Right-wingers much less likely to trust scientists

Overall trust in scientists higher than in governments, media and business, global survey finds

September 29, 2020
Glass flask and cylinder in lab
Source: iStock/MadamLead

More than a third of the public in different nations tend to have a great deal of trust in scientists, much higher than the share who say the same about business leaders, governments and the media, according to new worldwide research.

However, the survey of around 32,000 people across the globe found wide variation between some countries and according to which side of the political divide respondents occupied.

The study, conducted for the Pew Research Center in the US before the main onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, found that a median of 36 per cent of people across 20 nations trusted scientists “a lot” to do what was right for the country, the same result as for the military.

Both were far higher than the median value across the countries which gave the same answer about national governments (13 per cent), news media (12 per cent) and business leaders (9 per cent).

People had significantly more trust in scientists than other professional groups in six countries, all in continental Europe, led by Spain (48 per cent saying that they had a lot of trust in scientists to do what was right for the nation) and the Netherlands (47 per cent).

In the UK and Canada, such trust was also high (42 and 45 per cent) but less than for the military, while in the US the proportion was 38 per cent, much lower than for the armed forces (56 per cent).

Sometimes there was also a big gap in the answers on trust in scientists between those who considered themselves on the left or the right of the political spectrum.

This was most pronounced in the US, where 62 per cent of those on the left had a lot of trust in scientists, compared with just a fifth of those on the right. This gap was also wide in the other large anglophone nations such as Canada (a 39-point difference), Australia (29 points) and the UK (27 points).

A median of 82 per cent across the 20 nations also considered government investment in scientific research to be worthwhile, but people’s own view of their nations’ scientific achievements varied considerably: the shares believing their country was the best or above average ranged from 8 per cent in Brazil to 61 per cent in the US and UK. Views on the success of each country’s university education in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) also ranged widely, from 10 per cent in Brazil who thought their STEM higher education was the best or above average to 68 per cent in Singapore.

Meanwhile, although scientists were seen as among the most trusted groups in society, a higher proportion of the public tended to see practical experience as more important than expertise in solving problems.

In all 20 countries, fewer than half of those surveyed thought it was preferable to rely more on people who were considered experts in an area to solve a problem, even if they did not have much practical experience. Larger shares said people with practical experience should be more relied upon (a median of 66 per cent) even if they were not experts.

There also appeared to be relative ambivalence about some leading scientific developments, such as artificial intelligence. For example, while there was clear support for AI as being good for society in some nations, particularly in Asia, but opinion was much more mixed in the US, UK, Germany and France.

And, with the take-up of any coronavirus vaccine of crucial importance in the coming months, the majority of people in most countries appear to view childhood vaccines as safe. However, a sizeable proportion in a number of nations harbour doubts: half or more people consider the risk of side effects from childhood vaccines to be medium or high in Malaysia, Russia, South Korea, France and Singapore.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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