Regions with strong institutions have high trust in scientists, while those with high income inequality trust them less, says survey
Less than one in five people (18%) have a ‘high’ level of trust in scientists globally, and one in seven people (14%) have a ‘low’ level of trust in scientists, according to the Wellcome Global Monitor, the first worldwide study of public attitudes to science, scientists and health.
Globally, the majority of people or 54% have ‘medium’ trust in scientists, while the remaining 13% have no opinion about how much they trust scientists in their respective countries.
The survey by Wellcome, an independent foundation, asked over 140,000 people aged 15 and older, in more than 140 countries, how they think and feel about health and science. The countries surveyed were grouped into 18 categories.
Regionally, the largest proportion of people who have a ‘high’ level of trust in scientists are in Australia and New Zealand, Northern Europe and Central Asia, where they make up about a third of the population.
Fewer than one in 10 people in these regions have a ‘low’ level of trust in scientists.
“A low trust in scientists is most common in Central Africa, Southern Africa, and South America By contrast, almost one in three people in Central Africa, Southern Africa, and South America have ‘low’ levels of trust in scientists.
In Central America and Mexico, 27% of people have low trust in scientists. In all of these regions, people with ‘low’ trust are more than twice as common as people with ‘high’ trust,” the report says.
Educational exposure to science, confidence in national institutions, and inequality significantly influence trust in scientists, say the researchers.
“Having the opportunity to learn science at school is the single most influential predictor of trust in scientists, even after taking into account other potentially relevant personal or country factors. Again, the level of confidence people have in the major institutions of their country matters. People who lack confidence in these key institutions, including the national government, the judicial system, and the military, also have lower trust in scientists,” said the report.
Other factors that are significantly associated with trust in scientists include where a person lives (rural or urban area), how people feel about their income and access to a personal telephone and the internet.
“People who have regular access to the internet and a telephone for personal use tend to have higher trust in scientists. At the macroeconomic level, the level of income inequality in a country matters. People in high-inequality countries have lower confidence in scientists,” it says.
People in high-income countries, according to the findings, are more likely than people in low-income countries to have ‘high’ trust in scientists, although by only a relatively small margin, at 23% compared to 19%.
Low-income countries also have a higher percentage of people who have low trust in scientists, compared to people in high-income countries, with 18% of people in low-income countries having low confidence in scientists compared to 12% in high-income countries.
According to the UNESCO Science Report 2015, the European Union states, China, the United States, Japan, and Russia – or the Big 5 – are home to about 72% of all researchers in the world. As sizeable as these countries’ research sectors might be, the researchers found that people from a big five are about as likely to have high trust in scientists as people from elsewhere in the world, at 20% to 17%.
Though seven in ten people worldwide feel that science benefits them, but this is not uniformly the case across all regions. Further, just around four in ten people believe that science benefits most people in their country. Around a third of people in North Africa, Southern Africa, Central and South America feel personally excluded from the benefits of science.
“The region of the world where ‘skeptics’, who do not believe that science benefits them personally nor society as a whole, are most common in South America, where they represent almost a quarter of the population of the overall region. Overall, out of more than 140 countries in this study, people in France are most likely to see science and technology as a threat to the local employment prospects,” says the report.
The researchers explain that people’s attitudes to science may be related to tangible results in their daily lives. For instance, people who said they do not have confidence in the hospitals or health clinics in their country are about three times more likely to be strong skeptics than those who have faith in their healthcare systems. These findings suggest that people largely see science as a public good, but there are certain contexts in which science is seen as a threat to people’s livelihoods, say the researchers.
Interestingly, among people with a religious affiliation, 55% would agree with their religious teachings in a disagreement between science and their religion; 29% would agree with science and 13% say it depends on the issue. Among people who say they have a religion, the highest percentages of people who say that science has disagreed with their religious teachings are in the US and Southern Europe.
Globally, Most People Trust Doctors and Nurses
Worldwide, 84% people have ‘a lot’ or ‘some’ trust in doctors; this breaks down to 41% who say they have ‘a lot’ of trust and 43% who have ‘some’ trust. “Globally, doctors and nurses are more trusted than any other group or organization tested, including people in the neighborhood’ (79% trust ‘some’ or ‘a lot’), people who work at charitable organisations (59%), journalists (59%), the national government (58%) and traditional healers (49%),” the report says.
The study explains that trust in health professionals relates to national health outcomes. Trust also may be higher in countries where health services are more accessible, it adds.
As far as the healthcare systems are concerned, globally, three-quarters of people say they have confidence in hospitals and health clinics in their country. In most regions throughout the world, at least seven in ten people have faith in hospitals and health clinics, with the main exceptions in North Africa (51%) and Eastern Europe (59%).
“People in high-income countries are about as likely to have confidence in hospitals and health clinics in their country as lower-middle-income countries (78% and 82% respectively). Personal household income may be a more important factor in shaping confidence in hospitals and health clinics than national income. People who say they find it difficult to get by on their present income are notably less likely to say they have confidence in their country’s hospitals and health clinics,” says the findings.
As far as advice from healthcare professionals is concerned, globally, 73% say they would trust a doctor or a nurse more than several other possible sources of health advice, including family, friends, religious leaders or famous people. This figure ranges from a low of 65% in East Asia and the Middle East to a high of nearly 90% in Northern Europe, Southern Europe, Northern America, and Australia and New Zealand.
Further, over eight in ten people (84%) worldwide say they trust medical and health advice from medical workers (such as doctors and nurses), but this decreases to 76% for trust in that same advice from the government.