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What does it mean to “trust science”?

Opinion poll: the French have an excellent image of science, but lack knowledge 

Jérôme Fourquet , Director of Opinion Department at Ifop
On November 23rd, 2022 |
4 min reading time
Jérôme Fourquet
Director of Opinion Department at Ifop
Key takeaways
  • Only 21% of French people claim to have a satisfactory level of scientific culture, compared with 37% who consider that they are lacking.
  • 92% of French people have a good image of science, including 22% who have a very good image.
  • 72% believe that science makes humanity better, a score that has increased significantly since the 1970s and 1980s.
  • 8 out of 10 French people consider scientists to be trustworthy, but only 12% completely agree with this statement.

This arti­cle is the first episode of a two-part sur­vey con­duct­ed with Ifop in August 2022. Click here to down­load the results.

Only 21% have a “satisfactory” level of scientific knowledge

When asked about their lev­el of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge1, only 21% of French peo­ple say they have a sat­is­fac­to­ry lev­el of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge – a lev­el that is down from 2018 (27%, or ‑6 points) – with 3% who say they are very sat­is­fied. At the same time, 42% con­sid­er their lev­el of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge to be aver­age, while 37% con­sid­er that they have short­com­ings in this area, includ­ing 17% with major short­com­ings. This drop in the self-assess­ment of sci­en­tif­ic lev­el could be relat­ed to the tech­ni­cal lev­el of of the sci­en­tif­ic debate over the last two years around Covid. 

To add pre­ci­sion: more men and those under 35 rate their sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­cy as sat­is­fac­to­ry (26% and 33% respec­tive­ly, com­pared with 18% of women and 17% of those aged 35 and over). The more advan­ta­geous posi­tion of younger peo­ple is explained in par­tic­u­lar by their lev­el of knowl­edge and edu­ca­tion, which is undoubt­ed­ly high­er than that of their elders. But also, by the fact that they have been in edu­ca­tion more recent­ly. The gen­der gap, on the oth­er hand, can be explained in sev­er­al ways: first­ly, men tend to over­es­ti­mate their knowl­edge at all lev­els, while women tend to deval­ue it. In addi­tion, edu­ca­tion­al back­grounds of women make them less like­ly to take up sci­en­tif­ic sub­jects and data sug­gests they are not encour­aged to pur­sue sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies to the same extent as men. 

Nearly 92% have a “positive image” of science

This lev­el of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge, which appears rel­a­tive­ly low, does not seem to influ­ence the over­all image that the French have of sci­ence in gen­er­al. Thus 92% of them declare that they have a pos­i­tive image of sci­ence, includ­ing 22% who have a very pos­i­tive image. 

In detail, how­ev­er, the lev­el of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge has an influ­ence on the degree to which peo­ple have a pos­i­tive per­cep­tion of the dis­ci­pline. Thus, 55% of those who con­sid­er them­selves to have a sat­is­fac­to­ry lev­el of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge have a very good image of sci­ence, where­as only 9% of those who con­sid­er them­selves to have a defi­cient lev­el of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge have a very good image of sci­ence (a dif­fer­ence of 46 points).

Although the pos­i­tive image of sci­ence is unan­i­mous­ly shared by the French as a whole, there are nev­er­the­less divi­sions in terms of the very pos­i­tive image: more men and those in the high­est socio-pro­fes­sion­al cat­e­gories declare that they have a very pos­i­tive image of sci­ence (31% and 38% respec­tive­ly, com­pared with only 15% of women and 14% of those in the low­est socio-pro­fes­sion­al cat­e­gories). Fur­ther­more, sup­port­ers of oppo­si­tion par­ties, such as France Insoumise, are less like­ly to have a very pos­i­tive image of sci­ence (18%), where­as sup­port­ers of gov­ern­ment par­ties are more like­ly to have a very pos­i­tive image: 32% of sup­port­ers of La République en Marche, 39% of Les Répub­li­cains sup­port­ers and 28% of Social­ist Par­ty and EELV supporters. 

