Scientists or Whom do we trust?

By Kerri Wingert - September 2014


Brewer, P. R., & Ley, B. L. (2013). Whose science do you believe? Explaining trust in sources of scientific information about the environment. Science Communication, 35(1), 115–137. doi:10.1177/1075547012441691

Research Design 

To determine what factors tend to predict trust of certain forms of scientific communication, Brewer and Ley conducted a large-scale phone survey of 851 participants in a large urban area in the U.S. Specifically, they investigated if and to what degree religion, age, sex, education, income, race,* political views, and general trust in government and scientists predicted trust in five sources of scientific information.

Research Findings 

Brewer and Ley compiled the survey results to determine the most-trusted and least-trusted sources about environmental science and ranked them from most trusted to least: 1. Television programs (for example, Discovery Channel, Nova) 2. University scientists 3. Science magazines (Popular Science, Scientific American) 4. Science websites (, 5. The Environmental Protection Agency 6. Environmental organizations (Sierra Club) 7. Television news 8. The local daily newspaper

Religious belief was inversely correlated with trust in scientists; the more belief respondents reported, the less trust they tended to have in scientists. Political ideology also correlated with trusted sources: the more politically liberal respondents reported themselves to be, the more trust they tended to have in scientists. They also tended to have more trust in environmental organizations. Finally, increased support for environmental regulation generally predicted increased trust in all sources except science television and websites.

*In this study, race and gender were limited to binary variables: male or female and African American or not African American.

Implications for Practice  

It may come as no surprise that people’s values predicted whose version of science they were most likely to trust and believe. With this finding, Brewer and Ley remind us of the diverse values of the populations that science education institutions serve. They also show that a significant population does not trust science communication from local newspapers and television news.

However, the biggest takeaway for educators of all kinds is likely that science television programming—such as Discovery Channel and Nova—was trusted most, far above other types of science information including university scientists. When considering what evidence to include in environmental exhibits or lessons, educators might keep in mind that some audiences could write off or disregard less trusted communicators. These findings may have particular weight in current debates about climate change.

Theoretical Basis 

This study used a phone survey to answer its research questions about what factors predict trust. While survey methods allowed for straightforward data analysis using statistical regression, Brewer and Ley indicate that a more qualitative research method like interviews (such as those done by Evans) “would allow for a more nuanced understanding of how citizens think about sources of scientific information about the environment” (p. 132).

For example, the authors suggest that African-American respondents had less trust in science generally due to historical deception of African-American research subjects by medical scientists. However, this reasoning cannot be deduced from a survey; more in-depth interviews or ethnographic research might indicate whether this hypothesis is true.

Related Briefs:

  • King, H. (2014). Teachers’ feelings about teaching about climate change. A research brief discussing Lombardi & Sinatra, “Emotions about teaching about human-induced climate change.”