The COVID-19 pandemic has been marked by political divisions in US public trust of scientists. Such divisions are well known on other science topics, but regarding COVID-19 they arose suddenly, with disastrous results. Public distrust of scientists has been variously explained in terms of conflicts with belief systems, psychology, peer influences, or communication from elites. Three surveys conducted from March to July 2020 in the US state of New Hampshire observed changing perceptions on COVID-19, providing a test of alternative explanations. Over this period trust in science agencies such as the CDC for information on the coronavirus fell dramatically among Republicans, while views among Democrats and Independents changed little. Elite cues provide an obvious explanation—specifically, a reversal of views toward the CDC expressed by President Donald Trump. The change was consequential: people expressing lower trust in scientists also report less compliance with science-based behavioral recommendations, and less support for scientifically-informed policies. On several items, partisan differences are narrowest among college graduates, opposite to patterns previously seen with other science-trust issues. The primacy of elite cues regarding COVID-19 agrees, however, with earlier conclusions about the origins of distrust in scientists on climate change and environmental protection.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Hamilton, Lawrence C. and Safford, Thomas G., "Elite Cues and the Rapid Decline of Trust in Science Agencies on COVID-19" (2021). Sociological Perspectives. 1209.