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Scientists Largely Trusted, But Also Seen As 'Inhuman'

Scientist are looked at as trustworthy, but also as goal-oriented, robot-like and cold, according to a new study.

A 2014 Harris Poll found that U.S. adults rate being a scientist among the most prestigious occupations, topped only by doctors, military officers and firefighters.

Yet, current political debates suggest that scientists are regarded — at least by some — with more than a modicum of misgiving.

Climate change offers a perfect illustration. Donald Trump calls global warming a "hoax." Ted Cruz describes it as "the perfect pseudoscientific theory" to expand government control. And Marco Rubio accuses "these scientists" of misrepresenting the data. But misgivings about scientists isn't restricted to Republican presidential candidates, or to climate change: Issues like GMOs and vaccination can evoke similar unease.

How is it, then, that scientists are regarded so favorably along some dimensions, and so unfavorably along others?

A new paper by Bastiaan Rutjens and Steven Heine, just published in the journal PLOS ONE, sheds light on these questions. In a set of studies that recruited nearly 2,000 participants online, Rutjens and Heine found that scientists were regarded as more trustworthy and scrupulous than a "regular person," but also more robot-like, goal-oriented and cold — and more interested in the pursuit of knowledge than in "doing the right thing." One test that tapped into people's unconscious associations found that being a scientists was associated with immoral acts related to harm and purity — such as murder or incest — but not with those related to fairness or care, such as cheating or abuse.

The authors conclude: "While scientists are largely trusted (and liked), they are also viewed as somewhat inhuman and obsessed enough with the pursuit of knowledge that they are perceived as capable of immoral conduct and can be potentially dangerous."

To arrive at these conclusions, the authors conducted ten experiments investigating American adults' perceptions of scientists, as well as their perceptions of other social groups for comparison, including atheists, lawyers, and "regular people." Some of these experiments explicitly asked participants to indicate the extent to which members of these groups had particular characteristics (such as trustworthiness), while others used a phenomenon known as the conjunction fallacy to tap into implicit associations between social categories and actions.

For the conjunction fallacy task, participants were given a description of a man who engaged in some unsavory act. Participants were then asked to indicate whether it was more likely that the man is (a) a sports fan or (b) a sports fan who is also a scientist of some kind. Because sports fans who are also scientists are a subset of all sports fans, the latter answer (b) cannot possibly be more likely than the former (a). Nonetheless, people mistakenly make this selection when the description includes information that is considered to be representative of the second attribute (in this case, being a scientist), so analyzing the conditions under which people make this error can tell us something about the kinds of properties associated with different social groups. Here, the error would suggest that people consider the unsavory act that was described as more representative of a scientist than of an average sports fan.

You can see Rutjens discussing this research in 15-minute video available here:


Why might people have these negative associations for scientists? And does it matter?

Rutjens and Heine's final experiments suggest that scientists are regarded as valuing knowledge and exploration over other considerations, such as maintaining purity and social norms. If these different considerations are thought to be in competition, then scientists' perceived amorality could simply be a consequence of the high value they're believed to place on the pursuit of knowledge. Another contributing factor could be an implicit opposition between cognition and emotion: If scientists are believed to be high on the former, they must be low on the latter — hence robot-like, cold and devoid of emotion.

Be that as it may, these scientific stereotypes are almost certainly harmful. There's already evidence that "geeky" stereotypes about science and engineering can decrease women's interest in pursuing these fields, and plenty of reasons to think a more inclusive portrayal of science and scientists could be beneficial.

Changing stereotypes about scientists may not be enough to convince Donald Trump to take climate change seriously, but it can't hurt to reinforce a lesson that should have been obvious at the outset: that scientists are human, too.

Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo