America’s Crisis of Confidence: Rising Mistrust, Conspiracies, and Vaccine Hesitancy After COVID-19
Findings from the May 2023 American Perspectives Survey
September 28, 2023 |
America is experiencing a crisis of expertise—one that has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic and shows little sign of abating. A nationally representative survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life finds that a growing number of Americans are distrustful of scientific and medical experts.[i] This phenomenon cuts across demographic lines but is most acute among Republicans and evangelical Christians. It has implications for a wide range of scientific and medical fields—including climate change, public health, and artificial intelligence (AI)—posing significant challenges to public decision-making and democratic debate.
For years now, public discourse has been rife with concerns about the status of expertise in our political life. Stretching back decades, but intensifying since the rise of Donald Trump in 2016, a profusion of articles and books have bemoaned what commentators variously describe as an “attack on science,” the “death of expertise,” the “war on science,” or the “crisis of expertise.”[ii] Many blame the ignorance or irrationality of Americans who ignore or actively oppose the recommendations of scientific, medical, and other technical experts and are increasingly susceptible to conspiracy theories.
But some commentators dispute that there is such a crisis. They point to the fact that, historically, the American public has held scientists in high esteem—especially when compared to other institutions such as government, media, and business—and that this estimation has remained surprisingly robust over time. This is despite the rise of populism and, more recently, a global pandemic, both of which have thrust the issue of expertise into the crucible of our polarized politics. Rather than a general crisis, these commentators argue, what we have instead is a problem localized to certain demographics—an artifact of political polarization, anti-government sentiment on the right, and a voting base subject to manipulation by special interests, digital disinformation, and demagogues.[iii]
Our survey offers important contributions to this ongoing debate. While it is true that Americans have traditionally expressed relatively high levels of confidence in science, they appear to be growing more distrustful, especially since the pandemic. For instance, only 69 percent of Americans in May 2023 say they have confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests, down from 86 percent in January 2019.[iv]
The political divide in trust is stark. The share of Republicans who express confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests dropped from 82 percent to 56 percent between January 2019 and May 2023.[v] On the other side of the political aisle, the percentage of Democrats who express confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests also dropped over that same period, though by a lesser amount—from 91 percent to 82 percent. As a result, confidence in scientific and medical expertise increasingly mirrors partisanship.
But the survey also finds that differences in trust levels are not fully explained by partisanship. On the contrary, while confidence in expertise has dropped precipitously among Republicans, indicators of trust are relatively low across the board. And they are especially low among some religious Americans, Americans with educational attainment less than a bachelor’s degree, and minority groups, especially black and Hispanic Americans. These trends hold regardless of party affiliation.
For instance, religious Republicans express particularly low levels of trust. White evangelical Protestants express the lowest confidence overall, with only 52 percent expressing confidence in scientists. Meanwhile, secular Americans are the most likely overall to express high levels of confidence in scientists (79 percent).
Education is also important to public confidence in science. For instance, 84 percent of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher say they have “some” or “a great deal” of confidence that scientists are acting in the public’s best interests, compared to only 56 percent of Americans with a high school degree or less. Education levels also affect Democrats’ and Republicans’ views of science. While 94 percent of Democrats with a bachelor’s degree or higher say they have some or a great deal of confidence that scientists are acting in the public’s best interests, only 65 percent of Democrats with a high school education or less say the same. Among Republicans, the differences are also notable: 70 percent of Republicans with a bachelor’s degree or higher express some or a great deal of confidence that scientists are acting in the public’s best interest, versus 49 percent of Republicans with a high school degree or less.
Race and ethnicity also appear to affect public attitudes about science. For instance, from January 2019 to May 2023, the percentage of Hispanic Americans expressing a great deal or some confidence in scientists dropped from 82 percent to 61 percent. The pattern is similar for black Americans—from 85 percent to 69 percent over that same period. Generally, non-white Democrats are half as likely as white Democrats to express a great deal of confidence in scientists.
From this point of view, Americans who express the highest degree of confidence in scientific and medical experts—secular white Democrats with a bachelor’s degree or higher—appear to be relatively exceptional. In fact, well-educated white liberals are outliers from the mean, having considerably greater confidence than other Americans do. The overall high levels of trust among Democrats, as compared to Republicans, could therefore reflect the predominance of well-educated whites in the Democratic Party.
The kinds of expertise in which Americans express confidence also vary considerably. In certain areas of science and medicine, the partisan difference is stark. For instance, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Democrats believe there is near universal agreement among scientists that the Earth is warming primarily due to humancauses, whereas almost four in 10 (38 percent) Republicans agree. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans are concerned about serious adverse effects of vaccines, but only 27 percent of Democrats share those concerns. And Democrats are twice as likely as Republicans to believe that vaccine requirements are important to protect public health (77 percent vs. 38 percent).
In other areas, the partisan differences are negligible or even nonexistent. For instance, 70 percent of Americans overall accept the scientific consensus that humans have evolved over time. The percentage of Republicans who agree is identical at 70 percent. Similarly, though Democrats are considerably more worried about existential threats such as climate change or nuclear war than Republicans are, Democrats and Republicans are equally worried about AI turning against humanity (26 percent vs. 27 percent). Lastly, Republicans are more skeptical of academic science than their Democratic counterparts are. But Democrats and Republicans express similar levels of confidence (59 percent vs. 58 percent) in scientific research conducted by private industry.
In sum, public confidence in science has declined across the country and is lowest among Republicans. But although political polarization is the biggest single factor, the crisis appears consistent with—and to be an expression of—a general erosion of social trust concentrated among not only conservatives but also certain religious groups, Americans with lower levels of education, and racial and ethnic minorities.
For instance, our survey found that Americans who have low levels of institutional trust generally express similar views about public health interventions. In particular, Americans with low levels of institutional trust—based on self-reported confidence in core institutions of government and society, such as the federal government, national news media, and religious, academic, and scientific leaders—are much less likely than Americans with high institutional trust to be vaccinated against COVID-19. These findings hold regardless of party affiliation.
Thus the crisis of expertise—like the increasing polarization of American life generally—can and should be understood in a larger social context of distrust and alienation from institutions, which is well-documented in social science literature. The implications of these findings are significant for policy, politics, and social life.
Public policies depend on trust—as the COVID-19 pandemic made plain. Essential to the deployment of vaccines and adherence to public health guidance, trust in scientific and medical expertise directly influenced the effectiveness of the pandemic response. The declining trust that this survey documents, especially our findings concerning attitudes about vaccines and health agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), provides a warning to public health officials and suggests that future policy interventions that ignore the issue of trust will be less effective.
But these findings have more general implications as well. There appears to be a pervasive belief among many Americans that partisanship and other special interests have politicized and corrupted science. This may partly explain the large partisan disparities in trust, but it also offers a sobering lesson for our politics. Politics that can no longer be moored to common reference points in the form of scientific evidence and facts will become ever more fractured and susceptible to extremism. What can be done?
