07 November 2014

Trust a Scientist

I am warm! I am friendly! Trust me, even if I’m a scientist! All this time I thought people didn’t trust science and scientists because of lobbyists, biased or clueless media, politics and contrarians. Nope. It’s because scientists are cold fish.

Welcome back. What’s it going to be: competence or warmth? A recent study by Princeton University investigators found that scientists may be respected by the public but not necessarily trusted; and it’s all because scientists are not perceived as warm.

Rating Warmth and Competence 

Sometimes it’s easy to know if you can
trust what someone says; sometimes
it’s not. (photo from multiple websites)
In earlier work, the investigators established that people follow systematic principles when identifying whom to trust. People quickly decide the apparent intent of an individual or group--who is friend or foe. If seemingly on their side, they deem the individual or group as warm (friendly and trustworthy) and then decide whether the individual or group is competent or capable.

The investigators have captured these perceptions as graphs or maps of warmth versus competence in numerous studies with a variety of groups in different countries.

For the latest study, they asked an online sample of 48 adult volunteers to list typical American jobs. They then had another online sample of 116 adult volunteers (65 men) rate the warmth and competence of the most commonly mentioned 42 jobs, including scientists, researchers, professors and teachers, according to how the volunteers felt American society views the jobs. Focusing on public image was intended to reduce participant bias.

Warmth versus competence ratings of 42 jobs.
Statistical analysis of the warmth and competence ratings separated the 42 jobs into four clusters. Scientists fell into the high-competence, low-warmth cluster, which they shared with researchers, lawyers, chief executive officers, engineers and accountants.

Jobs in this cluster earn respect but not trust. What’s worse perhaps, people report envy and jealousy, admiration yet resentment, toward high-competence, low-warmth individuals and groups.

Wrap Up

Although the study is a heads up to science communicators, I’d have more confidence in the results if the volunteers that did the ratings were more representative of the US population instead of being drawn from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online marketplace--i.e., Amazon users, self-selected and paid something, however little, for their ratings.

Before I stop blaming lobbyists et al., I’d like a solid explanation for why polls that address science find that differences attributed to political affiliation exceed other differences--gender, age, race, family income, geographic region.

For example, the 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll--another opt-in online panel--found those checking the box for having “a lot” of trust that what scientists say is accurate and reliable were 48% of the Democratic participants, 33% of the Independents and only 20% of the Republicans.

Here’s another. A University of New Hampshire survey found almost two-thirds of the state’s residents trust scientists as a source of information on environmental issues (Woo! Woo!). But that broke down to 83% of the Democrats, 63% of the Independents, 60% of the non-Tea Party Republicans and 28% of the Tea Party Republicans.

I suppose Democrats could just be more trusting or more gullible or maybe more scientific. Thanks for stopping by.


Princeton study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:
Articles on the Princeton study on Science Daily and Motherboard websites:
HuffPost/YouGov poll in Huffington Post: www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/21/faith-in-scientists_n_4481487.html
University of New Hampshire press release and article in Mother Jones on New Hampshire Survey:
Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online marketplace: www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome

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