Americans See Scientists As Smart, But Not Trustworthy

Scientists, along with lawyers and engineers, are viewed as competent but lacking in warmth

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The American public views scientists as competent but largely lacking in warmth, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Lawyers, CEOs and accountants, the authors found, are seen in a similar light. So while scientists are considered smart, they're also not viewed as the nicest people—a stereotype that could impact public support of the sciences. 

To arrive at these findings, researchers from Princeton University first polled American adults about what they perceive as the most common careers. The researchers whittled those answers down into a list of 42 professions, ranging from farmer to cashier to politician. Then, they designed a new survey that investigated how competent and how warm participants found the people working in those careers to be. 

The team reports on some of the survey findings on Princeton's Research Briefs

Professionals that appear to be caring – such as teachers, nurses and doctors – are seen as both warm and competent. They evoke emotions like pride and admiration. On the opposite end of the spectrum are professions such as prostitutes, garbage collectors and dishwashers, who are seen as having low warmth and low competence....

The remaining two categories involved somewhat mixed emotions. For example, scientists, engineers and lawyers are seen as competent, but they are not seen as warm. This brings forth emotions like envy and distrust among Americans. 

People view scientists who are seeking grant money or who push their research findings with extra suspicion, the researchers found. Many Americans view such characters as downright untrustworthy. Surprisingly, however, climate scientists were viewed in a better light than "pure scientists"—perhaps because the public has been confronted with so much data in the media and from their own personal experiences with climate change, the researchers write. 

The lesson for all scientists, the researchers say, is:"Just like other communication, science communication needs to continue to convey warmth and trustworthiness, along with competence and expertise." In other words, convincing others of the importance of what you're working on depends not only on being smart and competent, but also on connecting and resonating with people.

We've actually known that for years. As the study authors write, "Long ago, Aristotle knew that communication is not just about logic and knowledge, but also about emotions and values." The challenge, it seems, is actually putting that knowledge into practice. 

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