When it comes to assessing the possible risks and benefits of science and technology, who is the relevant authority?
University scientists? Industry scientists? Religious organizations?
Different people offer different answers. An article forthcoming in the journal Public Understanding of Science finds that many people place greater trust in university and industry scientists than in religious organizations to tell the truth about the risks and benefits of technologies and their applications. But among evangelicals, the pattern is reversed, with religious organizations trusted significantly more than scientific sources.
The study, with more than 2,800 respondents recruited from a nationally representative sample, also found that evangelical and non-evangelical participants differed in which factors were associated with trust in university scientists. For non-evangelicals, greater scientific knowledge was associated with higher levels of trust. Those who paid more attention to science and technology news online were also more likely to trust university scientists. But for evangelicals, neither of these was associated with greater trust. In fact, evangelicals with greater scientific knowledge reported lower levels of trust in university scientists.
These findings suggest that evangelicals and non-evangelicals differ not only in which scientific media they're likely to be exposed to but also in whether and how they assimilate what they read. Greater knowledge of science is no guarantee that media consumers will be more receptive to scientists or to science. In fact, other studies find that greater scientific literacy can offer media consumers more tools for rejecting claims that conflict with their identity and that they're therefore motivated to reject.
Not surprisingly, the study also revealed associations between political orientation and attitudes toward different sources of authority. Liberal respondents were more trusting of university scientists and of science museums than were conservatives, but were no more trusting of industry scientists. On the other hand, conservatives were more trusting of religious organizations than were liberals.
These findings contribute to a growing body of work supporting a sobering conclusion: that "facts" won't succeed in bringing people together. Different groups of people won't agree on the facts if they don't agree on the value of different mechanisms for arriving at beliefs about the world.
Science isn't a universal mechanism for guiding beliefs (for instance, science can't settle questions of value or public policy), but it's our best guide to the natural world. If we can agree on that, there's a chance the rest will follow.
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