Difference Between Trusting Science and Scientists

I don't often defend Conservatives but I will say that there is nothing much more useless to the public discourse that bullsh*t sociology studies trying to show that Conservatives are dumber or whatever (and remember, those same studies show libertarians the smartest, so ha ha).

In this general category of schadenfreude masquerading as academics is the recent "finding" that conservatives are increasingly anti-science or have lost trust in science.  But here is the actual interview question:

166. I am going to name some institutions in this country. Some people have complete confidence in the people running these institutions. Suppose these people are at one end of the scale at point number 1. Other people have no confidence at all in teh people running these institutions. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. Where would you place yourself on this scale for: k. Scientific community?

A loss of trust in the scientific community is way, way different than a loss of trust in science.   Confusing these two is roughly like equating a loss in trust of Con Edison to not believing in electricity.  Here is an example from Kevin Drum describing this study's results

In other words, this decline in trust in science has been led by the most educated, most engaged segment of conservatism. Conservative elites have led the anti-science charge and the rank-and-file has followed.

There are a lot of very good reasons to have lost some trust in our scientific institutions, in part due to non-science that gets labeled as real science today.  I don't think that makes me anti-science.  This sloppy mis-labeling of conclusions in ways that don't match the data, which Drum is ironically engaging in, is one reason may very scientific-minded people like myself are turned off  by much of the public discourse on science.  The irony here is that while deriding skepticism in the scientific community, Drum provides a perfect case example of why this skepticism has grown.


  1. MisterDamage:

    I couldn't agree more. I was unaware of the specific question that was asked but had instinctively recognized the difference you identify in this articles headline. Another factor that occurs to me is that different kinds of scientists attract different levels of trust: for example, the article expresses some fairly clear contempt for certain branches of sociology which I share yet I suspect the author holds scientists in the hard sciences, math, physics, astronomy etc in the same high regard as do I.

  2. Max:

    This question is more about whether people believe in the efficiency of public institutions rather than about science per se.
    And it really is a no brainer that democrats fancy public institutions as (when led by the right people) super-efficient moral tools without defects.
    But I wonder about the intelligence of those people design these tests? Do they even read bias-theory? Are those interns or real scientists who make these tests?

  3. me:

    Well, given that 90% of all people take great pains to consistently demonstrate that they're on the intellectual level of, say, a ton of bricks, I think it's safe that both progressive and conservatives will show similar qualities.

    That said, that question really takes the cake... then again, that studies like these get any funding simply demonstrates theorem #1 (above) ;)

    I for one would love to see an accurate definition of terms like conservative, liberal, progressive etc first, and we're far from them. There are theories of ethics, control, loyalty and behavior that open up a multiparameter space that puts such simple labels to shame...

    Anyway, I'll stop ranting and will go back to my Mimosas.

  4. IGotBupkis, Climate Change Denier and Proud Of It.:

    Wolf Howling did a particularly good piece a while back about why it is that so many have lost trust in the scientific community -- it's basically, in my opinion, a media effect:

    The Scientific Method & Its Limits - The Decline Effect

    You could call it The Kohoutek Effect. Simply put: The media loves sensationalism.

    So if a reporter interviews a couple scientists for a story, and (using Kohoutek as an example), one of them says, "Well, Kohoutek might be visible during the day", and the second one says, "Oh, certainly, it should be visible in broad daylight with a tail running across half the sky!", which one do you think The Reporter is going to quote?

    The media reports anything and everything that comes its way in the most spectacular, sensationalist manner it can get away with. And, with most people these days lacking any semblance of basic critical thinking skills, they can get away with A LOT.

    This leads to constant changes in what is "known" science -- particularly, as WH notes, in the "soft" sciences -- the softer it is, the more likely the "science" is specious and subject to massive revision.

    Diet is a particularly egregious arena this way -- eggs are bad for you. No, wait, they're not. Margarine is better for you, butter is bad... No wait, butter is better. Every 15-20 years the "Food Pyramid" is totally revised and the old one is "unfacted" by the Health Commissars.

    The back and forth on magnetic fields and power lines and the like is another example, as Michael Crichton pointed out in one of his essays/presentations.

  5. Sam L.:

    What it is, is, the media and the some of the scientists are playing politics. How many of us trust politicians? Especially when they play the "trust the authority" card.

  6. Mark2:

    I used to trust scientists more, but now it seems that research is done merely to get grants, and the quality is the pits. Much of the research is worthless, and much of it is designed to create biases by the government to control the masses. This is because government has been getting more and more involved in basic research to the point where they are the dominent supplier of funds. The whole Global warming thing has left me sour, along with all the scares I have been told in my lifetime. I have even found out our high carb diet is probably killing us, and the science behind it is that Senator McGovern liked a particular diet. There was a scientist that said, countries which did not consume much fat had less disease - but this guy left out any country he found that contradicted his findings.

