The Australian public trusts our scientists a lot more than our elected politicians.

The Australian public trusts our scientists a lot more than our elected politicians. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

What’s the difference between a politician and a scientist? Well, in Australia at least, the public thinks scientists are way more trustworthy than their elected representatives. At least five times more trustworthy.

It’s not a trick question. It’s actually one finding in a sober piece of research carried out by the Australian National University’s Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, in an effort to understand how this country engages with science and whether it listens to scientific advice or not. 

Coincidentally, it sheds interesting new light on the running sore in the polliesphere.

The bottom line appears to be that Australians are not quite so easily bamboozled as some media commentators or politicians seem to assume. Most of us have a preference for tested evidence over belief, opinion, ideology or unsubstantiated assertion. 

Among many revelations, the study – carried out by the ANU’s Dr Suzette Searle – found that 71 per cent of respondents trusted scientists, but only 15 per cent trusted the politicians responsible for science, 14 per cent trusted shock jocks and 11 per cent trusted religious leaders. If nothing else, this suggests that a healthy scepticism is alive and kicking in the great Australian public.

The survey, which had a sample size and balance similar to most national opinion polls, also found that CSIRO scientists (78 per cent) and Nobel laureates or scientific Australians of the Year (82 per cent) rated higher still, among our most trusted figures. It’s the kind of result the average pollie would die – or maybe kill – for. 

To elaborate, 15 per cent of respondents said they trusted the politicians, 41 per cent were not sure, and 42 per cent said they didn’t trust them. (Shock jocks’ health warning: you may experience apoplectic seizure on learning that the general public considers environmental spokespeople about twice as trustworthy as you.)

These findings are important because they suggest that, in the contest between opinion and tested fact, Australians, on the whole, prefer the facts. This has implications for a great many people, including politicians, media commentators, climate change deniers, religious fundamentalists, eco-warriors, neoMarxists, neoCons, land developers, fast food companies, social pontificators and others long on colourful assertion but light on evidence. Sure, the study hints, we’ve taken on board a deal of nonsense in recent times, but our patience with it is wearing thin.

For media, the survey is particularly interesting. Scientifically informed journalists come out about three times as credible as scientifically informed politicians (though only half as credible as actual scientists). Trouble is, where does one find a scientifically informed reporter nowadays? The last remnants of this almost-extinct species (in Australia) are mainly huddled in the dwindling biome of the ABC.

For a generation, newspaper editors have relied on reader surveys that seemed to tell them what they wanted to hear: that the public wanted more opinion. Consequently, a whole lot of factual reporters have been replaced by blatherskites – and newspaper circulations have collapsed in sympathy. Maybe it is time the media, too, researched the predilections of its audience a little more carefully in the light of this study – and rediscovered the appeal, as well as the commercial sense, of traditional fact-based reporting.

Step back and consider, for a moment, what all this is telling us. The most successful nations on Earth have built their success on science, technology and engineering; on tested facts, not unfounded opinions. The emerging economies (China, India, Brazil – and increasingly Malaysia and Indonesia) are now using the same economic accelerator to rip past Australia, which is still driven by the dopey notion that mineral and agricultural booms arise spontaneously. Not without a lot of science, technology and engineering, they don’t. You don’t receive ''wealth for toil'' any longer. You receive it by being intelligent and deploying top technology. At some level, the Australian public gets this – but not its leaders.

Evidence? Well Abbott & Co just sliced $420 million off science in the latest budget and all but abandoned sustainable energy, which the rest of the planet is going gangbusters for. In just the last week China announced plans for 70 gigawatts of solar power – more than Australia’s total grid; Mexico said solar would provide a third of its energy by 2017 and India proclaimed 400 million people would receive solar power by 2019. Gillard & Co weren’t any better – they just about ground-zeroed water science in the driest inhabited continent and watched the atrophy of earth sciences, agricultural science and mathematics. So we have a political class, egged on by a media commentariat, that appears to believe Australia can prosper without water, clean energy and world-class technology-driven industries. 

Both sides of politics have conspired in a continuing effort to silence science. The academies, who profess to represent the elite of science and technology, are paid a government stipend – and so say nothing brutally scientific that might offend a sensitive political ear. CSIRO and the other agencies have long been told they can comment on science but not on policy: as there is practically is no policy area in a modern democracy untouched by science, this simply amounts to a crude gag order. 

Besides the ANU survey, the initial success of the crowd-funded Climate Council suggests there is an appetite in the Australian populace to hear science speaking truth to power, uncensored by politics. 

Maybe we need a Water Council, a High-Tech Council, a Health Council similarly unconstrained by political convenience. Or better still, an independent National Science Council covering all fields, which is unafraid to inject tested evidence into a public discourse sadly overrun by mere opinion.

The CPAS study indicates that Australians are wising up. They trust scientific evidence over spurious assertion and empty spin. They are interested in science and what it has to say on issues affecting the national and human future. The political party, media organisation, even the shock jock or religious leader who gets this first will put daylight between themselves and the rest of the field. 

And they will help build a more prosperous, healthy and sustainable Australia than the one we have today. 

Julian Cribb is a Canberra-based science writer and unpaid blatherskite. http://cpas.anu.edu.au/