Useful Excerpts from Research on “trust in science”

You can grab these citations and more in my shared Mendeley library, but if you’re just looking for a little more background, here are some of the passages I found to be useful:

Chryssochoidis et al (2009)

Public trust in institutions and information sources regarding risk management and communication: towards integrating extant knowledge. Journal of Risk Research 12: p137–185.

At present, despite extensive and growing discussions within and across disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, sociology, economy and medicine about the creation and maintenance of trust in interpersonal relations (Weber and Carter 1998), no consensus exists on what the term ‘trust’ means. The concept of trust remains elusive (Hupcey et al. 2001). Nonetheless, at its most basic, ‘trust’ appears to indicate the expression of positive expectations that people have for others and themselves (Lewicki, McAllister, and Bies 1998; Weber and Carter 1998). Without trust, without these positive expectations of self and others, society could not function. Trust reduces complexity. Social actors would be paralysed if they had to examine each and every interaction for its possible negative consequences (Lewis and Weigert 1985; Weber and Carter 1998). Thus, the role of trust can be defined as ‘…lubricating social interactions on various levels, so that they function smoothly and harmoniously…’ (Tyler and Degoey 1996; Poortinga and Pidgeon 2003, 961)…. In addition to a lack of consensus regarding the definition of trust, there is also no agreement on the factors that determine or influence trust, i.e. the underlying function of trust across different social domains has not been precisely outlined. Numerous studies have been conducted to identify the core determinants of trust, including both the characteristics of those who trust (e.g. Uslaner 1999) and those to be trusted (e.g. Kasperson et al. 1992). A fundamental role of trust derives from the fact that the need for it arises only in uncertain environments and risky situations (Grabner-Krauter and Kaluscha 2003). As such, trust is particularly critical where complex socio-political systems generate risks different from routine experience.

In that direction, future research on trust needs to address the following issues: (1) whether or not trust is directly assessable as a respondent’s attribution, i.e. can be assessed by the respondent as a single notion; (2) the real number of groups of factors explaining the meaning of trust in risk management/communication, as well as their relationships; (3) the reverse effect occurring between trust and its identified determinants (i.e. in which circumstances trust may become cause instead of an effect of a specific aspect); (4) cross-cultural differences in trust. The development of dis/trust and its determinants should be analysed as a dynamic process worthy of investigation at different levels of relationships between the public and those they are to trust.

Gauchat (2012)

Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. American Sociological Review 77: 167–187.

Luhmann (1979) suggests that trust in science involves an abstract faith that some third- party has the specialized knowledge to appre- hend the complexity of the world (e.g., how car engines work, how to fight disease, or how to manage economic affairs). Luhmann concludes that this form of trust is essential to highly differentiated societies where knowl- edge is specialized and disparate, because it ameliorates the uncertainty attached to the unknown (see also Shapin 1994).

One question that remains largely overlooked is whether change over time in public trust in science is uniform or group-specific. The cul- tural ascendancy and alienation theses each imply a uniform increase or decrease in pub- lic trust in science, respectively. These uni- form changes correspond with a general mood in society or large-scale cultural shifts, such as expanded public education or a gen- eral alienation from technocratic authority. Another possibility is that public trust in the United States is associated with social factors
suchsuch as political ideology or religious cleav- ages, which account for declines or improve- ments in public dispositions toward science but are group-specific. For example, Mooney (2005) claims that ideological conservatives in the United States have become increas- ingly disenchanted with the scientific estab- lishment since the 1970s. Accordingly, he anticipates that conservatives in the United States will exhibit group-specific change in trust in science over time.

To summarize the main empirical findings, this study shows that public trust in science has not declined since the 1970s except among conservatives and those who frequently attend church. Accordingly, the analysis provides negligible evidence for the cultural ascendency thesis, which suggests that trust in science will increase over time. Nor do results support the alienation thesis that predicts a uniform decline in public trust in science. In general, results are consistent with claims of the politicization thesis and show that conservatives experienced long-term group-specific declines rather than an abrupt cultural break. Additionally, one of the key findings here involves the relationship between education and trust in science. In essence, this study greatly complicates claims of the deficit model, which predicts that individuals with higher levels of education will possess greater trust in science, by showing that educated conservatives uniquely experienced the decline in trust.

