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In science, we trust… but what exactly is trust?

Title: What are you assessing when you measure “trust” in scientists with a direct measure?

Author(s) and Year: John C. Besley and Leigh Anne Tiffany, 2023

Journal: Public Understanding of Science (closed)


TL;DR: Measures of “trust” in scientists may be too simplistic to assess the values underlying trustworthiness in scientists accurately. In this work, researchers analyze three databases studying public trust in science, concluding that direct measures of “trust” in scientists are unclear in what exact feelings or behaviors they encapsulate.

Why I chose this paper: Simplifying things is what humans do— we like it when things aren’t too complicated (at least, I know I do). However, to truly establish trust through scientific communications, it’s crucial to consider the nuances of this, particularly when trying to reach broad and diverse audiences.


Trust is essential for communicators. For scientists, public distrust can have serious consequences, as it can lead to people making decisions based on misinformation or misunderstandings. However, trust is a complex issue, and understanding how to build trust with the public is still a topic of much research.

Researchers are often interested in direct trust measures to gauge trust in scientists, particularly in environmental sciences and health. Usually, they directly ask respondents how much they trust scientists. However, the prominent use of these direct measures, even in contemporary research, might overlook essential nuances related to gaining audience trust. Trust researchers differentiate between behavioral trust (the act of being vulnerable based on confidence in another) and trustworthiness perceptions (beliefs about the attributes and intentions of the trusted party).

While a previous study by Belsey examined the relationships between direct trust measures, trustworthiness perceptions, and trust as a behavior, more research is necessary to make correlations between these criteria. To what extent are direct measures of trust linked to specific trustworthiness perceptions, and how consistent are these relationships across different datasets? This is one of the main questions the authors wanted to uncover.

A cashier wearing grey gloves is pressing an electronic screen with a customer holding a tote bag across from them.
Using protective equipment to avoid the spread of disease, such as gloves and masks, is standard advice medical scientists give. Trust in these scientists, which comes with vulnerability and risk acceptance, is critical for audiences to accept these recommendations. (Photograph: Uriel Mont)

Three surveys on trust and trustworthiness perceptions

In this article, Besley and Tiffany discuss statistical findings from three studies investigating the relationships between trustworthiness perceptions, direct measures of trust, and, in some cases, vulnerability-focused measures of trust in science communication.

The first study was based on the National Science Board's Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 report, which included data from the United States’ General Social Survey (GSS)—a prominent biennial national survey by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. The GSS data included questions about trustworthiness perceptions and behavioral trust for various types of experts on different issues. This survey asked about trust in the scientific community as a whole and trust in the experts' abilities in their specific fields. It included respondents rating how well they thought “medical researchers” understood stem cell research and the risks of genetically modified food.

The second study used data from a global survey by Gallup in 2018 and Wellcome Trust. It focused on trust and trustworthiness. The survey included single-item measures for direct trust and trustworthiness perceptions. Specifically, they focused on ability (proficiency in an area of expertise), integrity (having strong moral and ethical values), and benevolence (well-meaning and kind).

The third and final study used data from a Pew Research Center online survey conducted in 2019. The survey included measures for direct trust, ability, integrity, and benevolence for different types of scientists, such as medical practitioners and environmental scientists.

Surveys say: inconclusive

Across the studies, the authors found inconsistent relationships between perceptions of ability, integrity, benevolence, and direct measures of trust. The Pew Research Center data analysis suggests that direct measures of trust in scientists might encompass a combination of ability, integrity, and benevolence. On the other hand, Wellcome Trust data indicates that direct measures might primarily focus on perceived ability, with less emphasis on integrity and benevolence. The General Social Survey (GSS) data suggests that the pattern of correlations varies based on the topic. By analyzing all three studies, the take-home message Besley and Tiffany emphasize is that if we want to understand why people trust scientists, we should ask more detailed questions about whether people see scientists as skilled, honest, and caring. Overall, it's clear that direct measures of trust capture some aspects of trustworthiness. Still, different and varied contextual factors influence the specifics of these relationships.

The Impact

Belsey and Tiffany's findings reiterate the vital role of trust in science communications. By understanding the public's perceptions of ability, integrity, and benevolence, science communicators can tailor their work to address specific aspects of trustworthiness. Designing interventions to consider competence, honesty, and caring can help improve trust in the scientific community. Moreover, trust researchers in science communications should consider using more specific measures to understand better how people perceive scientists. Instead of relying solely on generic "how much do you trust" questions, researchers should ask about particular aspects, such as whether participants view scientists as competent, honest, and caring.

Edited by Mahima Samraik & Niveen AbiGhannam

Cover image credit: Sora Shimazaki


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