If the crisis of expertise is fundamentally an expression of a general decline in social trust—interrelated but not exclusively identified with political polarization—then its root causes might go much deeper than standard discussions of the problem suggest. It follows that campaigns to better educate Americans about science and medicine, combat digital disinformation, and the like—however beneficial in their own right—are not likely to solve the problem on their own.
Therefore, those seeking to understand and ultimately address the problem must look to the sources of declining social trust. This may require considering not only why so many members of the public have become increasingly distrustful of scientific and medical expertise over the past four years but also how to ensure that scientific and medical institutions can be worthy of the public’s trust.
Public Fears and Negative News
Negativity bias in news is a well-documented phenomenon, but the degree of pessimism varies considerably by topic. Americans who follow political news report that the coverage is overwhelmingly negative. By contrast, Americans who follow science and technology news report that the content is mostly positive.
A Partisan Divide in News Consumption
Democrats report more regular news consumption than Republicans do. Nearly six in 10 (59 percent) Democrats report that they often pay attention to news and current events, while less than half (46 percent) of Republicans report following the news as often.
Educational differences do not drive the partisan gap in news consumption.[vi] At every education level, Democrats demonstrate a greater interest in the news. Sixty-eight percent of Democratic college graduates report that they often follow news and current events, compared to 58 percent of Republicans with bachelor’s degrees or higher. Among Americans with a high school education or less, Democrats also report greater interest than do Republicans (46 percent vs. 38 percent).
Popular News Topics
Politics is the news topic Americans cite most often as being their primary interest. Nearly three in 10 (29 percent) Americans say they are most interested in following news about politics and government. About one in 10 Americans cite sports (11 percent), science and technology (10 percent), or business and economics (10 percent), respectively, as their preferred news topics. Eight percent say they are most interested in arts, entertainment, and fashion, and nearly as many cite climate change and the environment as their preferred news topic. Five percent of Americans are most interested in international affairs, and three percent say religion and spirituality is the news topic they follow most closely. Thirteen percent of Americans say they are not interested in any news topics.
Republicans and Democrats do not differ significantly in news preferences. Partisans tend to prefer news about politics and government more than independents do, but interest is far more skewed by education. Nearly four in 10 (39 percent) Americans with a postgraduate education report that they are most interested in following news about politics and government. Only 22 percent of those with a high school education or less say they are most interested in politics.
News interest varies considerably by age and gender. Senior men (age 65 or older) are more than three times more likely than young women (age 18 to 29) to say they are most interested in news about politics and government (47 percent vs. 15 percent). Conversely, young women are considerably more interested in following news about climate change and the environment (12 percent) than either young men (5 percent) or senior men (4 percent). But young men are much more interested in news about science and technology than young women are (16 percent vs. 8 percent). Notably, nearly one in four (24 percent) young women report not being interested in following news on any topic. Among young men, 15 percent are not interested in the news at all.
The Overwhelming Negativity of Political News
Viewers’ perceptions of negativity in news coverage vary widely by topic. By far, news about politics is rated by those who follow it as having the highest levels of negativity. Americans who are most interested in news about politics and government report that the coverage is overwhelmingly negative. Among Americans who follow political news, 82 percent say the topic has a negative skew. The majority of Americans who name international affairs (66 percent), business and economics (57 percent), and climate change and the environment (60 percent) as the most interesting news topic say the coverage is negative.
In contrast, Americans who say sports is their primary news topic report that coverage is positive (51 percent) or neutral (41 percent). Similarly, Americans most interested in arts, entertainment, and fashion report positive (49 percent) or neutral (37 percent) coverage. Science and technology news is uniquely positive as reported by those who follow it. More than six in 10 (62 percent) Americans who say news about science and technology is their preferred topic say the coverage is positive.
Concerns About Possible Global Threats: Climate Change, Nuclear War, AI, and Pandemics
Among various potential global threats—nuclear war, AI, another pandemic, and climate change—Americans appear most concerned about rising global temperatures. Forty-three percent of Americans report being very or extremely concerned about climate change. Only 29 percent of Americans say they are concerned about the possibility of nuclear war, and roughly one-quarter (26 percent) express concern about AI turning against humanity. The same amount (26 percent) of Americans report being very or extremely concerned about the advent of another global pandemic.
Democrats express greater fears about most of these potential threats, with the widest divide between Democrats and Republicans concerning climate change. Seven in 10 (70 percent) Democrats say they are very or extremely concerned about climate change, compared to only 13 percent of Republicans. Democrats express greater concern than Republicans about the possibility of nuclear war (31 percent vs. 25 percent) and another global pandemic (38 percent vs. 14 percent). Democrats and Republicans express almost identical views about the threat posed by AI turning against humanity: Roughly one-quarter (26 percent and 27 percent, respectively) say they are very or extremely concerned.
Americans are extremely polarized by climate change. Republicans express much less concern about the threat posed by climate change than Democrats do, and rarely believe it should be a political priority. Roughly one in five (19 percent) say climate change is primarily due to human activity, compared to 73 percent of Democrats. A majority (55 percent) of Democrats say climate change is a crucial issue, while only 9 percent of Republicans agree. Views among Republicans are consistent regardless of education levels, age, or religious background.
The Complex Ways Politics, Education, and Religions Shape Views of Science
Public perspectives on science are strongly influenced by education, religious beliefs, and political orientation. Overall, Americans with higher levels of formal education tend to express more confidence in scientists and have fewer doubts about mainstream scientific theories. But educational background is mediated by Americans’ political and religious beliefs. For instance, college-educated Republicans express far greater doubts about climate science than independents and Democrats with four-year degrees.
The survey reveals notable complexities in public understandings of major scientific issues as well. More Americans believe that the theory of evolution is the best explanation for the origin of the human species than not. But most Americans who believe in evolution also believe that “God or a higher power” plays a role in the process.
Americans Embrace Evolution
Most Americans believe that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of the human species, though a significant minority remain doubtful. More than six in 10 (61 percent) Americans agree that “evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.” Thirty-seven percent of the public disagrees.
Views have shifted noticeably over the past 15 years. In 2008, Americans were divided in their views about evolution, with roughly equal numbers agreeing and disagreeing that it best explained the origins of life (46 percent vs. 48 percent).
There is a large but complicated religious divide in views of evolution. More than eight in 10 (86 percent) religiously unaffiliated Americans agree that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life. A majority of Hispanic Catholics (74 percent), white Catholics (71 percent), and white mainline Protestants (66 percent) agree. In contrast, less than half of black Protestants (44 percent) and only 18 percent of white evangelical Protestants agree with the statement that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life.[vii]
But framing the question differently—for example, when offered the choice of whether evolution occurs through natural processes without supernatural involvement, whether evolution is guided or allowed by God or a higher power, or whether evolution does not occur at all—Americans are much less divided over the issue. Instead, the larger divide is between those who do and do not believe that God or a higher power is somehow involved in the process.
