Trust in scientists rising around the world

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Sam Rutherford was one of many people who voted in the referendum

Plummeting political distrust across the globe can be traced to rising confidence in scientists, say experts.

A Reuters poll of 30,000 people in 19 countries reveals that across the globe, trust in science is rising.

But in Britain there is still a lot of scepticism towards scientists, with 28% of people saying they did not trust scientists.

And in the run-up to the Brexit vote, 23% of Brits said they were “unsure” of the role of scientists in society.

When we asked around 7,500 Brits to name the “greatest scientists in the history of the UK” and asked about their science knowledge, 31% put Charles Darwin first.

BBC poll asked for the number of people who thought of Darwin before him, and the only number above him was written in Andy Murray’s autobiography: “The greatest scientist in the history of the world was Frances Xavier Trobisch – the Mozart of maths”.

Defenders of the leave vote point to the relatively strong support of so-called “europhile” middle England as proof that science can’t be trusted, and many pundits note that the British National Party supports both wildlife-watch organisation Fieldwatch and the Richard Dawkins Foundation.

Research by Dr Richard Jolly, an author and lecturer in philosophy at the University of Birmingham, points to the development of scepticism towards scientists.

‘I do trust scientists’

“When we discuss science and people begin to lose trust, it’s because they lose faith in a process that has a long list of fundamental concepts about how science works, how data come to be analysed and why conclusions are drawn,” he says.

“People have lost faith in the process, the accuracy of the work that’s being produced, and more importantly the validity of the results.”

Dr Jolly explains this was a frustration for philosophers of science who were only allowed to comment on research that existed.

“We can’t directly influence the scientists’ work because they’re bound by contracts with universities. If we were given more control, we could provide justifications for the work that we’re about to see, both in terms of scientific data and the psychology of how it’s developed,” he says.

“This is an opportunity, and I think it’s a good opportunity because there’s so much to be gained.”

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Professor Richard Jolly says there is now a glut of research opportunities due to the scientific revolution

Professor Lee Warren of the Department of Psychology at Oxford University agrees.

“When you’re dealing with an academic discipline that is central to human knowledge, there’s a massive amount of available evidence, and so scientists tend to tend to improve at distilling information and generating hypotheses, but to a much smaller extent than philosophers of science.

“What we don’t do as a whole is provide easy explanation for these answers that scientists are finding. It’s all very well saying that scientists are very smart. But what does that mean in our globalised world?

“There are opportunities now to go out and actually promote that kind of rationality. That really matters right now, because scientists don’t have so much time on their hands.

“In the past, people would have sat down, gone to a book, and looked at every explanation, and come back again. Now there’s an abundance of them and nobody can take all the risks anymore.”


All of the above statistics can be seen as “enabling” to let scientists to explore their ideas.

But some scientists have told the BBC that they have so much choice that in many ways they don’t feel they’re being pushed to do something.

Iain Duncan Smith, Professor at the School of Social and Community Medicine at King’s College London, says there is an increasing sense of political pressure on scientists, who sometimes feel that they’re “pushed around in favour of policy”.

Prof Duncan Smith says that given the added pressure of inequality, scientists tend to fight back against politicians of all stripes.

“I’m not claiming that scientists want to be political, but I’m arguing that their experience of politics teaches them very clearly not to be pressurised,” he says.

“When scientists want to be politically correct, they’re doing it for everyone – everyone’s not happy with the way science is taught in schools.”

This is supported by Dan Lutsko from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, who says scientists have seen their credibility and their message degraded by political pressure, resulting in scientists reacting to that pressure with more political correctness.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Dr Fred Pearce thinks a lack of interest in science has created an ideal market for

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