Back to All Topics

Trusting Scientists in the Covid Pandemic

By John H. Evans

January 17, 2021


Science, facts, and values

By John H. Evans


The Covid pandemic is a social transformation unparalleled in my lifetime – and I am not a young man. It appears to be a perfect storm of a disease that spreads fairly easily from person to person, but spreaders can be without symptoms. At this writing over seven million Americans have been infected and over 200,000 have died. Over 33 million in the world have been infected, and nearly one million have died.

The world has turned to scientists who study viruses for advice on how to avoid infection and death. In the U.S., I would say that scientists’ advice has been followed a bit less, particularly by some sub-populations in the country. There is a distrust of scientists, which has contributed to Americans not following the advice of scientists such as wearing a mask and physical distancing.

To what do we attribute this lack of trust in scientists, especially when we compare that response to other wealthy Western countries like those of Western Europe? A first answer is that President Trump repeatedly said that scientists cannot be trusted and that we should not follow their advice. But, while that is part of the explanation, Trump would not have been able to say such things if he were not tapping into an existing stream in American culture. That stream is the distrust in experts.

The next question is, of course, expertise in what? For the case of Covid and scientists, we would assume the expertise is in discovering facts about nature, because that is what scientists do, right? So we assume that if parts of the public say they do not trust scientists, they mean that scientists do not know what they are talking about when they say to stay six feet away from others.

But what if the public does not primarily see scientists as focused on facts, but rather on values?  I had this realization from studies of religious people’s views of science and scientists. There are some religious people in the U.S. who disagree with a few of the fact claims of scientists, such as those who see the earth as thousands instead of billions of years old and those who see scientific accounts of human origins as false. But the majority agree with scientific claims about most or all facts about nature – they just think these facts have different moral implications than what the scientists attribute to them. Thus, studies have shown that to the extent there is conflict between religion and science in the U.S., such conflict is more about morals than facts.

Earlier in the Covid pandemic a colleague and I conducted a survey study to see if something similar was happening with trusting scientists. In the survey we asked how well scientists who study pandemics understand the spread of coronavirus. Of the five choices we gave respondents, almost half selected the choice at the “very well” end of the spectrum. Only eight percent selected “not at all.” We concluded that the public generally believes in the expertise of scientists on the facts.

The story was different for values. We also asked respondents how much they agree with the following statement: “If scientists who study pandemics have to make life and death decisions in the Coronavirus pandemic, the values they use will be consistent with mine.” Few people strongly disagreed with this statement, but the responses were much more divided than were the questions about scientists’ understanding of the pandemic. Indeed, the most commonly selected answer was the ambivalent “neither agree nor disagree.” Americans may believe scientists’ claims about nature, but also that these claims come with a set of values that may not align with their own. It is not hard to see why: think of every mad scientist in every movie and novel. They are all outsiders with questionable values who violate the will and standards of the community.  Think: Dr. Frankenstein.

Usually, the problem of not believing scientists’ values does not impact the public because the politicians agree with the values of the scientists and are willing to be the voice of values alongside the facts of the scientists. For medical research scientists the primary value is something like “saving human lives” or “reducing the suffering from disease.” In the Covid case, Trump had values that were in tension with that value, something like “keeping economic activity going.” It is easy to convince the public that scientists’ fact claims are secretly driven by wanting to forward scientists’ values. Our public response to the pandemic would be better if everyone was clear about the values they were pursuing, so that these divergent values do not leak into the perception of the facts.

John H. Evans is the Tata Chancellor's Chair in Social Sciences, Professor of Sociology, Co-Director of the Institute for Practical Ethics at the University of California, San Diego, and an InStead Editor-at-Large