Thirty-one percent of Americans believe humans and other living things evolved over time due to processes in which God or a higher power plays no role. Nearly four in 10 (38 percent) affirm a belief in evolution but believe that God or a higher power guides or allows the process. Twelve percent of Americans reject the theory of evolution outright, and nearly one in five (17 percent) remain uncertain.
Religiously unaffiliated Americans have distinctive views on the nature of evolution. Two-thirds of nonreligious Americans believe in human evolution that is not guided or allowed by God or a higher power. About one-quarter of Catholics (29 percent) and white mainline Protestants (24 percent) and 7 percent of black Protestants say the same. Only 3 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe in evolution without God or a higher power, while 64 percent believe in supernaturally guided or allowed evolution. An additional quarter (23 percent) do not believe in evolution, believing instead that all living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. This response was higher among white evangelical Protestants than among all other faith traditions.
Educational differences loom large in views about evolution. Nearly half (48 percent) of Americans with postgraduate educational backgrounds believe in evolution without God or a higher power, a view shared by only 21 percent of those with a high school education or less.
The Origin of the Universe
Public understanding of the origin of the universe reveals greater divisions. Half of Americans believe scientists generally agree that the universe originated at a single point in time, often referred to as the Big Bang. Forty-eight percent of Americans believe the scientific community is divided about the origin of the universe.
Black Protestants and white evangelical Christians are less likely than other religious groups to believe that scientists generally agree about the origin of the universe. Only about one in three black Protestants (33 percent) and white evangelical Christians (32 percent) believe that scientists agree about how the universe originated. Two-thirds believe that scientists are divided about how the universe came to be. Catholics’ views differ starkly. More than half (53 percent) of white Catholics believe that scientists agree about how the universe began, while only 41 percent of Hispanic Catholics say the same. White mainline Protestants are evenly divided in their views. Non-Christian religious Americans and religiously unaffiliated Americans diverge from Christians in their belief that scientists generally agree that the Big Bang is the best explanation for the origin of the universe (60 percent vs. 67 percent, respectively).
Americans’ views about the science behind the beginning of the universe also starkly differ across levels of educational attainment. More than six in 10 (62 percent) college-educated Americans believe that scientists generally agree that the universe began with the Big Bang. Only 39 percent of Americans with a high school education or less share this view.
American attitudes on climate change divide most sharply alongpolitical and religious lines. Overall, about half (49 percent) of all Americans believe the Earth is getting warmer primarily as a result of human activity. One in four (24 percent) believe that global warming is occurring as a result of other natural climate patterns, and 7 percent say there is no compelling evidence that the Earth is getting warmer at all. Notably, nearly one in five (19 percent) Americans are uncertain about rising temperatures on Earth.
For the most part, views about the causes of climate change have not changed much over the past few years. In 2019, about half (52 percent) of the public said that Earth is warming primarily as a result of human activity, while 17 percent said it was due to natural patterns. Interestingly, fewer Americans today deny the existence of climate change, even though more appear to be uncertain about what is happening. In 2019, 21 percent of Americans said there was no compelling evidence for climate change, and nine percent were uncertain about it.[viii]
Democrats’ and Republicans’ views widely differ on the causes and existence of climate change. Roughly three-quarters (73 percent) of Democrats say the Earth is warming primarily due to human activity, while only 19 percent of Republicans agree. Forty-three percent of Republicans believe that climate change can be attributed to natural causes other than human activity, and nearly four in 10 say there is no solid evidence the Earth is warming (17 percent) or remain uncertain about what is happening (20 percent).
Education appears to affect views of climate change, especially among Democrats and independents. Among college-educated Democrats, 89 percent believe in human-caused climate change, compared to 54 percent of Democrats with a high school degree or less. Similarly, more than six in 10 (63 percent) independents with a bachelor’s degree or higher believe rising temperatures on Earth are primarily attributable to human activity, while only 40 percent of those with a high school degree or less say the same. The views of college-educated Republicans do not differ as largely from those with fewer years of formal education (Figure 6). Among college-educated Republicans, 26 percent believe climate change is caused primarily by human activity, compared to 19 percent of Republicans with at most a high school degree.
White evangelical Protestants and religiously unaffiliated Americans have opposing views on climate change. Two-thirds of secular Americans believe climate change is occurring and primarily attributable to human activity. In contrast, fewer than one in four (24 percent) white evangelical Protestants believe the Earth is warming primarily as the result of human activity. A majority of Americans who belong to non-Christian religions (66 percent) and Hispanic Catholics (57 percent) believe in human-caused climate change, as do a plurality of white Catholics (45 percent), white mainline Protestants (45 percent), and black Protestants (43 percent).
Conflict Between Religion and Science
Americans increasingly perceive a conflict between science and religion. Seventy percent of the public say they see a conflict between the two, while 27 percent disagree. In 2020, 56 percent of Americans said science and religion were generally in conflict, while more than four in 10 (42 percent) disagreed.[ix]
Both Democrats and Republicans tend to see a conflict between science and religion. Three-quarters (75 percent) of Democrats and seven in 10 (70 percent) Republicans believe there is generally a conflict between science and religion.
Americans with higher levels of formal education are less likely to believe there is a conflict between science and religion. More than three in four (76 percent) Americans with a high school education or less say there is a conflict, while significantly fewer Americans with a postgraduate education agree (58 percent). The education gap is also pronounced among those who attend religious services regularly. Only 47 percent of college-educated Americans who attend church at least once a month believe there is conflict between science and religion, while almost three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans with a high school education or less and similar religious attendance believe there is conflict. The education gap mostly disappears among those less engaged in regular worship.
Public Trust and Confidence in Science
Americans express remarkably little confidence in many major public institutions that serve crucial functions in civil society. Four in 10 (40 percent) Americans report having a great deal or some confidence in the federal government, and less than one-third (32 percent) express confidence in national news media. Less than half (49 percent) of Americans report having at least some confidence in religious leaders acting in the public’s best interests. Slightly more than half (56 percent) of Americans report being at least somewhat confident that college and university professors act in ways that serve the public’s best interests.
Americans express comparatively more confidence in scientists, including medical scientists. Three-quarters (75 percent) of Americans say they have at least some confidence in medical scientists, and 69 percent report having confidence in scientists generally.
However, trust in scientists has dropped precipitously over the past several years. In April 2020, 87 percent of Americans said they had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in scientists, and 89 percent were confident in medical scientists.[x] By December 2021, confidence had already declined to 77 percent in scientists and 80 percent in medical scientists. In 2023, fewer than seven in 10 (69 percent) Americans have a great deal or some confidence in scientists, and 75 percent have confidence in medical scientists. Nearly three in 10 (29 percent) Americans have little to no confidence in scientists today.