Myers et al (2012)

Public Perceptions of Federal Agencies that Conduct Climate Change Research. George Mason University, Fairfax, VA: Center for Climate Change Communication. Available:

Respondents were asked to assess NASA and the three (randomly assigned) other federal agencies on three additional dimensions: competence of the agency’s research scientists; trust in the agency’s research; and belief that the agency will use its research findings in ways that benefit the United States. We averaged the ratings on these three dimensions to derive a research credibility score.

NASA was perceived as the most credible agency for scientific research in general, while NOAA had the highest credibility rating for climate change research. The DOE and EPA were rated as the least credible for scientific research in general, although their mean credibility ratings were still well above the (neutral) mid-point of the scale (2.5). The DOE and DOD were rated as the least credible for climate change research, although, again, these means are above the middle of the scale. Thus, while credibility of the individual agencies does vary, all are seen as more credible than not; this is true for both scientific research in general and climate change research in particular.

Roberts et al (2013)

Causal or spurious? The relationship of knowledge and attitudes to trust in science and technology. Public Understanding of Science 22: 624–641.

According to Giddens (1990), trust in systems (e.g., economic, legal, political and scientific systems) implies faith “in the correctness of abstract principles” (p. 34) such as technical knowledge. Both Giddens (1990) and Luhmann (1988) have argued that trust has transformed as a consequence of modernity. In pre-modernity, trust predominantly involved face-to-face com- munication between two well-acquainted individuals. In modernity, people trust abstract expert systems (Giddens, 1990; Luhmann, 1988), wherein trust “takes the form of faceless commit- ments, in which faith is sustained in the workings of knowledge of which a lay person is largely ignorant” (Giddens, 1990: 88, emphasis in original). According to Luhmann (1988), trust is required in order for these expert systems to function and “stimulate supportive activities in situations of uncertainty and risk” (p. 103).

Consistent with our definition of trust as a willingness to be vulnerable, Earle (2010) defined
trust as the willingness to take a social risk and accept on faith that an individual or institution has the intention of acting in your best interest. He differentiated trust from the closely related concept of confidence. Earle (2010) argued that trust is about evaluating another’s intentions, whereas confidence involves evaluating another’s past behavior and abilities. This experience-based evalu- ation allows for much more certainty than is possible with trust, because trust is grounded in a reliance on the intentions of another party. According to Midden and Huijts (2009), “trust becomes the basis of decisions at the point when other assurances are not available and (experience-based) confidence is lacking” (p. 744).

Siegrist, Cvetkovich and Roth (2000) defined social trust as “the willingness to rely on those who have a responsibility for making decisions and taking actions related to the management of technology, the environment, medicine or other realms of public health and safety” (p. 354). The literature on scientific social trust is structured around three key questions: 1) Is there a crisis of trust in scientific experts, organizations or institutions? 2) Does increased social trust lead to increased willingness to accept scientific technologies? and, 3) What are the factors that influence people’s trust in scientific experts, organizations and institutions? A review of existing survey data suggests that whether or not there is a crisis of social trust depends on the definition of trust, object of trust, type of survey conducted, questions asked and the country studied (e.g., Allum, 2007; Barnett, Cooper and Senior, 2007; Cobb and Macoubrie, 2004; Gaskell et al., 2006).

As we have previously shown, models providing evidence that scientific knowledge directly influences trust in science (e.g., Einsiedel, 1994) have been called into question by subsequent research on trust in scientific actors (e.g., Critchley, 2008; Wynne, 1996). Moreover, it can be inferred from other research that we have reviewed (e.g., Peters et al., 1997) that if knowledge has a role in creating trust in scientific actors it is not so much the knowledge of the one trusting that counts as it is the perceptions of the knowl- edge of the one trusted from the perspective of the one trusting.

…our results show trust in generalized science and technology affects trust in specific technologies, but not vice versa. Therefore, it is entirely consistent to be distrustful of particular technologies and, at the same time, to be trusting of science as a whole… Our model suggests that it is attitudes, rather than perceived knowledge, that lead directly to an increase in trust in science and technology, and the subsequent link to trust in specific technologies is also very strong.