Climate

Climate Scientists Seen As Trustworthy by Americans, Contrary To Reporting

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A new study finds that scientists are seen as highly competent, and climate scientists in particular have the trust of Americans.

Unfortunately, that isn’t seen as a very clickworthy finding — at least in our modern cynical age — so the authors of the study and the news release chose to spin the results as “Scientists Seen as Competent But Not Trusted by Americans.” If you search that headline, you’ll find thousands of results for articles on and links to this Princeton study.

You’d never guess from the headline or the news release, that when the researchers surveyed “public attitudes toward climate scientists” on a “seven-item scale of distrust,” they found “distrust is low.”

Frankly, the communication of the actual results of this entire study are abysmal, which is especially ironic since the title of the study is “Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics.” I’m afraid Princeton has gained neither here.

The study has two relevant pieces. First, the researchers polled an online sample of 116 participants. The authors concede in their conclusion, “Our illustrative data are limited by not being a representative sample.” D’oh!

But let’s press on with our small, unrepresentative online sample. Participants were asked to rate various professions on a warmth vs competence scale.

trustworthy

Common jobs rated (by small online sample of U.S. adults) on their public images of being warm and trustworthy as well as competent and capable. (Photo credit: Susan Fiske, Wilson School)

Now you might think that this is a pretty good result for scientists. We are viewed as hyper-competent. And we are right at the mid-point of the warmth-trustworthiness scale, with a higher rating than the vast majority of professions surveyed.

The authors, however, say:

The fourth corner lists the ambivalently perceived high-competence, low-warmth, “envied” professions: lawyers, chief executive officers, engineers, accountants, scientists, and researchers. They earn respect but not trust.

Seriously? The authors have drawn a long oval just so they can shoehorn scientists into the same group as poorly-trusted CEOs and lawyers who are such obvious outliers that they rank only (slightly) above prostitutes on the warmth/trustworthiness axis!

The authors claim this data shows scientists do not earn trust, but that would mean only a handful of professions surveyed earn any real trust. A more plausible interpretation of the data is that scientists are viewed as more trustworthy than most. Heck, scientists are more trustworthy than police officers on this scale.

In any case, shame on Princeton for spinning these results as “Scientists Seen as Competent But Not Trusted by Americans.” How about “Scientists Seen as More Trusted and Far More Competent Than Most Professions”?

What makes this spin even more indefensible is that the researchers did another survey just about how the public viewed climate scientists. Or, rather, it was about how 52 online participants viewed climate scientists — but heck, once you’ve bought into letting small unrepresentative samples speak for all Americans, you can’t really draw the line anywhere, can you?

What did researchers find? They report:

On a seven-item scale of distrust, climate scientists averaged a distrust mean of 2.16 (below the midpoint on a five-point scale). For the most part, distrust of climate scientists runs low, but not at the floor of the scale. And of course, responses vary, with some more distrustful than others.

The slight distrust toward climate scientists might seem to contradict the earlier data showing that scientists seem less warm than many other job holders.

How embarrassing for the researchers that these findings don’t fit their storyline! The obvious remedy: Keep the storyline, but point out that scientists could have had a lower distrust score and then offer a lot of hand-waving BS. I’ll spare you the details, but note that the first thing the researchers point out is “this result reflects rating climate scientists per se, who might be viewed more positively than generic scientists.”

Well, yes, “climate scientists … might be viewed more positively than generic scientists.” Even that would have made a better headline than “Scientists … Not Trusted by Americans”!

But this sentence is also troublesome: “… might seem to contradict the earlier data showing that scientists seem less warm than many other job holders.” As we’ve seen, the earlier data actually showed that scientists were seen as warmer than most other job holders, just not warmer than all of them, particularly the super-warm jobs of nurse and teacher.

If this study proves anything — a big “if” given its design — it’s that scientists are seen as highly competent, and climate scientists in particular have the trust of Americans. Let’s see some headlines like that.