Confidence in science is sharply divided along partisan lines. Over eight in 10 (82 percent) Democrats have some or a great deal of confidence in scientists, compared to 56 percent of Republicans. This divide is even larger at the highest levels of confidence: Only seven percent of Republicans express a great deal of confidence in scientists to act in the public’s interest, compared to 39 percent of Democrats.
Americans with more formal education express greater confidence in scientists. Fifty-six percent of Americans with a high school education or less have some or a great deal of confidence that scientists are acting in the public’s best interests, compared to 84 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees or more.
There is a notable educational divide among both Republicans and Democrats. Seventy percent of college-educated Republicans and 94 percent of college-educated Democrats report having at least some confidence that scientists are acting in the public’s best interests, while two in three (65 percent) Democrats and less than half (49 percent) of Republicans with high school degrees or less feel the same.
Most religious groups do not differ appreciably from the public overall in terms of their confidence in scientists. However, two groups stand out: white evangelical Protestants and the religiously unaffiliated. White evangelical Protestants are the most likely to express little or no confidence in scientists. Slightly more than half (52 percent) of white evangelical Protestants say they have at least some confidence that scientists are acting to further the public interest. Forty-six percent say they have little or no confidence. White evangelical Protestants do, however, express high levels of trust in faith leaders. Seventy-nine percent of white evangelical Protestants say they have at least some confidence in religious leaders to act in the public’s best interests. In contrast, 79 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans express confidence in scientists—almost four times the number who express confidence in religious leaders (20 percent).
Growing Doubts About Science’s Trustworthiness
Public trust in scientific research has declined in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly half of the public (47 percent) agrees that scientific research has become less trustworthy in recent years. Roughly as many Americans (51 percent) disagree and believe that scientific research is no less reliable today.
Partisan differences are noteworthy. Only 29 percent of Democrats say scientific research has become less trustworthy, while 71 percent of Republicans believe it has.
Americans with more formal years of schooling generally express greater confidence in the reliability of research. However, the education gap varies considerably among partisans. Nearly half (43 percent) of Democrats with high school degrees or less agree that science is less trustworthy than it used to be. Only 16 percent of Democrats with a bachelor’s degree or higher degree agree. Educational attainment has a much smaller impact on Republicans’ views: 74 percent of Republicans with a high school degree or less say scientific research has become less trustworthy, compared to 67 percent of Republicans with a four-year degree.
White evangelical Protestants are unique among religious groups in the extent to which they believe science has grown less trustworthy. More than seven in 10 (72 percent) white evangelical Protestants say that scientific research is less trustworthy today than it was in recent years. Religiously unaffiliated Americans also stand out: Only 33 percent of unaffiliated Americans agree that science is less trustworthy, while two in three (67 percent) disagree.
Scientific Understanding: Evolution, Recessions, Climate Change, and COVID-19
Generally, many Americans say that scientists and researchers have a good understanding of complex phenomena including the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic, the origins of human life and the universe, and the causes of recessions and climate change. But a greater proportion of Americans express confidence that scientists and medical scientists will act in the public’s best interest. This suggests that even though Americans express more confidence in scientists compared to other institutions, they are more moderate in their beliefs about scientists’ and researchers’ understanding of the world. This suggests, in turn, that even if the public is less confident in scientists’ understanding of certain subjects, the public is still fairly confident scientists generally act in the public’s best interests.
Factors Causing Climate Change
Most Americans say that scientists generally have a good grasp of the factors causing climate change. Over six in 10 (61 percent) Americans say scientists understand very or fairly well the causes of climate change. Roughly four in 10 (38 percent) Americans say scientists have little or no understanding of what is causing the Earth’s climate to heat up.
Perceptions about whether scientists understand the factors causing climate change vary markedly between Democrats and Republicans. Eighty-two percent of Democrats believe scientists are fairly well-informed or very well-informed about the causes of climate change. Only 37 percent of Republicans agree. A majority (62 percent) of Republicans say scientists do not fully understand the causes of climate change.
Americans with more education believe that scientists have a better understanding of the causes of climate change. Only about half (52 percent) of Americans with high school degrees or less believe that scientists have a good or fairly good grasp of what is causing the Earth’s climate to change. In contrast, more than seven in 10 (71 percent) college-educated Americans say scientists are at least reasonably well-informed about the factors contributing to climate change. Conversely, Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher (8 percent) are less likely to report that scientists understand the factors causing climate change not at all well, compared to roughly half of the share of Americans with high school degrees or less (15 percent).
However, education’s influence is uneven across the political divide. Democrats’ views vary less across educational attainment levels than do Republicans’. Among Republicans with bachelor’s degrees or higher, 42 percent consider scientists to have a good understanding of the causes of climate change, compared to 37 percent of those with a high school degree or less. In contrast, Democrats with bachelor’s degrees or higher are far more likely than those with only high school degrees or less to say scientists have at least a fairly good understanding of the factors causing climate change (92 percent vs. 72 percent).
Origins of the Universe and Humanity
Americans express less certainty about scientists’ understanding of the origins of the universe. Less than half (44 percent) of Americans say scientists understand the origins of the universe fairly well or very well. More than half (54 percent) say scientists’ understanding of how the universe came to be is incomplete or completely lacking.
Educational differences are fairly modest. About half (51 percent) of Americans who have at least a bachelor’s degree or higher say scientists understand the origins of the universe at least fairly well. Thirty-nine percent of Americans with high school degrees or less say the same.
There is a wider division between Democrats and Republicans: 58 percent of Democrats say scientists have a reasonable grasp on how the universe formed, a view shared by only 32 percent of Republicans.
Americans are slightly more confident in scientists’ understanding of our own origins than scientists’ understanding of the origins of the cosmos. Considering the question of human origins, a narrow majority (53 percent) of Americans say scientists understand fairly well or very well how the human species came to be.
Partisan views regarding scientific understanding of humanity’s origins diverge sharply. Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) Democrats say scientists have a reasonably good understanding of how humans came to be, a view shared by only 39 percent of Republicans. Most Republicans (60 percent), but fewer than one in three (29 percent) Democrats, say scientists do not understand well how the human species came to be.
As with evolution, religious groups differ in their views of scientists’ understanding of the human species’ origins. Just over one in four (26 percent) white evangelical Protestants think that scientists understand the origins of the human species well, but more than two in three (69 percent) unaffiliated Americans think that scientists understand the origins of the species very or fairly well.
Causes of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Three years on, most Americans believe scientists have a good understanding of what caused the COVID-19 pandemic. A majority (56 percent) of Americans say scientists understand very well or fairly well the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. Forty-two percent of the public believe scientists do not really know what happened.
Despite the origins of COVID-19 being a politically polarized issue, there is a partisan divide on perceptions of scientists’ understanding of the cause of the pandemic. Two-thirds (67 percent) of Democrats believe scientists comprehend the cause of the pandemic, while Republicans are more evenly divided. Half (50 percent) of Republicans believe scientists understand the cause of the pandemic, while roughly as many (49 percent) say they do not.