    To see about the food scam there is a video "Fat Head", which debunks Supersize me, and explains how the government faked data to get us all to eat unhealthy.

    Watch it free here.


  7. Ted Rado:

    An essential trait of a good scientist is objectivity. If your hypothesis is flawed, you must admit it. Many scientists and engineers get so enamored of their idea that they simply cannot admit it is wrong.

    Michael Mann and others have dug themselves in so deep that they cannot admit they may be wrong without their reputation being shredded. Objective investigation becomes impossible.

    Steven Hawking theorized that space would start to contract and time would run backwards. The Hubble telescope showed that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing, not decreasing. He was the first to admit he was wrong. We need more Hawkings and fewer Manns.

  8. Joseph Hertzlinger:

    I trust scientists; I don't trust science reporters.

  9. dearieme:

    Same in the UK: I believe in Physics, Chemistry and Biology. I also believe that the Royal Society has disgraced itself.

  10. Hunt Johnsen:

    "I trust scientists; I don’t trust science reporters."
    Hell,you can't trust some of the scientists either.
    I used to trust scientists and since I was a marine biologist (among other things), trusted the literature to be fairly objective and for scientists to admit their mistakes. That dates me for sure. I first noticed the corruption in Scientific American, which used to be one of my favorites. The bullshit level about "global warming"and CO2 became obvious in the early nineties and many other trusted sources have gone down the tubes as well. Now the most trustworthy information is on the web and you have to be critical even then.

  11. me:

    You could argue that science is all about distrusting people and trusting the method... organized science, like organized religion, is about 80% rent-seeking powermongers and 20% idealistic and driven people who have a decent chance of changing the course of human events. If the 80% tried to falsify the overenthusiastically volunteered theories of the 20%, we'd be in ship-shape... however, the 80% try very hard to look like the 20% with a minimum of actual research, and that's where a lot of this trouble starts.

  12. MNHawk:

    What is it they say? Smart people talk about ideas, stupid people talk about personalities. Looks like this Drum character you keep quoting can't get himself off the personalities (Scientific Community) and realize those smarter than him are talking about the validity of the scientific concepts themselves.

  13. Mark2:

    I think the real issue is that government money has corrupted science like everything else. Politicians like jounralists, love sensationalism. If everything is going well a Politician has nothing to do, and they want to create new laws, and new directives etc.

    So politicians convinced us to spend more and more public funds on science research. If the researcher comes in with a study saying "The clams in Boffin bay seem to be doing just fine" or "The weather about the same as it has always been" the government is likely to say -OK no more research for you.

    But if you say, "the clams seem to have a stable population, per the study, but are under stress from pollutants, heavy metals and Global warming" then more money will come your way - even if everything after stable population is unsupported supposition.

    Same with the climate. You say things are going fine, well NOAA and the NASA research centers get less funding. Manufacture a crisis politicians can get excited about and NOAA and NASA get more funds.

    So it is in scientists best interests,when getting government funds to be as extreme and outrageous, and biased toward crisis as possible. And we wonder why our government sponsored research is always so hysterical.

    Like everything else the government needs to exit, we need to get the government to exit funding research too.

  14. drB:

    Mark2 -

    most of science has been always worthless, but the part that has not been worthless is the basis of our technology and way of life. Also, you say that government is now more involved in basic science. Being scientist myself, I can say that it is not true. Government supports less and less basic science and more and more applied science. That is plain wrong as applied science should be done by private companies, and should not be done first by government agencies and then appropriated by companies (corporate welfare; example is for example palitaxel discovered by NIH). Support of basic science by government is probably justifiable - Einstein did not work for companies and worked for universities of Bern, Zurich, and Prague.

    You are right about government money corrupting science. Forty years ago working as a prof you had a stable middle-class job and were not rich. Now, if you get into news/get gigantic grants you can become rich. Hence, we have less and less of typical academic types who do science because they like doing research and more and more of PR type shameless self-promoters. This applies not only to climate science but also to materials, biomedical research etc. Just read any of university press releases..and then check on them 5 years later to see if any of the promised advances have materialized.

    The current state of a lot of science is summarized here:


    "Bullshit consists in a lack of concern for the difference between truth and falsity. The motivation of the bullshitter is not to say things that are true or even to say things that are false, but in serving some other purpose. And the question of what he says is true or false is really irrelevant to his pursuit of that ambition. The bullshitter is not necessarily a liar, what he says may very well be true; and he may not think that it's false."

  15. Mark2:

    @DrB, Thanks for the informative post.