The decline of trust in scientists between April and November 2020

Remember previous post in which I wrote about a handbook containing the claim that complete trust in scientists doubled between 2019 and November 2020, this while the poll that the authors referenced (but for obvious reasons didn’t link to) showed a rapid decline of trust after April 2020. Initially, trust levels in April 2020 quadrupled relative to 2019, but ended up in November as a doubling relative to the year before. Basically, although trust ended higher than the year before, half of those who completely trusted the scientists in April lost that trust by November.

The jump of trust in April 2020 was remarkable, but understandable. The world was confronted with a virus that was not only contagious but also deadly and people tend to unite in the face of external pressure, this combined with high expectation and the scientific community showing strong willingness to find a solution.

But then, why a decline already one month later and even more a half year later? This might have different reasons. The effect could be temporary, as suggested by the subtitle of the “trust in scientists” wiki page (but for some reason not explained in the rest of that text). I think there are other reasons and I will propose some in this post.

Reading the handbook, it struck me that there was a small discrepancy between the statement in the handbook (how much people trust scientists) compared to what the poll they referenced looked into (how much people trust science and research). This are two different things to me. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was surely trusting the science (as the method), but not necessarily the scientists (who use this method in various degrees and maybe even are motivated by other things).

I already got interest in the covid-19 virus in February 2020 and I followed a whole array of international sources on the topic. That learned me a lot, like the logarithmic growth of the virus and I encountered terms like “flatten the curve” that I would only hear much later in the mainstream media.. However, what I learned didn’t match with the narrative of the virologists in our media who claimed that it was just like the flu, that it would unlikely get into Belgium and if it did, it wouldn’t pose much of a problem for our health care system. This narrative was maintained until the beginning of March, even after the first cases started to pop up.

This discrepancy between what I learned from various international sources (what made sense) and what our scientists/MDs said in the media (what didn’t make sense) meant that I didn’t really trust them. I was initially puzzled by their narrative that didn’t seem realistic.

It only much later that I started to understand this when I viewed a video of a talk of our most vocal virologist at the Chatham House, in which he explained how to attract the attention of the media and avoid journalists to seek alternative voices in order to convey his own message that “The country is ready for the pandemic” (which according to him would be a gross over-estimation). That fragment hit home to me, it explained a lot, for example their over-optimistic narrative. They were selling a pandemic.

Another major trust-breaker was the mouth mask saga. The virologists in the media initially claimed that wearing mouth mask was completely useless, those masks don’t stop the virus, they give a false sense of security… They went very far in that. For example, tv news was criticized for showing pictures with people wearing masks when reporting on the subject and a virologist even mocked people who wore mask in public spaces. More than a month or so later, the same virologist was backpedaling and even a month later he was a strong promoter of home-made cloth masks (which were even less protective than the surgical masks he mocked before).

Later he and other virologists admitted that they made the claim that masks were useless because there was a global shortage. I can certainly understand that reasoning, but is it really the task of scientists to misrepresent the efficiency of masks in order to steer people towards a particular outcome?

That strategy obviously backfired. People noticed the inconsistencies and the flip-flop, so that would potentially lead to losing some trust.

It also didn’t help building trust that politicians hid behind the scientists when they declared unpopular measures. We often heard that they followed the science (even when it was blatantly clear that they didn’t follow the science at all and made purely political decisions) and trust in scientists undoubtedly took some hits because of this.

It also didn’t help when for example one virologist was very vocal about his (far left) political leaning. When the US Government recommended to wear masks, he then criticized this harshly, explaining that such a recommendation shows that the American Government was too late in taking measures and masks then would be the only thing left to do.
In hindsight, that was not a very smart move. Belgium was doing as bad, if not worse, than the US back then and only ten days or so later we got to hear from our own Government that they were recommending (and a couple months later even mandating) the wearing of masks. This based on a team of experts, of which he was a member. Karma is a bitch.

The problem is that one could wonder whether such criticism on the recommendation of masks originated from his academic expertise or rather from his political leanings (detesting right-wing ideas). And more general, one could wonder about his preference for certain measures. In how far did those originate from his scientific expertise or from his political ideas?

That is only a very small selection of things that I remember from that first half year that potentially could lower trust in scientists. They didn’t always acted trustworthy during that time. Scientists should ideally act as honest brokers, not salesmen twisting the truth to get to a certain outcome. They unfortunately were also dealt a really bad hand in their relation with politicians. So, to me personally it is no wonder that complete trust dropped by half in just half a year. I am a bit surprised that it didn’t drop further than that.


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