Sunday, June 16, 2024

Trump’s curious effect on trust in science

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The writer is a science commentator

As soon as the White House press conference was over, the panic began. Responding to Donald Trump’s suggestion in April 2020 that injecting disinfectant might rid the lungs of coronavirus, Dettol manufacturer Reckitt, formerly Reckitt-Benckiser, immediately issued a statement clarifying that “under no circumstance should our disinfectants be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route)”. 

The former US president has also described climate change as a hoax, falsely linked vaccines to autism and championed unproven medicines to treat coronavirus. And yet, remarkably, amid all the guff, Trump appears to have been an unwitting ambassador for science. A new study suggests that, over his presidential term, the percentage of Americans trusting scientific expertise rose.  

That feels both surprising and heartening. While there is evidence that pseudoscience and conspiracy theories can drive people towards unevidenced or dangerous beliefs, we hear much less about how and why those same influences might push others in the opposite direction. The research, published recently in the journal Science and Public Policy, suggests that scientific misinformation and disinformation does indeed move the dial: not by turning everyone into disbelievers but by jolting them out of a zone of indifference and seemingly turning them into either uber-sceptics or superfans. 

The study was led by political scientist Jon Miller at the University of Michigan, who has for decades surveyed US citizens on their attitudes to science by asking what they have sought scientific information on, and from which sources. Miller, together with colleagues in Michigan, California and Spain, compared responses from just over 2,000 people taken in 2016, before Trump became president, to responses from about 2,700 people in 2020, as his term was ending. 

Strikingly, people’s opinions on whether or not they trusted scientists and research organisations — such as universities and the Environmental Protection Agency — hardened over that period. In 2016, the neutrals, with no strong feelings either way, accounted for three-quarters of responses. Four years later, the neutrals had fallen to under a third. 

Broadly, the proportion of those in the mistrust camp rose from 2 to 13 per cent, while the figure for those expressing a high degree of trust increased from 22 to 57 per cent. The pandemic, which created what Miller describes as a “utilitarian” need for reliable health information, is likely to have pushed science higher up the average American’s agenda; the more salient an issue, the firmer a person’s views tend to be.

Conservative Republicans, who might be expected to march obediently behind sceptical Trump, instead migrated to both low-trust and high-trust extremes. Again, the high-trust cluster won out, by 37 per cent to 24 per cent. As Miller tells me: “Hundreds of thousands of people were dying from Covid-19 and the death rate was higher in the groups that tend to support Trump — male, older, less well-educated.” Liberal-minded Democrats cluster more consistently at the high-trust end when it comes to scientific expertise. 

That whittling away of the centre ground, Miller thinks, also results from a decentralised information landscape, as people look beyond established news media to seek knowledge and opinions from a wider range of people and places. It was Team Trump that pioneered the brazen concept of “alternative facts”, in which the truth could shape-shift according to personal preference. Higher education levels and a keen interest in science are also twinned more strongly with faith in scientific expertise. 

American studies of public attitudes to science began in 1957, when the Russians launched Sputnik, the first artificial satellite. While the long-term consequences of polarisation remain unknown, Miller said, the key message for decision makers is that “there is little political gain in attacking science. Looking at the data over the last 63 years, it is clear that most American adults think science has made their lives better and that it will continue to do so in the future.”  

This is cheering, given that we inhabit a world increasingly buffeted by complex scientific issues. The seas are rising, AI deepfakes are proliferating, the population is ageing and environmental degradation is setting the scene for fresh pandemics. And nobody can rule out a second Trump term just yet. 

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