A study found that overall public trust in science and scientists has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, but some attitudes have also become more polarised and extreme. In addition, people were more likely to get or decline the COVID-19 vaccine based on their trust levels in science.
Trust in science has never been more important; we all have to deal with news about climate change, GM foods, and vaccines, just to mention a few. But how much does the public trust science?
Using data from a survey of over 2000 UK adults commissioned by the Genetics Society, researchers from the Universities of Oxford, Bath, and Aberdeen, UK, analysed the answers regarding public trust in science. Participants were asked whether their trust in scientists and their work had gone up, down, or stayed the same.
About a third of participants stated that their confidence had gone up during the pandemic. To test whether this was caused by how scientists dealt with COVID, the team asked participants if they trusted geneticists and geologists in particular. Most people reported an increase in trust in geneticists (clearly related to COVID) but not so much with geologists (unrelated to COVID).
Survey participants were also asked about their views on the pharmaceutical industry. In this case, when the survey questions referred to Pfizer — a company that made COVID vaccines — more people reported a positive response compared to when other companies not associated with COVID were used.
This clearly indicates that science activity during the final stages of the pandemic was responsible for the increase in public trust in scientists, which is different from results obtained earlier in the pandemic.
However, not everybody reported such trust in science. Even controlling for education, political views, religious beliefs, and other factors, participants who had a negative view at the beginning of the pandemic got progressively more mistrusting of scientists and didn’t want a COVID vaccine. In contrast, those who already had a positive view became even more positive and had (or planned to have) a vaccine.
“Our research shows that although trust in science has increased overall, it has also become more polarised,” said Professor Laurence Hurst from the University of Bath. “For many years, it was assumed that scientific knowledge is what determines attitude to science, hence the proliferation in science communication activities to increase understanding. Our study provides evidence to support the theory that trust, rather than knowledge, is what matters. This research also suggests that activity to increase trust does indeed affect behaviours. But the same strategies can also backfire, causing some to be even more entrenched.”
Radrizzani S, Fonseca C, Woollard A, Pettitt J, Hurst LD. Both trust in, and polarization of trust in, relevant sciences have increased through the COVID-19 pandemic. PLoS One. 2023 Mar 23;18(3):e0278169. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0278169