Revenge of the Experts: Will COVID-19 Renew or Diminish Public Trust in Science?

Publication Date
Systemic Risk Centre Discussion Papers DP 96
Publication Date
Financial Markets Group Discussion Papers DP 802
Publication Authors

An effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is sometimes suggested, will be to reverse the secular trend toward questioning the value of scientific research and expertise. We analyze this hypothesis by examining how exposure to previous epidemics affected the confidence of individuals in science and scientists. Consistent with theory and evidence that attitudes are durably formed when individuals are in their impressionable years between the ages of 18 and 25, we focus on people who were exposed to epidemics in their country of residence at this stage of the life course. Combining data from a 2018 Wellcome Trust survey of more than 70,000 individuals in 160 countries with data on global epidemics since 1970, we show that such exposure has no impact on views of science as an endeavor or on opinions of whether the study of disease is properly an aspect of science, but that it significantly reduces confidence in scientists and the benefits of their work. These findings are robust to a variety of controls, empirical methods and sensitivity checks. We suggest some implications for how scientific findings are communicated and for how scientists seeking to inform and influence public opinion should position themselves in the public sphere.