Higher education attainment seems to shape the views of Democrats but not of Republicans. Seventy percent of Democrats with a bachelor’s degree or higher say that scientists understand the pandemic’s cause, but 62 percent of those with high school degrees or less say the same. Among Republicans, education does not have a significant effect on perceptions of scientists’ understanding of the pandemic’s origins.
Causes of Economic Recessions
Americans express more confidence that experts have a fairly good grasp on the causes of economic recessions, as compared to experts’ understanding of the origin of the universe and the causes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Less than two-thirds (64 percent) of the public say scientists have a fairly good or very good understanding of the factors that cause an economic recession. Republicans express far greater confidence in knowledge about the causes of economic recessions than they do about research in other fields of scientific inquiry. Sixty-one percent of Republicans say scientists understand fairly or very well what causes economic recessions. Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of Democrats share this view. Seventy-two percent of Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher consider that experts understand the causes of an economic recession, while only 56 percent of those with high school degrees or less hold the same view.
Religious Divide in Views of Scientific Knowledge
Across the board, white evangelical Protestants are less likely than the public at large to say scientists have a good understanding of various natural phenomena. Only 37 percent of white evangelical Protestants say scientists understand the factors causing climate change. Even fewer white evangelical Protestants say scientists have an adequate understanding of the origin of the human species (26 percent) and the origin of the universe (22 percent).
In contrast, secular Americans express greater confidence in scientific understanding than other Americans do. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of religiously unaffiliated Americans say scientists are very well-informed or fairly well-informed about the causes of climate change. A majority of nonreligious Americans say scientists have a good understanding of the origin of humanity (69 percent) and the origin of the cosmos (54 percent).
Political Influence in Science
Many Americans perceive an entanglement of politics and science, especially when it comes to vaccines and climate change. However, concerns about political priorities influencing scientific research are more pronounced among conservatives and Republicans.
Most Americans believe that politics influences research findings from medical scientists about the health risks and benefits of childhood vaccines. Fifty-five percent of the public say the personal political views of medical scientists influence their research at least some of the time. Forty-three percent say this does not happen often or at all.
Even more Americans believe that politics influences scientific research when it comes to climate change. More than six in 10 (62 percent) Americans believe research conducted by climate scientists is influenced by their own political opinions at least some of the time. About one in three (36 percent) say this rarely or never happens.
Republicans believe political influence in climate science research is fairly common. Eighty-six percent of Republicans say climate scientists’ political opinions at least occasionally influence their research. Democrats are far less likely to say the same, though 43 percent still believe this happens occasionally.
The religious divide in views about the commingling of politics and science is nearly as large as that among partisans. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of white evangelical Protestants say scientific research on childhood vaccines is influenced at least some of the time by the researchers’ political leanings. Only 41 percent of religiously unaffiliated Americans perceive political motives in research conducted on vaccines.
Perceived Politicization of Climate Science and Public Trust
Perceptions of political bias appear to play an important role in Republican attitudes about science, especially research on climate change. For instance, among Republicans, those who express greater doubts about the existence of human-caused climate change also say many scientists are influenced by their own political views. Less than half (47 percent) of Republicans who say politicized science is a big problem report they have confidence that scientists act in the public’s best interest. In contrast, among Republicans who say this is a minor problem or not a problem, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) express confidence in scientists.
Similarly, Republicans who say politics influences climate science research are far less likely to express confidence that scientists understand the causes of climate change or believe it is caused by humans. Only 18 percent of Republicans who say climate scientists are influenced by their own political leanings say scientists have a good understanding of the causes of climate change. In contrast, a majority (55 percent) of Republicans who say climate researchers are less prone to political bias say scientists have a good understanding of the problem. And Republicans who say scientific researchers on climate change are influenced by politics are far less likely to express a belief in human-caused climate change than are those who perceive less political influence (8 percent vs. 34 percent). But notably, even Republicans who reject the idea that climate science has been politicized still express less concern about climate change issue than other Americans do.
Government Oversight of Scientific Research
When it comes to emerging medical research and new medical technologies, Americans prefer at least a fair amount of government oversight. In various research endeavors—vaccine development, DNA editing, AI, infectious disease research, and stem cell research—Americans consistently desire some level of government oversight.
Democrats, black Americans, and older Americans are consistently among the most likely to want greater government oversight of these research activities. Republicans tend to prefer less oversight generally. Notably, those groups that have lower confidence in the federal government to act in the public’s best interest also do not favor government oversight of research—especially white evangelical Protestants and Republicans.
Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans say there should be a great deal or a fair amount of government oversight of infectious disease research. Thirty-seven percent of Americans say there should be a great deal of government involvement. Less than one-quarter (23 percent) say the government should have a very limited role or no role at all. More than two-thirds of Americans say they want a great deal (31 percent) or a fair amount (37 percent) of oversight on scientific research focused on vaccine development. Roughly six in 10 Americans say the government should play at least some role in overseeing AI research (59 percent) and scientific research on stem cells (58 percent).
Americans are more divided over how much the government should be involved in overseeing research on DNA editing. A majority (55 percent) say there should be a fair amount or a great deal of government oversight of DNA editing research. Just one-third say there should be little or no oversight. Notably, eight percent of Americans say no scientific research on DNA editing should be conducted, the highest response given for this answer for any of the research categories included in the survey.
No group of Americans expresses greater hesitancy about research on DNA editing than white evangelical Protestants. Seventeen percent of white evangelical Protestants say no research should be conducted on editing human DNA to cure diseases, a greater percentage than any other religious group. But only nine percent of white evangelical Protestant say no medical research should use human stem cells.
Across the board, Republicans express less support for government oversight of various types of scientific research than Democrats do. A majority of Republicans support scientific work on infectious diseases (65 percent) and government oversight of vaccine research (56 percent), but they are more divided when it comes to research on AI and stem cell research. Only half of Republicans say research on AI (49 percent) and stem cells (50 percent) deserves at least some oversight. Only 42 percent of Republicans believe the government should have a significant role in overseeing research on DNA editing, although 12 percent of Republicans oppose any research conducted in this area.
In contrast, more than three-quarters (77 percent) of Democrats say vaccine research should include at least some government oversight. Eight in 10 (81 percent) Democrats say the same for research on infectious diseases, and roughly two-thirds say research on AI (67 percent), stem cells (65 percent), and DNA editing (64 percent), respectively, require at least a fair amount of government oversight.
Perceptions of Conspiracies and Dubious Claims in Science and Politics
A substantial minority of Americans accept or do not reject unsubstantiated scientific and political claims, including conspiracy theories about elections and vaccines. For instance, while most Americans do not believe that childhood vaccines cause autism, 23 percent say they are not sure about the claim.
