered from an online source had a median age of 39; two-thirds had a college or graduate degree, with a slight liberal and religious bias.

There are many ways to evaluate the social interactions that account for trust; one model identified two dimensions: competence and warmth. The researchers settled on two additional dimensions: assertiveness and morality.  They felt these variables were more likely to “potentially shape trust, rather than merely representing components of trust.”

  • Participants rated an occupation on their competence, assertiveness, morality, and warmth using a bipolar scale, e.g., from incompetent to competent.
  • Trust was measured by asking participants how much they trust that occupation on a similar 1-to-7 scale.
  • Participants then completed the Influence Granting Task (IGT), designed to assess willingness to grant scientists influence in managing societal problems. [1]

“Science is not a monolithic enterprise: It consists of a plethora of disciplines that each comes with its own goals, values, and approaches. It is conceivable, then, that perceptions of scientists and trust in scientists differ across scientific occupations.”

The good news was that scientists remain well-regarded with scores in the 4 to 5 range on that 7-level scale. But the trust was not uniform. For example, among the most trusted, are epidemiologists, neuroscientists, marine biologists, and astrophysicists; among the least are meteorologists, political scientists, and economists. [2].

Of those four social determinants, “morality seems to play the most important role in shaping trust perceptions followed by competence.” How the message was delivered, assertiveness, and warmth contributed less.

When looking more closely at the various scientific occupations, the variations in trust were more due to the scientist’s perceived morality and warmth.

The influencing granting task is a significant real-world metric because it asks now who you trust in the abstract, but in dealing with a pressing decision affecting everyone, like any of the advice or mandates we associate with the pandemic. The factor with the most significant impact on granting influence is trust, which consists primarily of competence and morality. Both of these also exert the greatest independent association with granting influence. The bottom line is that scientists perceived as both competent and moral stand on the highest ground; whether the message is warm and fuzzy or assertive and definite holds little sway.

Competence may be more crucial in science-driven decisions than others because the details of science are often unknown to decision-makers. Morality seems to have more significant sway when scientific knowledge is more contentious, as with climate change, nuclear energy, or economics.

“Whenever science is seen as especially relevant to people’s lives, the perceived morality of the scientists involved arguably matters more.”

The continued heated discussion around the pandemic is a clear example of what the researchers found regarding the social determinants in scientific trust and decision-making. The attacks by those for and against those decisions strike at the scientists’ competence and a variation on morality, their intent. How the message is delivered seems to play a far smaller role than how the messenger is perceived. Morality, the biggest driver of the four, is based on belief, and “attitudes that were not formed by logic and facts, cannot be influenced by logic and facts.”

For societal decision-making, competence and morality emerge as the titans of trust. As the world grapples with crises and controversies, one thing remains crystal clear: trust in science is not just about what's said but who's saying it—and how they're perceived.


[1] Participants were asked to imagine a complex, pressing national problem. They were then asked how strongly they would value the input of “community leaders, politicians, citizens, friends, family, themselves, and the scientific occupation at hand.”

[2] As an aside, among all the talking heads of television, meteorologists actually have the best predictive scorecard, at least for 24 to 72 hours in advance.


Source: How social evaluations shape trust in 45 types of scientists PLOS One DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0299621