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In the past few years, the Pew Research Center has followed the views of the US public on scientists and science-related issues. This year's poll shows a continuation of a worrying trend: the US public has growing confidence in scientists, but this is mainly due to the increasing respect of Democrats.
The timing of the poll was set so that Pew could add a number of questions about the COVID-19 pandemic and policy response. The parties also showed differences in their view of political reactions, as you would expect. But they also differ in how they view basic, easy-to-confirm facts.
Some good news, some bad news
For four years, Pew has been interviewing a group of over 10,000 U.S. residents who are balanced to reflect the country's demographics. The number is high enough to represent public opinion very well, and there is now enough time to see that consistent trends go beyond annual fluctuations. This makes it a fantastic resource to follow the changing views of the public about science and its role in society.
Part of this change is clearly positive. When asked whether they had confidence that scientists would act in the public interest, 39 percent had a lot and another 48 had a reasonable amount. That is an increase of 21 percent / 55 percent four years ago. On the same question about medical researchers, 43 percent had great confidence and another 46 percent had a reasonable amount, compared to 24/60 in 2016. The growth during this time was steady, indicating that this was not a one-time increase due to the pandemic .
That is the good news. The bad news is that the shift was driven solely by people who identify themselves as Democrats or who are leaning in that direction. Republicans are not part of the growing support for the research community.
Enlarge /. Democrats' confidence in researchers has grown over the past four years, but not Republicans.
These positive views are accompanied by a shift in the role of science and scientists in political issues in this area. Just a year ago, just over half of the public felt that public opinion should play an important role in guiding science-related policy decisions. This year, 55 percent of the survey group felt that public opinion should not play an important role and largely chose the answer "because these issues are too complex". Accordingly, 60 percent of the participants felt that scientists should play an active role in shaping these policy decisions.
But this view was also much more common among Democrats. Seventy-five percent of the scientists they support are involved in political decisions, and 60 percent believe that scientific experts can make these decisions better. In contrast, only a third of Republicans thought that scientists were better.
Pandemics and facts
Obviously, the ongoing pandemic has made science-driven policy decisions a major concern. But here, as elsewhere, people filter their decisions through the lens of partiality. There is now strong evidence that social distancing measures reduce the rate of new infections. But less than half of the Republicans believe that this is the case. In contrast, almost 70 percent of Democrats do it. When testing, the distance is similar, but larger. 75 percent of Democrats think our testing capacity is too low, a conclusion many experts share. Just over a third of the Republicans.
In general, Republicans are reluctant to provide reasons for the continued spread of the pandemic in the United States. In contrast, most Democrats cite the virus itself, our lack of testing, and the lack of effective social distance.
Enlarge /. Democrats are more willing to give reasons for the spread of the virus than Republicans.
The most striking feature of the partisan difference, however, is that it extends to basic facts. It has been widely reported that the United States has had the most cases in a country so far. Even if you prepare for a per capita measurement, the US is above any other country than Spain that is about to be eclipsed. Two-thirds of Democrats accept that the number of cases in the United States is higher than in most other countries, with acceptance increasing among those with higher levels of education. However, it is only 30 percent among the Republicans, and there is no change as the level of education increases.
Enlarge /. It is purely factual that the United States has more SARS-CoV-2 infections than other nations. Yet there is a party-political divide over it.
The only place where the two parties generally agree is that the state governments have received more science-based policy responses than the federal government.
Overall, the overall picture is therefore good: the public continues to trust that scientific experts keep an eye on the public good and generally supports a stronger role of science in policy-making. These trends existed before the pandemic, and the crisis did little to change them. This picture, however, hides a worrying trend in which only one party with scientific contributions to political issues and an increasing gap in willingness to accept information gained through scientific analysis feels increasingly comfortable.
But there is some good news that younger Republicans are much more moderate in their views of scientists and somewhere between their elders and Democrats.