Republicans express more concern than Democrats do about the alleged role of corporations in certain areas of science and medicine, such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and “natural cures” for cancer and other diseases.
Corporations and Genetically Modified Organisms
Americans are divided over whether corporations are promoting harmful genetically modified organisms (GMOs). More than four in 10 (42 percent) Americans say the claim that “corporations are promoting genetically modified foods that have been shown to be harmful to human health” is accurate. Fewer Americans (32 percent) reject this claim as mostly or completely false. One-quarter (25 percent) say they aren’t sure.
Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say that corporations are promoting harmful GMOs. Half (51 percent) of Republicans say the claim is accurate, compared to 36 percent of Democrats. Fewer than four in 10 Democrats (38 percent) and Republicans (27 percent) reject the claim.
Religious groups are also divided about whether corporations are pushing dangerous GMOs on the public, but white evangelical Protestants are far more likely to endorse the claim. More than half (51 percent) of white evangelical Protestants say that corporations promote GMOs that are harmful to human health. One-quarter (25 percent) of white evangelical Protestants say this is false.
Women are more likely than men are to say that corporations are promoting harmful GMOs. Close to half (47 percent) of women—including 56 percent of Republican women—say this claim is accurate, compared to 36 percent of men.
Is the FDA Blocking “Natural Cures”?
Americans are divided over the accuracy of the claim that “the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is deliberately preventing the public from getting natural cures for cancer and other diseases because of the pressure from drug companies.” More than one in three (35 percent) Americans say this claim is mostly or completely accurate, while slightly more (44 percent) say it is untrue. Twenty percent of Americans say they are not sure.
Views about whether the FDA is blocking access to natural cures due to industry pressure also vary by race and ethnicity. One-third (33 percent) of white Americans say the claim is accurate, compared to 38 percent of black Americans and 44 percent of Hispanic Americans. Nearly half (48 percent) of white Americans reject the claim as being mostly or completely false, compared to 29 percent of black Americans and 32 percent of Hispanics.
Republicans express greater credulity than Democrats do about the claim that the FDA is blocking access to natural cures for cancer and other diseases due to industry pressure. Forty-five percent of Republicans, compared to 26 percent of Democrats, say the claim is accurate. Most Democrats (56 percent) reject the claim, compared to only about one third (34 percent) of Republicans.
Childhood Vaccines and Autism
Few Americans say that childhood vaccines cause autism, but a significant number remain uncertain about the relationship. One in 10 (10 percent) Americans say the claim that “childhood vaccines have been shown to cause autism” is completely or mostly accurate. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of the public say this statement is inaccurate. However, nearly one in four (23 percent) Americans report being uncertain. Despite visible campaigns about vaccine safety, views about the relationship between vaccines and autism are nearly identical to what they were a couple of years earlier.
Important racial and ethnic divisions emerge in views about vaccines and autism. Only 15 percent of black Americans, 13 percent of Hispanic Americans, and nine percent of white Americans believe there is a connection between childhood vaccines and autism. However, racial and ethnic minorities are far less likely than white Americans to reject any association. Black Americans (35 percent) and Hispanic Americans (35 percent) are about twice as likely as white Americans (18 percent) to say they are uncertain about the link between vaccines and autism.
There are notable partisan differences in views about vaccines and autism. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the claim that childhood vaccines cause autism is accurate (17 percent vs. 7 percent), but a majority of Democrats (74 percent) and Republicans (60 percent) say the claim is false. Nearly one in four (23 percent) Republicans report being uncertain, compared to 18 percent of Democrats.
Was COVID-19 a Biological Weapon?
A minority of the public says that China intentionally planned the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a biological weapons program. One in four (26 percent) Americans say this claim is mostly or completely accurate, while less than half (46 percent) believe it to be false. About one in four (26 percent) Americans report being uncertain about this claim’s validity.
There is a much larger political divide in views about whether COVID-19 was part of a Chinese biological weapons program. Only 13 percent of Democrats say that China intentionally created COVID-19 as part of a weapons program, compared to half (50 percent) of Republicans. Importantly, Republicans with bachelor’s degrees or higher are less likely to say China intentionally planned COVID-19 than those with high school degrees or less (39 percent vs. 52 percent).
Most Americans do not believe widespread voter fraud took place in the 2020 election, but a sizable number of Americans do. Twenty-eight percent of Americans say the claim that there was “widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election” is completely or mostly accurate. A majority (54 percent) of Americans say the claim is false, and 17 percent express uncertainty.
Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say there was widespread fraud in the 2020 election (59 percent vs. 8 percent). However, in May 2023 Republicans were somewhat less likely (59 percent) to say widespread voter fraud was perpetrated in the previous presidential election than they were immediately following the election (65 percent in January 2021).
Roughly half of all Americans are about as likely to reject the claim that “thousands of illegal immigrants cast votes in recent national elections,” although a significant number remain uncertain. One-quarter (25 percent) of the public say the claim is mostly or completely accurate, while half (50 percent) say it is untrue. Twenty-four percent of Americans say they are not sure whether illegal immigrants have been voting in recent national elections.
In recent years, vaccines have become a source of growing controversy, exacerbated by the politicization of public health measures introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although vaccinations have become more polarized, the survey found that age, education, media consumption habits, and religious identity all influence Americans’ vaccination status as well as their views about vaccine safety and requirements. Institutional trust also plays an important role. For instance, even after controlling for party affiliation, high levels of confidence in public institutions are correlated with higher vaccination rates.
Most Americans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination, but a few groups have not been vaccinated. Nearly eight in 10 Americans report being fully vaccinated for COVID-19 (73 percent) or having received an initial shot (5 percent). About one in five (21 percent) Americans say they have not been vaccinated for COVID-19.
Older Americans are considerably more likely to have been vaccinated for COVID-19. Eighty-five percent of seniors (age 65 or older) are fully vaccinated, compared to the least-vaccinated group, young adults. Less than two-thirds (64 percent) of young people (age 18 to 29) report being fully vaccinated.
The educational divide among Americans is also significant. Thirty percent of Americans who have not received more than a high school degree report not having received a COVID-19 vaccine, while only nine percent of Americans who have at least a bachelor’s degree are unvaccinated.
There are sharp divisions in vaccination status by political affiliation. Eighty-nine percent of Democrats—and 74 percent of independents—are completely vaccinated for COVID-19. Fewer than six in 10 (58 percent) Republicans are fully vaccinated, and more than one in three (34 percent) Republicans have never received the COVID-19 vaccine.
