Back in the pre-pandemic days of 2018, 3M sent out a survey to gauge the public’s opinion of science. Data gatherers were dismayed to discover what they considered a large amount of science skepticism, with only 83 percent of American respondents saying they trusted scientists and 85 percent saying they trusted science more broadly.
Then the pandemic shut down the world, a vaccine was approved faster than anyone anticipated, misinformation proliferated, wearing a mask became politicized, and it felt like trust in science was plummeting even further.
That’s why, when 3M repeated the survey earlier this year, the results caused some serious double takes. Trust in scientists actually rose to 86 percent while overall trust in science climbed to 89 percent.
Perhaps the pandemic highlighted the importance of science for some, says 3M’s chief science advocate, Jayshree Seth.
“The pandemic brought into focus how science directly impacts our lives in ways that are tangible, highly relevant, and deeply personal,” she says, “all of which have positively impacted appreciation for and trust in science.”
While the survey also found that people see misinformation as the biggest threat to scientific credibility, researchers are better poised to combat misinformation than ever before. We talked to local experts about the survey results and their work.
In this year’s survey, 91 percent of Americans said science is important to their everyday life.
“When I think about why that is, I believe the pandemic brought seismic changes to life as we know it,” Seth says. “Celebrities took a back seat to scientists as mainstream influencers on the news; friends and family shared the latest pandemic-related information; everyday people saw firsthand how the scientific method works as experts shared innovations related to vaccines, boosters, and treatments; and leaders across the world relied on science to inform shifts in societal behaviors.”
Of course, Seth’s job as chief science advocate calls for a healthy amount of optimism. Not everyone shares such a rosy viewpoint.
In 2020, University of Minnesota researchers warned that communication had the potential to both exacerbate and mitigate inequities of COVID-19.
“We made a set of predictions, and it was horrible to watch it all come true,” says Rebekah Nagler, an associate professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the U of M. “It reiterated why it’s important to study [misinformation] and intervene, but it was also the thing of nightmares.
“I worry that we are pretty far gone at this point,” she says, referring to the mismanagement of health communication around COVID-19.
So, what explains the upswing in trust? For one, humans and journalists suffer from bad-news bias. “We tend to fixate on problems,” says Emily Vraga, also an associate professor in the Hubbard School of Journalism, “because that’s the thing we need to address. Our orientation, then, is toward what we can do better.”
Also, a more granular look at the data reveals sharp political divisions. The gains made in trust were likely largely attributable to the political left.
During the pandemic, there was great concern about the “anti-science” sentiment. And that was not without reason: Among Republicans, faith in science did shrink. An Associated Press poll showed that confidence in the scientific community fell from 42 to 34 percent between 2018 and 2021 among Republicans. Confidence remained stable among independents during the same time frame and rose from 51 to 64 percent among Democrats.
“Democrats are the ones whose trust-in-science attitudes are breaking away,” says Nicole Krause, a civic science fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
So, the two sides are further apart—but the spike among liberals widened the gap more than the declines among conservatives, she says.
One note of optimism everyone can agree on: 3M’s survey also found that, globally, young people are much more likely to trust science, more likely to go into scientific careers, and more likely to think that the importance of science is growing.
“Our study found that millennials and Gen Z both have high appreciation for science and expect it to drive social impact, with a focus on solutions for sustainability, health, and STEM equity,” Seth says.
Younger generations are also significantly more likely than their older counterparts to say they expect to appreciate science more over the next five years
(63 percent of Gen Z and millennials, versus 43 percent of Gen X and baby boomers).
“Our data also show that people believe that with the pandemic, scientists and medical professionals inspired the next generation to pursue STEM careers,” Seth says, “and 90 percent agree that the world needs more people pursuing STEM careers.”
“Misinformation has been with us forever; it’s going to be with us forever,” Vraga says. “It’s never going away.” And certain politicians have not helped efforts to debunk misinformation and disinformation, which has grown fast and furiously across disciplines. Some of the tools Vraga and colleagues have found that work:
Prebunking (Get it? Like debunking, but prior to reading the misinformation): Here’s an example from Vraga about how media coverage helped prepare people for understanding the results of the presidential election. “In the lead-up to the 2020 elections, the media talked about how mail-in ballots [take longer to count], so a skew would happen. Results would start off looking more Republican,” she says. “It worked to give a lot of people a lot more confidence in the process.” She counts it as at least a partial success. Another example: Knowing there would be misleading arguments about vaccines, journalists put in an effort to prebunk many of the claims that the vaccines were “rushed,” explaining that vaccines were built on decades of technology.
Correcting people on social media—the right way: Telling someone they’re wrong on Twitter is fraught. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, Vraga says. The key is to make it clear you’re doing so out of love and care. “Most people appreciate it in the abstract; they think it’s part of public responsibility,” she says. So, empathize with the poster. “We’ve all been wrong,” she says. “Be compassionate and understanding—and offer an alternative explanation. It’s not just saying what’s wrong but what’s true.” Think about who you’re correcting and who they would find trustworthy, and mention their preferred sources, she adds. Don’t hesitate: The faster you correct something, the more likely people will believe the correction.
And remember that the goal is to correct the information for people viewing the post more than changing the original poster’s mind. “That’s important, but they’re the hardest person to correct,” Vraga says. “They publicly committed to it and might feel ashamed.” People viewing the interaction don’t have as many psychological barriers in place, and you can leave them with good information. “I am not saying everyone needs to be information warriors,” she says. “That would be exhausting. But in your own social media feeds or conversations offline, trying to offer gentle, empathetic correction might move the needle.”
Inoculation and booster shots: Literacy training needs to start in K–12 education, Vraga says, as an initial “inoculation” and to continue with lifelong “booster shots” of up-to-date strategies. “We need social-level changes to build science and news and health literacy into our education systems,” she says—and then opportunities to reinforce the knowledge throughout life.
As the number of “tool kits” and media literacy watchdog groups proliferate, there’s clearly not a single solution. That’s OK, Vraga says. We need all of it. If there’s one thing everyone agrees on? Misinformation is never going away.