On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center released survey results that represent a picture of how audiences in 20 different countries view the science and technology it enables, or at least how those countries viewed science and technology immediately before the pandemic struck. . The good news is that there is widespread trust in scientists and a strong desire to act on their findings on issues like climate change.
But the results also contain many reasons for concern. Some of the achievements of scientific development, such as genetically modified foods, are widely distrusted by the public in most countries. And, in many countries, there is a great partisan division in the opinions of scientists ̵
Normally, we would spend some time discussing the details of how the survey data was collected. But with 20 countries, each with their own independent polls, we will simply link you to the details and notice that at least 1,000 people have been interviewed in the following countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, 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.
The main question 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 “not at all”. India was the country where people trusted scientists the most, with around 60% claiming to have a lot. This was followed by a large collection of European countries, with the United States remaining at the center of the group. Asian countries, notably Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, scored the lowest. “A lot” scored less than 25 percent. Only three countries saw the combined “not much” / “none” categories exceed 30%: Brazil, Malaysia and Taiwan.
So while the positive opinions are a bit patchy, the negative opinions of scientists are quite rare. The only caveat is that many respondents believe it is more important to rely on people with practical experience rather than skills, with expert support ranging from as low as 20% to as high as 40%. What is unclear, however, is whether people would consider strictly skilled scientists or experts with real-world experience.
When it comes to scientific matters, the public generally agrees with the conclusions of the scientific community. There was only one country (the Czech Republic) where less than half of the public didn’t think climate change was a major concern, and there it was 49%. The idea that the climate was a serious problem was prevalent in Taiwan, where 80% thought so; seven countries have seen more than two-thirds of their population say so. And, of the nine countries where Pew has a decade of data, each has seen this sentiment rise.
People were less accepting of the scientific conclusion that humans are driving climate change. Six countries saw less than half of the public agree with this conclusion (including the United States, with 49%). Spain and Taiwan recorded the highest levels of acceptance, with just over three-quarters of the audience.
The Pew also asked if people saw signs of climate change in their position and if they thought their government was doing enough for the climate. But these answers will involve a complicated mix of personal beliefs, local weather trends, and national policy decisions. This means that unpacking those responses, which are a bit erratic, is a challenge. Drawing conclusions from them will be difficult.
We are all environmentalists
Almost all respondents felt that protecting the environment should be a top priority, with an average of 70% believing it should be a priority over job creation. This ranged from a high in the UK and the Czech Republic (77%) to a low of 56% in Russia. Support for renewable energy was even higher, reaching 90 per cent in six European countries; all but two countries (India and Malaysia) saw net support of 70%. Wind and hydro have seen similar levels of public enthusiasm.
Only three countries saw more than half of public support for increased coal use: India, Malaysia and Russia. Those were also the only countries where support for oil development had cleared by 50%, although overall there was more enthusiasm for oil than for coal. In contrast, only two countries (Sweden and the Netherlands) he didn’t support the use of more natural gas, the cleanest of fossil fuels.
Support for nuclear energy was similar to that for coal, with an average of 37% of the public in favor of its extensive use. Sweden and the Czech Republic were the only countries where support was canceled by 50%. So, with the exception of nuclear power, public support for energy production has largely been in line with our need to tackle climate change, which can probably be seen as a victory for science-based policy.
Speaking of that technology, though …
One of the inevitable results of scientific activity is new technology, and Pew has also asked for information on a number of these, including the extensive use of AI and automation. Most Asian countries have experienced high levels (> 60%) 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 has been mixed, with most countries seeing it reach between 35 and 55%, with the notable exception of very high support for automation in Sweden.
On the public health front, confidence in the health benefits of vaccines was over 60% in a dozen countries. But it’s not as tall as we want it to be. The lower confidence occurred largely outside Europe, with the exception of France (52%) and Russia. Russia was the only country in which less than half of the public trusted the health benefits of vaccines, and that was before the somewhat bizarre message about the COVID-19 vaccine occurred. For the most part, confidence in the benefits of vaccines matched the recognition that the likelihood of adverse side effects was low.
But the biggest gap occurred when food technology was considered. Hardly anyone considered genetically modified foods to be safe, with a median percentage of only 13 and the absolute peak of support in Australia at 31%. In contrast, there were eight countries where more than half of the public said GMOs were unsafe, despite the complete lack of evidence to support this claim. But they are not just GMOs; the numbers were remarkably similar when the use of pesticides or artificial preservatives was asked, although there were some variations from country to country (Germans, for example, have much more confidence in preservatives than GMOs).
The differences are largely political
The Pew discovered a gender difference in feelings towards the development of artificial intelligence, automation and other technologies, with men typically supporting those technologies more than women. But the gap was quite small, generally between 10 and 15 points for AI. There is only a slightly larger gap for automation and food technology. Education has also made a similar difference, with more education correlating with greater support for these technologies, in addition to vaccination. There were no obvious geographical patterns regarding the size of the gap.
To see more substantial gaps, we can turn to Pew’s analysis of the political polarization of distrust in scientists. Here, people on the liberal end of the spectrum were generally more confident. A number of countries – Brazil, France, Poland, South Korea and the Czech Republic – saw little political difference in whether they trusted scientists to do the right thing. But the Netherlands saw a 10-point difference between liberals and conservatives, with liberals more confident.
Other European countries found slightly greater 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 years old; and the United States saw the biggest difference, with a 42-point gap between liberals and conservatives. In the United States, only 20% of conservatives thought scientists would do the right thing, and only 30% believed scientists were forming judgments based on facts.
In something that will surprise no one, these findings broadly match what is happening with climate change.
The biggest gap between conservatives and liberals over the severity of climate change has been mostly in the English-speaking countries, with the addition of Sweden, which sneaked ahead of the UK. The United States once again saw the biggest difference by far; in this case, 64 points separated liberals and conservatives.
And there’s more
One of the most important things missing from the data is a sense of what is happening in Africa. We know that Africa has embraced some technologies (especially cell phones) and the rest of the world must hope that it will also embrace renewable energy. But a clearer picture of how they feel about current and future technologies would seem to be invaluable knowledge.
We also want a repeat of the survey once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided. The decline of COVID will undoubtedly await the development of a safe vaccine and, in the meantime, the health and safety of citizens will depend on the adoption by countries of scientific advice from health experts. Finding out whether these will receive widespread recognition and cause changes in public opinion is a fascinating question.
But the key thing that needs to be explored is why the English-speaking world has such a politicized distrust of scientists (and perhaps why India shunned it). While monitoring the development of this mistrust is easy in the United States, the policy of Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom has some significant structural differences that would seem to suggest that common cultural characteristics may be behind this trend.