The age gaps are especially pronounced among Republicans. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of Republican seniors report being fully vaccinated, compared to over four in 10 (41 percent) young Republicans. Age differences are modest among Democrats. Ninety-six percent of Democratic seniors and 86 percent of Democratic young adults report that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
A similar pattern emerges by educational background. More-educated Republicans have a higher vaccination rate than those with fewer formal years of schooling. Seventy-one percent of college-educated Republicans are fully vaccinated, compared to about half (51 percent) of Republicans with high school degrees or less. Vaccination status among Democrats is only slightly less affected by educational attainment. Ninety-seven percent of Democrats with bachelor’s degrees or higher and 80 percent of Democrats with high school degrees or less have received the complete COVID-19 vaccine.
Despite the Trump administration’s role in developing COVID-19 vaccines through Operation Warp Speed, Republicans who have more favorable views of the former president are far less likely to have received the vaccine. Slightly more than half (52 percent) of Trump-aligned Republicans say they are completely vaccinated, compared to 76 percent of Republicans who view Trump unfavorably.
Media Consumption and Vaccine Status
Americans who rely mainly on conservative media and social media for their news are less likely to have received a COVID-19 vaccine than are Americans who rely primarily on media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, NPR, networks, news, and public television. Less than half (45 percent) of Americans who consume primarily conservative media outlets—such as Breitbart News, One America News Network, and talk radio—say they are vaccinated. Of those Americans for whom Fox News is their primary news source, slightly more than six in 10 (63 percent) report having been vaccinated. Notably, 56 percent of Americans for whom social media is their main news source say they have been vaccinated for COVID-19.
In contrast, full vaccination is reported by nearly all Americans whose main news source is CNN (87 percent), MSNBC (90 percent), network news (85 percent), public television, or NPR (91 percent). More than three-quarters (76 percent) of Americans whose main news source is their local newspaper say they have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.
Americans who did not receive the COVID-19 vaccine cite various reasons, including concerns over safety and efficacy. Thirty-nine percent say they had concerns about the vaccine’s safety. Thirty-eight percent of unvaccinated Americans say they did not get the vaccine because they did not believe it was necessary. Ten percent of Americans who have not received the vaccine say they harbor concerns about the vaccine’s effectiveness. Additionally, 11 percent cite some other reason for refusing the shot.
Young adults are less likely to have received the COVID-19 vaccine than older Americans. Younger Americans who have not received a shot are more likely than older Americans who have not received a shot to say they do not believe the vaccine is effective (45 percent vs. 32 percent). In contrast, older unvaccinated Americans are more likely (44 percent) to cite safety concerns than are younger unvaccinated Americans (35 percent).
Adverse Health Effects
Concerns about the potential adverse health effects of vaccines are salient considerations for many Americans, even among those who still receive the jab. Nearly half (47 percent) of Americans say they are concerned about “adverse health effects of vaccines,” while slightly more than half (51 percent) disagree.
Concerns about vaccine safety differ widely by education levels. Fifty-eight percent of Americans with high school degrees or less say they are concerned about adverse health effects from vaccines. This share steadily declines with each additional level of educational attainment. Fifty-two percent of Americans with some college and fewer than four in 10 Americans with bachelor’s degrees (39 percent) or postgraduate education (28 percent) share this concern.
Partisan differences are also evident on the question of adverse health effects. Sixty-seven percent of Republicans say they are concerned about adverse effects of vaccines, compared to about one in four (27 percent) Democrats.
Education levels matter for Republicans and Democrats alike. Democrats with bachelor’s degrees or higher are half as likely as those with high school degrees or less to be worried about adverse effects (17 percent vs. 39 percent). Republicans with college degrees or higher also report less concern about these effects than do those with a high school education or less (59 percent vs. 73 percent).
Concern over adverse effects is also highly correlated with vaccine uptake. More than eight in 10 (81 percent) Americans who have not yet received COVID-19 vaccines agree that they are concerned about adverse effects. In contrast, fewer than four in 10 (37 percent) fully vaccinated Americans say the same.
Despite such safety concerns about vaccines, the public widely believes in the collective importance of childhood vaccines. Nearly nine in 10 (89 percent) Americans agree that “childhood vaccines are important for the health of all children.” Only 10 percent of Americans disagree. This belief varies only modestly among Americans of different demographics.
Despite the controversy surrounding vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, most Americans generally support vaccine requirements in principle. A majority (57 percent) of the public agrees that in certain instances, vaccine requirements are an important way to safeguard public health. Four in 10 Americans (41 percent) believe that getting vaccinated should always be left up to the individual.
Stark partisan differences are evident in views about the acceptability of vaccine requirements. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of Democrats believe vaccine requirements are important to protect public health. Fewer than four in ten (38 percent) of Republicans agree. Sixty percent of Republicans say that vaccination should never be required and should always be left up to individuals.
Education is another key factor when it comes to attitudes about vaccine requirements. More than half (52 percent) of Americans with a high school degree or less say getting vaccinated should be a personal decision, while slightly fewer (45 percent) say that vaccine requirements are an important way to protect public health. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans with bachelor’s degrees or higher, including three-quarters (76 percent) of those with postgraduate degrees, say that vaccine requirements are an important method for safeguarding public health.
Among most religious groups, vaccination requirements are supported at least in principle. White evangelical Protestants are distinct in expressing the belief that vaccines should never be required. Only 38 percent of white evangelical Protestants say that in some cases it is important to require vaccinations to protect public health. In contrast, a majority of white mainline Protestants (56 percent), black Protestants (57 percent), Hispanic Catholics (58 percent), white Catholics (65 percent), members of non-Christian religions (70 percent), and religiously unaffiliated Americans (69 percent) say vaccine requirements are important for public health.
Americans with more frequent religious attendance are slightly more divided than less-frequent attendees about vaccine requirements. A majority (57 percent) of Americans who attend religious services more than once a week say vaccines should never be required. But 42 percent say vaccine requirements are an important means of protecting public health. In contrast, more than six in 10 (64 percent) Americans who never attend religious services say vaccination requirements are an important way to protect public health.
Americans who are concerned about adverse health effects of vaccines are generally also more likely to say that vaccination should always be a personal decision. Sixty-one percent say that vaccination should be a personal choice, compared to 38 percent who say vaccine requirements can be an important way to protect public health. Three-quarters (75 percent) of Americans who express less concern about adverse effects say that public health is the more important consideration.
Vaccines and Institutional Trust
Americans with low levels of institutional trust tend to express greater hesitation about vaccines and increased concerns about negative health outcomes than do Americans with higher levels of institutional trust.
To measure institutional trust, we combined five ordinal variables to create a single additive scale. The measures included self-reported confidence in the following leaders and institutions to act in the public good: the federal government, the national news media, college and university professors, religious leaders, and scientists.[xi] The final variable had a range of values from zero to 15 and was then rescaled into quartiles, permitting comparison between the top and bottom quartiles, which identify Americans with the highest and lowest levels of institutional trust, respectively.
Institutional trust is strongly associated with vaccination status. Only about half (51 percent) of Americans with low institutional trust are fully vaccinated, and 41 percent have not received any COVID-19 shots. In contrast, nearly nine in 10 (89 percent) Americans with high institutional trust are fully vaccinated. Just seven percent of this group is unvaccinated.
