Pew sees doubling of Americans who distrust scientists since 2019, with Republicans driving the trend

The backlash against science is continuing, with Pew Research Center tracking a souring of U.S. views of its impact on society and a more than 100% jump in the proportion of U.S. adults who distrust scientists.

COVID-19 now looks like a watershed moment for the relationship between science and a large number of adults in the U.S. In January 2019, 73% of U.S. adults polled by Pew said science has had a mostly positive effect on society. Only 3% of people said science has had a mostly negative effect, with the rest seeing an equal mix of upsides and downsides. 

Pew’s October 2023 poll found 57% of U.S. adults had a mostly positive view of the impact of science. As the number of people with favorable views has fallen, the proportion of adults who think science has had a mostly negative impact has more than doubled to 8%. One-third of Americans said science has caused an equal mix of positive and negative changes. 

Belief in the positive impact of science has fallen on both sides of the U.S. political divide in recent years, but the trend is particularly pronounced among Republicans. Fewer than half, 47%, of Republicans now say science has had a mostly positive effect, down from 70% at the start of 2021. The proportion of Republicans who think science has had a mostly negative effect has quadrupled, climbing to 12%.

The trend, which was seen in polls in 2021 and continued in the latest data, was matched by rising levels of distrust in scientists. More than one-quarter, 27%, of U.S. adults have little to no trust in scientists. The figure has risen from 13% in January 2019. Again, Republicans are driving the trend, with distrust among the political group rising from 18% to 38% since the start of 2019.

Figures for Democrats are trending in the same direction but are yet to plumb the same depths. Distrust has risen from 9% to 13%, and the proportion of Democrats who think science has had a mostly positive effect on society has fallen from 77% to 69%.

The figures cover science in general, rather than pharma specifically, so will be colored by views on topics such as climate change. But other studies suggest the data on scientists are in line with views on pharma. A recent Gallup poll found a record 60% of Americans view the pharma industry positively. The Gallup result was shaped by Republicans. The number of Republicans with positive views fell 50% in one year.