72% believe that science makes mankind better

More specif­i­cal­ly, on the sub­ject of sci­ence, more than 9 out of 10 French peo­ple agree with the state­ments that sci­ence is a source of progress for mankind (93%, includ­ing 39% who strong­ly agree), that it has a sig­nif­i­cant eco­nom­ic impact through the inno­va­tions it enables (91%, includ­ing 27% who strong­ly agree), or that sci­ence must remain a ref­er­ence point because it enables us to dis­tin­guish between truth and false­hood on a large num­ber of sub­jects (90%, includ­ing 32% who strong­ly agree). 

87% of French peo­ple also con­sid­er that sci­ence is a col­lec­tion of attrac­tive dis­ci­plines, although 70% of them con­sid­er them to be com­plex and not very acces­si­ble. Also, 72% believe that the devel­op­ment of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge makes man better. 

8 out of 10 French people have confidence in scientists 

Beyond the image of sci­ence in gen­er­al, sci­en­tists also enjoy a pos­i­tive image among the gen­er­al pub­lic, albeit in a some­what more nuanced way. 93% agree that sci­en­tists are peo­ple moti­vat­ed by a desire for knowl­edge, curios­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion (includ­ing 35% who strong­ly agree). This item was the only one to meet with the approval of more than 9 out of 10 French peo­ple. Next comes the idea that sci­en­tists are moti­vat­ed by a desire to help change the world, for 85%, of which 19% strong­ly agree. 8 out of 10 French peo­ple also con­sid­er sci­en­tists to be trust­wor­thy, but only 12% strong­ly agree – one of the low­est scores obtained on this response item. 

The 25–34 age group is also under-rep­re­sent­ed among those who trust sci­en­tists (69%, 11 points below the aver­age) – a phe­nom­e­non that seems to be grow­ing among this gen­er­a­tion, the first to have grown up with social net­works, marked by a grow­ing dis­trust of gov­ern­ing bod­ies, and more prey to the dif­fi­cul­ties of work­ing life (com­pared to the 18–24 age group).

Oth­er state­ments tes­ti­fy to the dis­in­ter­est­ed nature of researchers: the fact that they work in the gen­er­al inter­est, the fact that they are ded­i­cat­ed and work for the good of human­i­ty, obtain approval scores of 79% and 78% respec­tive­ly. In addi­tion, a minor­i­ty of French peo­ple believe that researchers are moti­vat­ed by the desire to be known by the gen­er­al pub­lic (46%). 

How­ev­er, sev­er­al aspects con­tra­dict this image: 71% of French peo­ple recog­nise that they are moti­vat­ed by com­pet­i­tive­ness, 70% con­sid­er that they give pri­or­i­ty to sci­ence, some­times to the detri­ment of human­i­ty, and a major­i­ty express­es doubts about their inde­pen­dence (57% do not con­sid­er them to be independent). 

Here again, the Covid-19 cri­sis may have played a role in the neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of sci­en­tists. A large num­ber of sci­en­tists were inter­viewed on tele­vi­sion and 24-hour news chan­nels about the cri­sis, and this media cov­er­age of sci­en­tists over more than a year may have had an impact on the rel­a­tive­ly low pro­por­tion of French peo­ple who con­sid­er sci­en­tists to be inde­pen­dent: from the moment sci­en­tists entered the field of cur­rent infor­ma­tion, in close col­lab­o­ra­tion with the author­i­ties in the man­age­ment of the health cri­sis, their inde­pen­dence may have been called into ques­tion by a cer­tain part of the pop­u­la­tion, which was more sus­pi­cious of the authorities. 

1Method­ol­o­gy: The sur­vey was con­duct­ed among a sam­ple of 1,003 peo­ple, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the French pop­u­la­tion aged 18 and over. The rep­re­sen­ta­tive­ness of the sam­ple was ensured by the quo­ta method (sex, age, pro­fes­sion of the respon­dent) after strat­i­fi­ca­tion by region and cat­e­go­ry of urban area. The inter­views were car­ried out by self-admin­is­tered online ques­tion­naire from 16 to 19 August 2022.

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