Interview with Dr. Paul Stoneman: ‘We see an increase in polarisation of complete trust or no trust at all in scientists’

Paul StonemanPaul Stoneman is a political scientist who specialises in quantitative methods and social and political attitudes. He is currently one of the principal investigators of the World Values Survey, an international research program devoted to the study of social, political, economic, religious and cultural values of people in the world. He also works as the research lead of PERITIA, an EU-funded project investigating public trust in expertise.

Your project recently carried out a survey on public attitudes towards national governments, science, and media across six European countries: Germany, the UK, Ireland, Poland, Italy, and Norway. Can you summarise the main findings of the survey in a couple of sentences?

Paul Stoneman: Our overarching finding is that in relation to two of the most salient issues of our time – Covid-19 and climate change – there are significant sections of the public who find it difficult to trust the relevant scientific experts for information and guidance. The concern here – as revealed by our data – is that low levels of trust will negatively affect the public’s compliance with public health advice, such as wearing a face mask, and can also reduce support for more ambitious, state-led policy programs to tackle climate change.

Who do people trust the most in Europe? Are there country differences depending on the topic (climate change vs Covid-19)?

Paul Stoneman: The good news is that scientists, compared to other public authorities/experts, are still trusted by most populations within Europe. On average, at least two-thirds of people within any given European country express trust towards scientists. These trust figures, however, slightly change when people are asked about scientists working on particular issues. So, in relation to climate change scientists, we see an increase in the percentage of people saying either that they completely trust or have no trust at all in such scientists. In relation to scientists working on tackling Covid-19, we see this bifurcation increase even more. The implication here is that when certain scientific issues become more politically charged, public opinion moves towards greater polarisation between those who completely trust scientists and those who have no trust at all.

What is more important to people in Europe, the present pandemic, or the present/future threat of climate change?

Paul Stoneman: We have to be careful when looking at survey data to get a sense of what people think is the most important issue. Our fieldwork was performed in January of the year when the pandemic was still very strong. So, from this data, Covid-19 comes out on top as the most important issue, with climate change coming in further behind healthcare and poverty/inequality. However, as we move closer to something which resembles a more ‘post-pandemic’ phase, it seems likely that the concern over Covid-19 will fade and climate change will again have greater saliency.

Why is public trust in governmental institutions relevant in scientific topics like those above?

Paul Stoneman: There are two reasons really. First, the government is the public institution most prominent in the minds of citizens. We get to know our political leaders, we vote for them, we invest trust in them, and we rely on governments to provide essential services. As the most prominent public authority, if the government is perceived as less trustworthy, this can ‘spillover’ into negatively affecting trust in other public authorities, such as scientific experts.

Second, scientific issues are not ‘value free’ in a wider sense. When societies are asked to change their ways to adapt to prevailing issues informed by scientific research – such as switching to more environmentally friendly cars or observing lock down rules during a pandemic, the government has to set the agenda, frame the issue, and formulate relevant policy responses which can garner public support. Without trust in the government, getting this across to the public and acquiring the necessary support becomes very difficult.

What is the relationship between personal interest/involvement and misperceptions on controversial and complicated topics like climate change?

Paul Stoneman: Getting people to be consistently engaged with salient topics like climate change is a difficult task. For the average person, life is complicated enough with work and family commitments, money troubles, and maintaining personal health, just to name a few. To then hope or expect people to spend time reading, thinking about, and even debating big and complicated topics like climate change on a regular basis is probably too much to ask. This makes it even more important that, when scientific consensus is reached and the government needs to take a lead on enacting scientifically informed public policy, these lines of communication are clear and not muddied by narrow political interests.

How can these insights inform policy/change public attitudes?

Paul Stoneman: I think the most important message is that since governments are such an important conduit between the general public and wider public authorities, governmental communication on scientific issues and responses needs to be as clear and effective as possible. Note: I didn’t say ‘science communication’ in general, but science as communicated by the government. Since much of our world perceptions are filtered through political lenses, we need to ensure that governments can bring the urgency of certain issues across political mindsets that would be ordinarily immune to problems like climate change.

Useful link:
PERITIA study findings
What drives public trust in science-based policies? Ask PEriTiA

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