On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center released research findings that paint a picture of how the publics of 20 different countries view science and the technologies that make it possible — or at least how those countries viewed science and technology just before the pandemic hit. The good news is that there is widespread trust in scientists and a strong desire to take action based on their findings on things like climate change.
But the results also contain many reasons for concern. Some results of scientific development, such as genetically modified foods, are mistrusted by the general public in most countries. And in many countries there is a large partisan divide in the views of scientists – and the divide is the most extreme in the United States.
Normally we would spend some time discussing the details of how survey data was collected. But with 20 countries, each with its own independent surveys, we refer you to the details and note that at least 1,000 people were surveyed in the following countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, India, Italy , Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, United Kingdom and United States.
The main question was how much trust people have in scientists doing the right thing. The 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, about 60 percent said they have a lot. This was followed by a large collection of European countries, with the United States at the center of the pack. Asian countries, especially Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, scored the lowest. “Many” scored less than 25 percent. Only three countries saw the combined “not much”/”none” categories exceed 30 percent: Brazil, Malaysia and Taiwan.
So while positive views are a bit erratic, negative views from scientists are quite rare. The only caveat is that many respondents find it more important to rely on people with practical experience rather than expertise, with expert support ranging from a low of 20 percent to a high of just 40 percent. What is not clear, however, is whether people would view scientists as strictly experts or experts with field experience.
When it comes to scientific issues, the public generally supports the conclusions of the scientific community. There was only one country (Czech Republic) where less than half of the public did not consider climate change a major problem – and there it was 49 percent. The view that climate was a serious problem was most prevalent in Taiwan, where 80 percent felt it; seven countries saw more than two-thirds of their population say so. And of the nine countries where Pew has ten years of data, everyone saw this sentiment increase.
People were less accepting of the scientific conclusion that humans are the cause of climate change. In six countries, less than half of the public agreed with that conclusion (including the United States at 49 percent). Spain and Taiwan saw the highest acceptance, at just over three quarters of the public.
The Pew also asked if people saw any signs of climate change in their location and if they felt their government was doing enough about the climate. But those answers come with a complicated mix of personal beliefs, local weather trends and national policy decisions. That means extracting those answers, which are a bit erratic, is challenging. It will be difficult to draw any conclusions from that.
We are all environmentalists
Nearly all respondents believed that protecting the environment should be a top priority, with a median of 70 percent saying that this should be prioritized over job creation. This ranged from a high in the UK and the Czech Republic (77 percent) to a low of 56 percent in Russia. Support for renewable energy was even greater, at 90 percent in six European countries; 70 percent of support was clear in all but two countries (India and Malaysia). Wind and hydro saw similar levels of public enthusiasm.
More than half of the population was in favor of increased coal use in only three countries: India, Malaysia and Russia. They were also the only countries where support for oil development rose by 50 percent, although there was generally more enthusiasm for oil than for coal. In contrast, only two countries (Sweden and the Netherlands) have not done support the use of more natural gas, the cleanest of all fossil fuels.
Support for nuclear power was comparable to that for coal, with a median of 37 percent of the public in favor of its extensive use. Sweden and the Czech Republic were the only countries where support was 50 percent. So, with the exception of nuclear power, public support for energy production was largely in line with our need to tackle climate change, which can probably be considered a victory for science-based policy.
But about that technology…
One of the inevitable results of scientific activity is new technology, and the Pew asked about some of it as well, including the extensive use of AI and automation. Most Asian countries saw a lot of (>60 percent) support for this, with the exception of Malaysia and Australia. India, on the other hand, was mixed and supported AI but no automation. Support in Europe and North America was mixed, with most countries seeing it somewhere between 35 and 55 percent, with the notable exception of very high support for automation in Sweden.
In the field of public health, confidence in the health benefits of vaccines exceeded 60 percent in a dozen countries. But that’s not nearly as high as we’d like. The lower confidence occurred largely outside of Europe, with the exception of France (52 percent) and Russia. Russia was the only country where less than half of the public trusted the health benefits of vaccines, and that was before the somewhat bizarre reports of the COVID-19 vaccine. For the most part, confidence in the benefits of vaccines matched the recognition that the likelihood of negative side effects was low.
But the biggest gap came when food technology was considered. Hardly anyone considered GM food safe, with a median rate of just 13 and the absolute peak of support in Australia at 31 percent. By contrast, there were eight countries where more than half of the population said GMOs were unsafe, despite the complete lack of any evidence to support this claim. But it’s not just GMOs; the numbers were remarkably similar when asked about the use of pesticides or artificial preservatives, although there was some variation from country to country (for example, Germans are much more confident in preservatives than GMOs).
Differences are largely political
The Pew found a gender difference in feelings about the development of AI, automation and other technology, with men typically more supportive of those technologies than women. But the gap was quite small, generally close to 10 to 15 points for AI. There is only a slightly wider gap for automation and food technology. Education also made a difference comparable in magnitude, with more education correlated with greater support for these technologies, as well as vaccination. There were no clear geographic patterns regarding the size of the canyon.
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 side 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 would trust scientists to do the right thing. But the Netherlands saw a 10-point difference between liberals and conservatives, with liberals having more confidence.
Other European countries saw somewhat wider differences, and the gap widened when analyzing support for far-right populist parties. But the Anglophone world 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 biggest difference, with a 42-point gap between liberals and conservatives. In the United States, only 20 percent of conservatives believed that scientists were doing the right thing, and only 30 percent believed that scientists make judgments based on facts.
In something that shouldn’t surprise anyone, these results are largely consistent with what’s going on with climate change.
The biggest differences between Conservatives and Liberals on the severity of climate change tended to be in Anglophone countries, with the addition of Sweden sneaking into the UK. The United States again saw by far the biggest difference; in this case, 64 points separated liberals and conservatives.
More to come
One of the biggest things the data lacks is an idea of what’s going on in Africa. We know that Africa has embraced some technologies (mobile phones in particular), and the rest of the world must hope that it will embrace renewable energy as well. But a clearer picture of how they think about current and future technologies seems to be valuable knowledge.
We also want a repeat of the survey once the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided. The decline of COVID will no doubt await the development of a safe vaccine, and in the meantime, the health and safety of citizens will depend on the countries adopting the science-based advice of health experts. It’s a fascinating question whether these will gain widespread recognition and trigger any shifts in public opinion.
But the most important thing to examine is why the English-speaking world has such a politicized distrust of scientists (and perhaps why India avoided it). While it is easy to follow the development of this distrust in the United States, the politics of Australia, Canada and the UK have some significant structural differences that seem to suggest that common cultural traits underlie the tendency.