On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center released the results of the study, which paints a picture of how the public in 20 different countries views the science and technology it provides – or at least how those countries viewed science and technology just before the pandemic. The good news is that there is widespread trust in scientists and a strong desire to act on their findings on issues such as climate change.
But the results also contain many reasons for concern. Some of the results of scientific development, such as genetically modified foods, are widely distrusted by the public in most countries. And in many countries, there is a large guerrilla divide in the views of scholars ̵
We usually spent some time discussing the details of the survey data collection. But with 20 countries, each with its own independent research, we will just connect you with the details and note that at least 1,000 people have been studied in the following countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, the 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 first level question was how much people trust scientists who do the right thing. Respondents were given the following options: “many”, “some”, “not too many” and “none at all”. India was the country where people had the most trust in scientists, with about 60% saying they had a lot. This was followed by a large collection of European countries, with the United States in the middle of the package. Asian countries – in particular Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – have the lowest scores. “Many” scored less than 25 percent. Only three countries saw the combined “not many” / “none” categories exceed 30 percent: Brazil, Malaysia and Taiwan.
So while positive views are a bit volatile, scientists’ negative views are quite rare. The only caveat is that many respondents believe it is more important to rely on people with practical experience than experience, with support for experts ranging from a low of 20 percent to a high of only 40 percent. However, it is not clear whether people would consider scientists to be strictly experts or experts with real-world experience.
With regard to scientific problems, the public as a whole adheres to the conclusions of the scientific community. There was only one country (the Czech Republic) where less than half of the public did not think climate change was a major concern – and that was 49 percent. The view that climate is a serious problem is most prevalent in Taiwan, where 80 percent feel that way; seven countries saw more than two-thirds of their population claim this. Of the nine countries where Pew has data for a decade, there is an increase in this mood in each.
People were less receptive to the scientific conclusion that people are driving climate change. Six countries saw that less than half of the public agreed with this conclusion (including the United States – 49%). Spain and Taiwan have the highest levels of acceptance, just over three-quarters of the public.
Pew also asked if people saw signs of climate change in their location and if they thought the government was doing enough for the climate. But these responses will involve a complex combination of personal beliefs, local weather trends and national policy decisions. This means that unpacking these answers, which are a bit volatile, is a challenge. The conclusions from them will be difficult.
We are all environmentalists
Almost all respondents believe that environmental protection should be a top priority, with an average of 70% believing that priority should be given to job creation. This ranges from the highest values in the UK and the Czech Republic (77 percent) to the lowest of 56 percent in Russia. Support for renewable energy was even higher, clearing 90 percent in six European countries; all but two countries (India and Malaysia) saw clear support for 70%. The wind and the hydro saw similar levels of public enthusiasm.
In only three countries is more than half the public support for greater coal use: India, Malaysia and Russia. These were also the only countries in which support for oil development cleared by 50%, although there was generally more enthusiasm for oil than for coal. In contrast, only two countries (Sweden and the Netherlands) no support the use of more natural gas, the cleanest of fossil fuels.
Support for nuclear energy is similar to that for coal, with a median of 37 percent of the public favoring its widespread use. Sweden and the Czech Republic were the only countries where support was cleared by 50 percent. So, with the exception of nuclear energy, public support for energy production has been largely in line with our need to tackle climate change, which can probably be considered a victory for science-based policy.
However, for this technology …
One of the inevitable results of the research is new technologies and Pew asked about a number of them, including the expanded use of AI and automation. Most Asian countries saw 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 somewhere between 35 and 55 percent, with the notable exception of very high support for automation in Sweden.
In terms of public health, confidence in the health benefits of vaccines was over 60% in a dozen countries. But it’s not as high as we want it to be. Lower confidence has largely occurred outside 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 slightly strange reports of the COVID-19 vaccine surfaced. For the most part, confidence in the benefits of vaccines coincides with the recognition that the likelihood of adverse side effects is low.
But the biggest gap is when food technology is taken into account. Almost no one considers genetically modified foods safe, with an average of only 13 percent, and the absolute peak of support comes in Australia at 31 percent. In contrast, there were eight countries in which more than half of the public said GMOs were dangerous, despite the complete lack of evidence for this claim. But these are not just GMOs; the figures were remarkably similar when asked about the use of pesticides or artificial preservatives, although there were some differences between countries (for example, Germans are much more trusting of preservatives than GMOs).
The differences are largely political
Pew reveals a gender difference in feelings about AI development, automation and other technologies, with men usually supporting these technologies more than women. But the difference was relatively small, usually in the range of 10 to 15 points for AI. There is only a slightly bigger difference between automation and food technology. Education also made a difference that was similar in scale, with more education correlated with increased support for these technologies as well as vaccination. There were no obvious geographical patterns in terms of the size of the difference.
To see more significant gaps, we can turn to Pew’s analysis of the political polarization of distrust of scientists. Here, people on the liberal side of the spectrum were generally more trusting. A number of countries – Brazil, France, Poland, South Korea and the Czech Republic – have seen 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 being more trusting.
Other European countries saw slightly larger differences, and the difference was more pronounced when support for far-right populist parties was analyzed. But the English-speaking world really stood out. In Britain, the difference between liberals and conservatives was 27 points; Australia had 29 points; Canada was 39; and the United States saw the biggest difference, with a difference of 42 points between liberals and conservatives. In the United States, only 20 percent of conservatives believe that scientists will do the right thing, and only 30 percent believe that scientists make judgments based on facts.
In something that will not surprise anyone, these results largely coincide with what is happening with climate change.
The biggest gaps between conservatives and liberals in terms of the severity of climate change are mostly in English-speaking countries, with the addition of Sweden, which has slipped ahead of the United Kingdom. The United States again saw the biggest difference; in this case, 64 points are shared by liberals and conservatives.
There is more
One of the biggest things missing from the data is the perception of what is happening in Africa. We know that Africa has adopted some technologies (especially mobile phones), and the rest of the world must hope to adopt renewable energy as well. But a clearer picture of how they feel about current and future technologies seems to be valuable knowledge.
We also want a repeat of the study after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. The decline of COVID will undoubtedly await the development of a safe vaccine, and in the meantime the health and safety of citizens will rely on countries that have adopted scientifically sound advice from health experts. Finding out whether they will gain widespread recognition and cause changes in public opinion is a fascinating question.
But the key thing to study is why the English-speaking world has such a politicized distrust of scientists (and perhaps why India has avoided it). Although tracking the development of this mistrust is easy in the United States, the policies of Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom have some significant structural differences that seem to suggest that common cultural characteristics may be at the root of this trend.