Hargreaves, I., Lewis, J. and Speers, T. ‘Towards a better map: Science, the public and the media’, Economic and Social Research Council.
Our first survey in April showed that people, in theory at least, differentiate between types of scientists in terms of trusting the information they receive.
Most people place a great deal of trust in university research scientists, while a majority say they distrust what scientists working for private business have to say.
Government scientists come somewhere in between the two. This suggests that scientific information is partly judged in terms of the perceived independence of those producing it. It also reflects trends in other surveys showing the decreasing trust people have towards the motives of private business.
The relevance of this for media coverage is not as straightforward as it might seem. Even if it is clear from media coverage who a scientist quoted is working for (and, perhaps more pertinently, where their funding comes from), it is unlikely, given the generally low levels of recall elicited by news, that most people are able to attend to such detail when absorbing information.
A majority also say they distrust scientific information they receive from the media – another response we should not take at face value. Research generally suggests that many people often claim to receive media – especially, in the British case, the press – with a high level of critical scepticism. This scepticism tends to be somewhat abstract, however, as people tend to trust the media they actually use (Hargreaves and Thomas, 2002). Given this, it is not at all certain that people are actually this discriminating in processing information (Lewis, 2001; Kitzinger, 2000), as we will see shortly.
Since our first survey suggested that people assume that the motive behind research is important to understanding the research itself, we explored the issue further in our second survey. The results here suggest that if some people are cynical about the aims of scientific research, a clear majority – 70 per cent – still see scientific research as a force for good in the world.
While one in seven (14 per cent) of the stories on the MMR coverage in our study refer to a decrease in the trust of science and scientists in the last few years – this response would indicate that one should not over-estimate this loss of trust. So, how big an impact did issues like CJD/BSE, in which mainstream science was called into question, actually have on people? The second survey asked the following open-ended question, with responses as listed:
Thus prompted, a majority do imply a decreasing level of trust, although since the question tends to encourage this response, it is notable how many – 45 per cent – say that nothing has decreased their level of trust. And while the CJD/BSE outbreak is often regarded in media discourse as the key moment in this respect, it may be a distant memory for some people, since it only just heads a fairly wide list of issues people were able to nominate.