What do Americans think about scientists?

Oana DumitruContributor
January 16, 2024, 5:49 PM GMT+0

Nearly four years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, what do Americans think about scientists’ impact on the world and about some of the most prominent figures in science?

An August 2023 YouGov survey found that 41% of Americans say that scientists at least usually care about the best interest of the public, while 34% say they sometimes care and 14% say they rarely or never care about the interest of the public. Opinions on scientists’ motivations differ by political identification and age: Democrats and Americans 30 or older are more likely than Independents, Republicans, and adults under 30 to say that scientists usually or always care about the best interest of the public.

Americans are closely split on whether scientists should have an active role in policy debates about scientific issues, with 42% saying that they should and 41% saying they should instead focus on establishing sound scientific facts and staying out of policy debates. Democrats are more likely than Independents and Republicans to favor scientists being involved in policy debates.

Moving from what scientists should be doing to what influence they currently have, more Americans say that scientists do not have enough influence than say they have too much influence. About one-quarter say scientists currently have the right amount of influence when it comes to public policy debates. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to say that scientists do not have enough influence.

Americans are more favorable about specific and well-known scientists than about the group as a whole. Most Americans say they have a favorable opinion of well-known scientists such as Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking. Fewer say the same about scientists they are less familiar with, such as Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman, and Michio Kaku. While the shares of Americans who have an unfavorable view of each of the scientists asked about are low, 18% of Americans say they have an unfavorable view of Charles Darwin and 15% say the same about each of Neil deGrasse Tyson and J. Robert Oppenheimer. (The poll was conducted in August, a month after the release of the Oppenheimer biopic Oppenheimer.)

Americans' opinions of each prominent scientist align closely with perceptions of whether the scientist's contributions had a predominantly positive or negative impact on the world. Figures such as Einstein, Newton, and Thomas Edison have the largest shares of Americans saying they had a positive impact on the world, while more say Darwin (14%) and Oppenheimer (18%) had a negative impact.

— Taylor Orth and Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: The poll was conducted among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens from August 23 - 27, 2023. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to March 15, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 28% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Pexels (Chokniti Khongchum)