Trump’s attacks on science during his presidency did not have the desired effect

Despite his repeated attacks, public trust in scientists and science as an institution has actually increased during Donald Trump’s American presidency. While it is true that distrust in the US has certainly increased and views on certain issues have become deeply polarized, any modest increase in distrust has actually been offset by increased trust across the political spectrum.

If individual citizens want to make informed decisions, they need access to trusted and reliable information. This is why freedom of the press and freedom of information are so important for a functioning democracy. The advent of the Internet is thought to have enabled citizens at unprecedented levels to find information, more or less in real time, on issues that matter to them.

However, in what is popularly called the ‘post-truth’ era, this concept of ‘public trust’ has become a primary concern for many people and institutions. Accusations of conspiratorial deceit, bias, and the spread of “fake news” seem to be a mainstay of the political arena, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump and his administration have consistently attacked and undermined public trust in American scientific and health institutions, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Anthony Fauci, then head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the National Institutes of Health.

But has this continued opposition to science created as much public mistrust as is widely believed? Well, maybe not.

In a new study, Jon D. Miller, of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy, University of Michigan, and colleagues examined three questions related to understanding American public attitudes toward science. The first two concerned whether public attitudes should be conceptualized as unidimensional or multidimensional, and what are the factors that relate to or predict public attitudes.

The third question then examined whether the continued attacks on science during Trump’s presidency changed citizens’ attitudes toward science and technology.

To answer these questions, the team examined data collected over the past 60 years from national probability surveys of American adults. For the third question, however, they paid particular attention to survey responses collected from just under 3,000 U.S. participants in 2016 (just before Trump’s election) and late 2020 (almost a year into the pandemic).

During this period, the results suggest, the share of people without strong opinions about whether they trust information from scientists or scientific institutions fell dramatically from about 76 percent to just 29 percent. These previously “neutral” parties appear to have migrated to both ends of a trust spectrum, but not equally.

The number of participants who expressed low (2 percent) or very low (1 percent) trust in science and its experts grew in those years to 9 and 6 percent respectively, but those who had high or very high trust in science , rose from 23 percent. up to 43 percent.

These shifts occurred across the political spectrum. Contrary to what some might expect, conservative Republicans’ opinions were divided, with an increase of nearly 20 points in the very low and low levels of trust in science (which rose to 24 percent), but also an increase of about 21 points in those who expressed high and very high confidence (which rose to 37 percent).

The Liberal Democrats experience a huge increase in confidence during this period. In 2016, only 42 percent of respondents had high or very high confidence in science, but by the end of 2020, as Trump’s term ended, this had risen to almost 87 percent. There were people who expressed low and very low confidence, but this only increased from 2 percent to 3 percent.

“The attacks on science and dismissal of climate change as a serious problem by President Trump and his administration were unprecedented in the post-war years, and many members of the scientific community expressed concern that [trust] between the scientific community and the public deteriorated,” Miller and colleagues wrote.

“The results [of our research] indicate a solid and growing level of citizen belief in the promise of scientific and technological research and a modest level of concern about harmful consequences. We believe that this balance between positive expectations and limited concern is a healthy situation in a democracy.”

In fact, as they state, “the absence of any concern would be unrealistic and a level of very high concern would be limiting and harmful to science.”

On balance, the survey indicates that there was a slight increase in the number of people expressing confidence in science and scientific expertise during the Trump administration. Miller and his team added that these results complement their previous research focused on trust in expertise during the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of 2022 surveys show that trust in scientific expertise contributed significantly to support for President Biden from both moderate and independent voters in 2020.

“In short, American citizens’ support for science and technology has remained positive over the past six decades and the Trump administration has not” undermined it. However, the authors conclude that “the challenge of right-wing populism did not stop with the end of the Trump administration and will undoubtedly continue in the coming decades.”

“The fighting will continue, but the scientific community’s reserve army is active and effective.”

The research has been published in the journal Science and Public Policy.

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