Trust in science becomes a political issue. How did that happen?

A Pew survey found that people mainly trust scientists to do what is in the public interest. But that attitude varies with political ideology.

Susan Walsh/AP
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a news conference at the White House in Washington, Nov. 19, 2020. Polls show Americans trust Dr. Fauci more than President Trump on the coronavirus pandemic.

Science has become a politically polarizing issue. A global report found Americans are three times more likely to trust scientists if they identify as left-wing, a political divide that makes the United States an outlier internationally.

The survey by the Pew Research Center found that global publics mainly trust scientists to do what is in the public's best interest. But attitudes vary with political ideology, according to results compiled just before the COVID-19 outbreak.

This sparks questions about the role of science now and following the pandemic.

The questionnaire study asked people across the globe to share their views on science relating to big public policy issues such as climate change and artificial intelligence. Interviews were held by phone or face-to-face.

“We saw an increase in confidence in scientists but that increase only came from Democrats and not Republicans,” says Cary Funk, director of science and society research at the Pew Research Center.

Recent presidential campaign events bear out these findings. At his rally in Carson City, Nevada, on Oct. 18., President Donald Trump mocked Joe Biden for listening to scientists on the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile Mr. Biden slammed Mr. Trump for ignoring it.

Studying public support for scientists and their work is a timely issue, Dr. Funk adds.

“It’s of interest because it’s been widely discussed, especially in Western Europe, how much people trust expert advice. It was a good moment to think about how different publics value the place of science,” she says.

Expert advice has been heavily discussed, not least by far-right movements who sometimes label the scientific community as elite. One argument is that institutions and universities provide “leftist indoctrination,” which has resulted in several counter-initiatives aimed at restoring balance.

That discussion could be reflected in this study where distrust of scientists shows ties to far-right populism.

What makes science polarized?

Almost two-thirds of Americans who identified as left-wing said they place a lot of trust in scientists to do what is best for them. Among those who identified as right-wing that number was only 22%.

Canada had a 39% difference between right- and left-wing respondents. In Australia that difference was 29% and in the United Kingdom it was 27%.

Americans have the most polarized views in the world when it comes to science. But the global trend is clear: Polarization is all over the world, and most prevalent in wealthy democracies.

Tom Carothers, senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says it boils down to trust. He says that distrusting science has very little to do with political ideology and everything to do with distrust in government. “Science is just another form of authority, and if people have decided that authority is evil then science is evil, too.”

An age of distrust

There are a couple of reasons we have been in an age of distrust for the past 20 or 30 years, says Mr. Carothers. Long economic stagnation in the West and concentration of power in elites likely play a role. But migration and rapid change brought on by technology are also key, he says.

“People feel things are moving too fast. They want things to slow down and they want things to stay the same. Therefore they distrust the government that is leading the change,” he says.

Mr. Carothers points out that distrust of government is more common in wealthier countries, where freedom of speech is sacred. “Wealthy democracies have a lot of freedom of expression and not a single source of information. Therefore if you are distrustful you can find your own community of people.”

He argues social media’s only real role in creating divisions is connecting people who are already dissatisfied.

The COVID-19 stress test

Distrust in authority and polarized views could be accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which Mr. Carothers refers to as a government stress test.

“A lot of countries are suffering and they are questioning the experts. They seem to have all the scientific expertise but it doesn’t work … it doesn’t make you very confident in scientific expertise,” he says.

On the other hand, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman says the pandemic could have unexpected positive outcomes. “People are seeing the mishandling of COVID-19. It’s really the No. 1 issue in the [presidential] campaign ... which tells you that people are saying that we should have listened to the scientists.”

She mentions polls show people trust Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, more than Mr. Trump on the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms. Whitman says the Trump administration has contributed to a distrust in scientists among Republicans during the pandemic. “It’s never reached the peak that it has now and that’s because we have a president who just does not want to hear about science. And unfortunately we are seeing the negative impact of disregarding science with the COVID response.”

Reuse of any BU Statehouse Program materials requires specific written permission from the author.

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