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Exposure to epidemics and trust in scientists

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Covid-19 is a stark reminder of the importance of medical science. Effective Covid vaccines are being developed, approved, and distributed in record time. Monoclonal antibody cocktails have been successfully administered to infected patients, including, among others, President Donald Trump. There is now hope, with help from science, that we will be able to put the Covid-19 pandemic behind us.

Yet these advances occur against a backdrop where many people express doubts about experts and their advice. The Pew Charitable Trust reports a secular decline, for example, in the share of US adults who report having a great deal of confidence in the individuals running the country’s medical institutions. That share, which approached 60% of the public in the early 1970s, is now down to barely 40%. This is plausibly part of why expert advice on social distancing and mask wearing, based on scientific studies of the spread of the virus via droplets and aerosols, is not more widely accepted. It now raises questions about whether there will be widespread take-up of Covid vaccines, as recommended by the experts.

But the converse—the question of how the experience of Covid itself will affect attitudes toward science and scientists—is also important. To shed light on this question we examined the impact of earlier epidemics on trust in science and scientists. Specifically, we examined some 70,000 respondents to a 2018 Wellcome Trust survey in 160 countries, linking the individual answers to data on 47 epidemics and pandemics that have affected 137 countries since 1970.

We find strong evidence of a negative impact of epidemic exposure on trust in scientists. Not only is this effect large, but it lasts for decades—effectively, for the balance of the affected individuals’ lives. It is limited to people in their “impressionable years” (ages 18–25) at the time of epidemic exposure. Research by psychologists and cognitive scientists suggests that this stage of the lifecycle—when individuals “leave the nest” but before their views of the world are durably and immutably formed—is when attitudes are most readily influenced by immediate experience. Our research suggests that it is specifically these members of Generation Z whose attitudes toward scientists and their advice will be most negatively affected by Covid-19.

Interestingly, the same negative revision of perceived trust does not apply also to other medical professionals, such as doctors, nurses, and traditional healers. Nor is it visible in responses regarding confidence in science as an endeavor. Rather, it is a problem specifically of the perceived trustworthiness of scientists as individuals.

Distrust of scientific experts is a problem. Our research suggests that the problem will be even more acute post Covid-19. Responding to these trends will not be straightforward. At a minimum, our findings suggest that scientists working on public health matters and others concerned with scientific communication should think harder about how to communicate trustworthiness and honesty and, specifically, about how the generation currently in their impressionable years (Generation Z) perceives such attributes. 

© Cevat Giray Aksoy, Barry Eichengreen, and Orkun Saka

Cevat Giray Aksoy is Principal Economist at the EBRD, Assistant Professor of Economics at King’s College London, and and Research Affiliate of IZA.
Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Orkun Saka is Assistant Professor at the University of Sussex, and a Research Associate at the Systemic Risk Centre at LSE.

Find more IZA World of Labor coronavirus content on our curated topics pages: National responses to Covid-19 and Covid-19—Pandemics and the labor market.

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