Distrust of Science and Experts Measured Around World

money in bottleOn September 30, the Pew Research Center released survey results that represent a picture of how the publics of 20 different countries view science and the technologies it enables. The results are mixed and interesting to examine in some detail to understand how much and on what issues “science” – or what passes for it in the early twenty-first century – is trusted by the general public.

For background, the Pew Center is a project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which in turn are the foundations set up by the generally conservative Pew family, scions of the Sun Oil Company, who date back to the late nineteenth century struggle for control of the Pennsylvania oil fields.

Normally, study reports spend some time discussing the details of how survey data was gathered. But with 20 countries, each with its own independent surveys, we›ll just note that at least 1,000 people were surveyed in the following countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Note that the surveys were done before the shutdowns associated with Covid-19.

The top-line question respondents were asked was how much trust people have in scientists doing “the right thing”. Respondents were given the following options: “a lot,” “some,” “not too much,” and “none at all.” India was the country where people had the most trust in scientists, with about 60 percent saying they had a lot. That was followed by a large collection of European countries, with the United States falling in the middle of the pack. Asian countries—specifically, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—had the lowest scores. “A lot” scored less than 25 percent. Only three countries saw the combined “not much”/”none” categories come in above 30 percent: Brazil, Malaysia, and Taiwan.

So, while positive views are a bit erratic, strong negative views of scientists are pretty rare. The only caveat is that many respondents feel it’s more important to rely on people with practical experience rather than expertise, with support for experts ranging from a low of 20 percent to a high of only 40 percent. What›s not clear, however, is whether people would consider scientists strictly experts or experts with real-world experience.

When it comes to climate change, the public generally stands with the conclusions of the scientific community. The view that the climate was a serious problem was most prevalent in Taiwan, where 80 percent felt so; seven countries saw over two-thirds of their populace say so. And, of the nine countries where Pew has a decade of data, every single one saw this sentiment rise.

People were less accepting of the Distrust conclusion that humans are driving climate change, however. Six countries saw less than half of the public agreeing with that conclusion (including the United States, at 49 percent). Spain and Taiwan saw the highest levels of acceptance, at just over three-quarters of the public.

The Pew also asked about whether people saw signs of climate change at their location and whether they felt their government was doing enough about the climate. But those answers involve a complicated mix of personal beliefs, local weather trends, and national policy decisions. Drawing any conclusions from them will be difficult.

Just about all the respondents felt that protecting the environment should be a major priority, with a median of 70 percent feeling it should be prioritized over creating jobs. This ranged from a high in the UK and the Czech Republic (77 percent) down to a low of 56 percent in Russia. The support for renewable energy was even higher, clearing 90 percent in six European countries; all but two countries (India and Malaysia) saw the support clear 70 percent. Wind and hydro saw similar levels of public enthusiasm.

Only three countries saw over half the public support more coal use: India, Malaysia, and Russia. Those were also the only nations where support for oil development cleared 50 percent, although overall there was more enthusiasm for oil than coal. By contrast, only two countries (Sweden and the Netherlands) didn’t support the use of more natural gas.

Support for nuclear energy was similar to that for coal, with a median of 37 percent of the public favoring its expanded use. Sweden and the Czech Republic were the only countries where support cleared 50 percent.

GMOs and additives and food safetyOne of the inevitable outcomes of scientific activity is new technology, and the Pew asked about a number of those, including the expanded use of AI and automation. Most of the Asian countries saw high levels (> 60 percent) of support for this, with the exception of Malaysia and Australia. India was mixed, on the other hand, supporting AI but not automation. Support in Europe and North America was mixed, with most countries seeing it reach somewhere between 35 and 55 percent, with the notable exception of very high support for automation in Sweden.

On the public health front, trust in the health benefits of vaccines was at over 60 percent in only a dozen countries. The lower trust largely occurred outside of Europe, with the exception of France (52 percent) and Russia. Russia was the only country where under half of the public trusted in the health benefits of vaccines, and that was before the somewhat bizarre messaging about the COVID-19 vaccine occurred.

But the biggest gap came when food technology was considered. Almost nobody considered genetically modified foods safe, with a median percentage of only 13 and the absolute peak of support coming in Australia at 31 percent. By contrast, there were eight countries in which more than half the public said GMOs were unsafe. But it›s not just GMOs; the numbers were remarkably similar when the use of pesticides or artificial preservatives were asked about, although there was some country-to-country variation (Germans, for example, are far more trusting of preservatives than GMOs).

The Pew uncovered a gender difference in feelings toward developing AI, automation, and other technology, with men typically supporting those technologies more than women. But the gap was fairly small, generally in the area of 10 to 15 points for AI. Only a slightly larger gap exists for automation and food technology. Education also made a difference that was similar in magnitude, with more education correlating with increased support for these technologies, as well as vaccination. There weren’t any obvious geographical patterns regarding the size of the gap.

To see more substantial gaps, we can turn to the Pew’s analysis of the political polarization of mistrust in scientists. Here, people on the liberal side of the spectrum were generally more trusting. A number of countries—Brazil, France, Poland, South Korea, and the Czech Republic—saw little political difference in whether they’d trust scientists to do the right thing. But the Netherlands saw a 10 point difference between liberals and conservatives, with liberals being more trusting.

Other European countries saw somewhat larger differences, and the gap was more pronounced when support for far-right populist parties was analyzed. But the English-speaking world is what really stood out. In the UK, the difference between liberals and conservatives was 27 points; Australia was 29 points; Canada was 39; and the US saw the largest difference, with a gap of 42 points between liberals and conservatives. In the States, only 20 percent of conservatives felt that scientists would do the right thing, and only 30 percent felt that scientists made judgements based on facts.

In something that will surprise nobody, these results largely match up with what’s going on with climate change. The largest gaps between conservatives and liberals on the seriousness of climate change were mostly in English-speaking countries, with the addition of Sweden, which sneaked in ahead of the UK. The United States again saw far and away the largest difference; in this case, 64 points separated liberals and conservatives.

One of the biggest things missing from the data is a sense of what’s going on in Africa. We know that Africa has embraced some technologies (notably cell phones), and the rest of the world has to hope it will also embrace renewable energy. But a clearer picture of how they feel about current and future technologies would seem to be valuable knowledge.