Poll suggests Canadian trust in science falling, scientists thought ‘elitist’

‘While science skeptics represent the minority of Canadians, their number is increasing’

Students check out a robotic rover at the Canada-Wide Science Fair at Carleton University, in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle)

Students check out a robotic rover at the Canada-Wide Science Fair at Carleton University, in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle)

A survey suggests that the trust Canadians place in science may be eroding.

The survey, by the polling firm Ipsos for the multinational 3M company, also found that nearly half of those surveyed thought scientists are elitist and that a significant number of respondents discounted findings that don’t accord with their personal beliefs.

“While science skeptics represent the minority of Canadians, their number is increasing,” said Richard Chartrand of 3M Canada. “This trend is concerning because it shows that distrust is growing.”

The Canadian figures are from a global survey of more than 14,000 people between July and September 2018. It’s the second year 3M has done the research.

At a time when accelerating climate change and wildlife loss are placing science at the top of the public agenda, the survey found that 32 per cent of respondents were skeptical about it. That was up from 25 per cent the previous year.

“It moved from one person out of four to one person out of three,” Chartrand said. “It’s difficult for us to understand why.”

The study’s results were conflicting. While doubt was growing, nine out of 10 respondents said they still trusted research results.

Answers to other questions showed that trust to be wary.

Nearly half — 44 per cent — said they considered scientists “elitists.” About one-third felt scientists were influenced by government agendas. Another third thought science has been swayed by corporate agendas.

And 30 per cent said they only believed science that aligned with their personal beliefs.

READ MORE: Mistrust, lack of info holding back Canadians getting vaccinated: B.C. pharmacist

Other findings have echoed the 3M-Ipsos survey.

A 2017 Leger poll for the Ontario Science Centre found 29 per cent of respondents thought that because scientific theories are subject to challenge, they can’t be trusted. Another question suggested 43 per cent considered science to be a matter of opinion.

“It’s depressing but not too surprising,” said John Smol, an ecologist at Queen’s University who has written about the issue. “There’s a real disconnect between what scientists do and what is the perception in the public.”

Smol fears Canadians don’t understand how science works — that data, not belief, is what counts and that science advances when old beliefs are upended, not shored up by unspoken consensus.

“There are certainly misconceptions,” he said. “You can’t blame them. It’s a jungle of misinformation out there.”

It’s not all the public’s fault, said Stephen Johnstone, chairman of earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Alberta.

“We have to make an effort to communicate in terms that are understandable,” he said.

“There used to be an ethic in science that the lower the number of people who actually understood what you did, the better you are doing. That is turning around.”

Smol agreed.

“We have a real responsibility to make (science) accessible. We’re still doing a relatively poor job of translating the data — by and large paid for by taxpayers — and passing it to the public.”

READ MORE: UVic pronounces three new Canada Research chairs

The poll did show curiosity about science. Almost all respondents thought findings should be shared in easily understood language and 88 per cent wished they knew more about science.

“I look at these results and think they’re quite positive,” said Johnstone. “People appreciate that science is a necessary thing. There’s an insatiable appetite for science.”

The bridge between the public and the lab must be bridged, said Chartrand.

“There’s a clear message in this survey.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Firefighters from three departments battled a house fire south of Nanaimo for more than nine hours Sunday. (Photo courtesy Martin Leduc)
Home destroyed by fire south of Nanaimo

Firefighters from three fire departments battle blaze fanned by strong southerly winds on Sunday

Island Health chief medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick receives a first dose of Pfizer vaccine, Dec. 22, 2020. (B.C. government)
COVID-19: B.C. seniors aged 90+ can start to sign up for vaccination on March 8

Long-term care residents protected by shots already given

A COVID-19 outbreak has been declared over at Eden Gardens. (News Bulletin file photo)
COVID-19 outbreak declared over at Nanaimo’s Eden Gardens

One staff member and one resident tested positive for the virus over past two weeks

Gabriola Island poet Naomi Beth Wakan’s latest book is ‘Wind on the Heath.’ (Photo courtesy Elias Wakan)
Former Nanaimo poet laureate revisits past poems in latest collection

Gabriola Island’s Naomi Beth Wakan presents career-spanning ‘Wind on the Heath’

An app available through the Vancouver Island Regional Library’s website can help students during COVID times. (Stock photo)
New library app can help families with online learning

Sample tests, virtual flashcards available through Vancouver Island Regional Library’s website

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation, May 8, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C.’s weekend COVID-19 cases: 532 Saturday, 508 Sunday, 438 Monday

Fraser Health still has most, eight more coronavirus deaths

B.C. Attorney General David Eby speaks in the legislature, Dec. 7, 2020. Eby was given responsibility for housing after the October 2020 provincial election. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends COVID-19 rent freeze again, to the end of 2021

‘Renoviction’ rules tightened, rent capped to inflation in 2022

Face mask hangs from a rear-view mirror. (Black Press image)
B.C. CDC unveils guide on how to carpool during the pandemic

Wearing masks, keeping windows open key to slowing the spread of COVID-19

Churches, including Langley’s Riverside Calvary Church, are challenging the regulations barring them from holding in-person worship services during COVID-19. (Langley Advance Times file)
Det. Sgt. Jim Callender. (Hamilton Police Service screenshot)
B.C. man dead, woman seriously injured after shooting in Hamilton, Ont.

The man was in the process of moving to the greater Toronto area, police say

Wildlife advocate Gary Schroyen captured this picture of a one-year-old cougar in the Sooke Hills using a homemade trip camera. Vancouver Island is home to approximately 800 cougars, which makes up about a quarter of the total population in B.C. (Gary Schroyen photo)
Wildlife advocate Gary Schroyen captured this picture of a one-year-old cougar in the Sooke Hill using a homemade trip camera. Schroyen presents Animal Signs: The Essence of Animal Communication on Nov. 30. (Gary Schroyen photo)
Declining Vancouver Island cougar populations linked to wolves

Large carnivore specialist says human development still plays biggest role on cougar numbers

Police have identified the vehicle involved in the Feb. 14 hit-and-run in Chemainus and are continuing to investigate. (Black Press Media files)
Police seize and identify suspect vehicle in hit-and-run

Investigation into death expected to be lengthy and involved

Most Read