Americans trust the competency of scientists, but they don’t trust scientists themselves. In particular, the general population is weary of scientists manipulating results to obtain bigger grants or pushing forth hidden agendas.

Credit: Susan Fiske, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

“Scientists have earned the respect of Americans but not necessarily their trust,” said lead author Susan Fiske, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and professor of public affairs. “But this gap can be filled by showing concern for humanity and the environment. Rather than persuading, scientists may better serve citizens by discussing, teaching and sharing information to convey trustworthy intentions.”

The results, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) show that being competent is not the same as being trustworthy – especially when it comes to science. Humans are hardwired to split other people into two categories – friend or foe.

The fact that scientists can’t get their ideas across is a big problem, due to a simple misconception: that scientists are not warm.

“Science communicators arguably need to know about this possible type of response to them,” said Fiske. “From this view, scientists may seem not so warm. Their intent is not necessarily trusted and maybe even resented.”

This is likely one of the reasons why researchers consistently find it harder and harder to obtain grants. Interestingly enough, climate scientists are better trusted than moth scientists.

“People are not idiots. The public’s issue with science is not necessarily ignorance,” said Fiske. “So, the road to communicating climate science starts with some advantages. The public has some knowledge. Climate science communicators have effectively conveyed much evidence, which should encourage their continuing to educate and communicate. Just like other communication, science communication needs to continue to convey warmth and trustworthiness, along with competence and expertise.”

Teachers and nurses scored best in terms of warmth, while lawyers are believed to be competent but not trusted at all.

Journal Reference: Susan T. Fiske and Cydney Dupree. Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. September 15, 2014, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1317505111