Regardless of partisan affiliation, institutional trust has a bearing on vaccination status. Nearly all (96 percent) Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans with high levels of institutional trust report being fully vaccinated. And among those with low levels of trust, nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Democrats report they are fully vaccinated. Less than half (47 percent) of low-trust Republicans are fully vaccinated; a similar share (45 percent) of low-trust Republicans are unvaccinated—twice as many as low-trust Democrats (22 percent).
Support for childhood vaccines is universally high, but views differ between Americans with high and low levels of institutional trust. Ninety-four percent of Americans with high levels of institutional trust say childhood vaccines are important for the health of all children. In contrast, 77 percent of Americans who express low institutional trust say the same. Put another way, low-trust Americans are more than five times more likely than high-trust individuals to say that childhood vaccines are not necessary for the health of all children.
About the Authors
Daniel A. Cox is the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. Under his leadership, the center is focused on public opinion and survey research, on topics such as religious change and measurement, social capital, and youth politics.
M. Anthony Mills is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he studies the federal government’s role in science and innovation and the relationship between scientific expertise and democratic governance.
Ian R. Banks worked as a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute until recently. He is now pursuing graduate studies at Oxford University.
Kelsey Eyre Hammond is a research associate and project manager for the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life.
Kyle P. Gray is a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.
The survey was designed and conducted by the Survey Center on American Life. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 5,055 adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. All interviews were conducted among participants of the Ipsos KnowledgePanel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the US general population, not just the online population. Interviews were conducted in Spanish and English between May 16 and May 24, 2023.
Initially, participants were chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households were then invited by telephone or mail to participate in the Ipsos KnowledgePanel. For those who agreed to participate but did not already have internet access, Ipsos provided a laptop and internet service provider connection for free. People who already had computers and internet service were permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then received unique log-in information for accessing surveys online and then were sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.
The data were weighted to adjust for gender, race/ethnicity, education, census region, household income, race by gender, race by age, and race by education. The sample weighting was accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting (IFP) process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables.
The use of survey weights in statistical analyses ensures that the demographic characteristics of the sample closely approximate the demographic characteristics of the target population. The margin of sampling error for the qualified survey sample is +/– 1.5 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.11.
[i] It is standard in social science literature to distinguish between two kinds or elements of trust—sometimes called “trust” versus “confidence” (per Niklas Luhmann) or “trust” versus “basic trust” (per Anthony Giddens). One roughly corresponds to the conscious beliefs people profess when queried (e.g., self-reported beliefs in a survey) about their own levels of trust; the other is a “tacit and habitual premise of everyday action” that is a necessary ingredient in social life but that is, by definition, rarely reflected on or articulated. (See Gil Eyal, The Crisis of Expertise [Medford, MA: Polity, 2019], 55–57). Because this distinction is by nature hard to capture through survey data, we use “confidence” and “trust” more or less interchangeably in our report. However, we hope that by providing more specificity, context, and detail on Americans’ stated beliefs, our findings can contribute to the growing body of scholarship on social trust and expertise—including the differences between “trust” and confidence”—and the implications of these beliefs. For recent scholarship on “trust” versus “confidence, see Eyal, The Crisis of Expertise;and Tarun Kattumana, “Trust, Vaccine Hesitancy, and the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Phenomenological Perspective,” Social Epistemology 36, no. 5 (September 2022): 641–55, https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2022.2115325; and Kevin Vallier, “Social and Political Trust: Concepts, Causes, and Consequences,” Niskanen Center, April 2019, https://www.niskanencenter.org/wp-content/uploads/old_uploads/2019/05/Vallier-Social-and-Political-Trust-Niskanen.pdf. For a discussion of the philosophical implications of the growing empirical literature on political polarization and social trust, see Kevin Vallier, Trust in a Polarized Age (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2020); and Adam Gjesdal, ed., “Symposium on Kevin Vallier, Trust in a Political Age,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 26, 4 (2023), https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/fcri20/26/4.
[ii] See, for example, Eyal, The Crisis of Expertise; Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2017); Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2006); Editorial Board, “President Trump’s War on Science” New York Times, September 9, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/09/opinion/sunday/trump-epa-pruitt-science.html; and Shawn Otto, The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2016).
[iii] See, for instance, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, “From Anti-Government to Anti-Science: Why Conservatives Have Turned Against Science,” Daedalus 151, 4 (Fall 2022): 98–123, https://direct.mit.edu/daed/article/151/4/98/113706/From-Anti-Government-to-Anti-Science-Why.
[iv] See also Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, “Major Declines in the Public’s Confidence in Science in the Wake of the Pandemic,” June 15, 2023, https://apnorc.org/projects/major-declines-in-the-publics-confidence-in-science-in-the-wake-of-the-pandemic.
[v] Data for 2019 retrieved from Brian Kennedy, Alec Tyson, and Cary Funk, “Americans’ Trust in Scientists, Other Groups Declines,” Pew Research Center, February 15, 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2022/02/15/americans-trust-in-scientists-other-groups-declines. The Pew Research Center question has identical framing to the current question but slightly different answer options. (Pew uses “a fair amount” while this survey used “some.”) Also note the difference between “trust” and “confidence.”
[vi] Nearly half of Democrats have bachelor’s degrees, compared to about one-third of Republicans.
[vii] Previous research has found that evangelical Christian attitudes on evolution vary widely depending on how survey questions are posed. For instance, the Pew Research Center found that, when given a simple binary question about whether human beings evolved, most evangelical Christians respond “no.” However, if given a third option about whether human beings evolved as part of a divinely guided or allowed process, most evangelicals affirm this latter view. Pew Research Center’s American Trend’s Panel, April 23- May 6, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2018/07/PS_2018.07.26_gene-editing_TOPLINE.pdf.
[viii] Pew Research Center, “In a Politically Polarized Era, Sharp Divides in Both Partisan Coalitions,” December 17, 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/12/17/in-a-politically-polarized-era-sharp-divides-in-both-partisan-coalitions.
[ix] Cary Funk et al., “Biotechnology Research Viewed with Caution Globally, but Most Support Gene Editing for Babies to Treat Disease,” Pew Research Center, December 10, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2020/12/10/biotechnology-research-viewed-with-caution-globally-but-most-support-gene-editing-for-babies-to-treat-disease.
[x] The Pew Research Center question has identical framing to the current question but slightly different answer options. Kennedy, Tyson, and Funk, “American’s Trust in Scientists, Other Groups Declines.”
[xi] To create a measure for the entire sample, we combined two measures—“scientists” and “medical scientists”—that were each asked of half the sample in the original survey.
Please join AEI and distinguished guests for a two-part conversation examining the causes and consequences of increasing political polarization and eroding trust in institutions and scientific and medical experts on Wednesday, October 4, 2023.