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"Trust in science has passed the stress test"

The Corona pandemic has not only been dominating everyday life around the world for about two years now - it is increasingly putting science and research in the focus of public discussion. One aspect is people's trust in the work of scientists. A research team led by Professor Rainer Bromme, a psychologist at the University of Münster, has re-evaluated the data of the "Wissenschaftsbarometer" (Science Barometer) and has now published a study that concludes that science has passed the pandemic stress test of public trust in it. Dr Eva Thomm from the University of Erfurt was also involved in the study as a co-author.

In September 2019 - before the pandemic - 46 percent of respondents said they trusted science. Shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic, in April 2020, this figure rose to 73 percent, and in November 2020 it was 61 percent - still well above the pre-crisis figure. "The group that distrusts science is very small, at seven to eight percent of respondents, and has not increased in the course of the pandemic so far," says Rainer Bromme. "The large bloc of the undecided is melting away, making the group of those who trust science larger." Contrary to the impression given by some media reports, approval of conspiracy theories and populist assumptions about science declined during the pandemic, he says.

The authors describe a significant increase and stabilisation of confidence at elevated levels since the beginning of the pandemic. The results are encouraging for scientists, they say, as they enjoy a high level of trust. In addition, the authors emphasise that a large part of the respondents expect politics to be guided by scientific findings. This expectation has also increased significantly since the beginning of the pandemic and has remained consistently high since then. The study reveals the level of education as one of the factors influencing the trust judgement: People with a higher educational background have, on average, greater trust in science.

In the "Wissenschaftsbarometer", people are asked which assumptions about science contribute to their trust and which lead to mistrust. In their analysis, the researchers have now come to the conclusion that there is an asymmetrical relationship: While trust is primarily based on assumptions about expertise, i.e. the specialist knowledge and skills of scientists, distrust is fed by assumptions about the intentions of scientists. If dishonest, bad or egoistic intentions are assumed, this reinforces the distrust. The conclusion, says Rainer Bromme, is that a fundamental populist rejection of established science should best be countered with arguments "that underline the intentions, interests and values of scientists" and at the same time reveal the actual intentions of the populists. Furthermore, it is always helpful to explain as much knowledge about the pandemic as possible in an understandable way. At the same time, it must be pointed out how complex the research work is. The results of the study also show that the impression that scientific complexity is not comprehensible goes hand in hand with low trust in science. Here, it is important to explain that the existing scientific knowledge is indeed often a difficult subject. As a further means of maintaining trust, the authors recommend that scientists point out scientific controversies and also point out the limits of the respective discipline. This is also a means of countering populist attacks.

The representative public survey "Wissenschaftsbarometer" (Science Barometer) has been conducted regularly, at least once a year, by "Wissenschaft im Dialog gGmbH" since 2014. In addition to Rainer Bromme, Niels Mede (University of Zurich), Eva Thomm (University of Erfurt) and Bastian Kremer and Ricarda Ziegler (both "Wissenschaft im Dialog", Berlin) were involved in the study. The study has been published in the scientific journal "PLoS ONE".

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