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Confidence in science has plummeted. Here’s why we might want to rethink that

(Evgeniy Salov/Dreamstime/TNS)

Teddy Rosenbluth
The Charlotte Observer

At the start of the pandemic, concerned friends and family turned to Jennifer Dixon for all of their COVID-19 questions: Should I wipe down my groceries? Are packages from China dangerous?

But just a few months later, Dixon, an infection prevention specialist of nearly two decades at WakeMed, noticed a shift. Some of the neighbors and friends who texted and called her for advice were suddenly deeply suspicious about her intentions and qualifications.

“Those same people are the ones who now look at me and go, ‘Yeah, I don’t believe you,’” she said.

Acquaintances unfriended her on Facebook when she posted about masks. Neighbors confronted her after seeing her talk about the vaccine on television. Close friends stopped talking to her.

“The naysayers have become stronger naysayers and then people on the fence have fallen off one side or the other,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic was both a lesson in how scientific research can be used to save lives and how far public trust in scientific institutions has slipped.

Scientists who had dedicated their lives to researching coronaviruses were suddenly the subject of harassment and conspiracy theories. Large swaths of the population declined a potentially life-saving vaccine.

Just over the last two years, the share of Americans who have “a great deal of confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interests” is down by 10 percentage points to just 29%, according to a Pew survey.

Dr. Cameron Wolfe, a Duke infectious disease expert, became the subject of particularly vitriolic distrust in the last two years.

He fielded letters with “blunt threats” and nasty comments on social media. Conspiracy theorists claimed online that Wolfe was injecting HIV into the vaccines and that his children died after participating in the vaccine clinical trials.

Wolfe doesn’t have a problem questioning science. He thinks that critiquing methodologies and evaluating data is a key part of the scientific process. But it didn’t seem to Wolfe his critics were pushing for better COVID-19 research — it seemed like they were rejecting the entire scientific process with surprising aggression.

“I hadn’t ever seen it come from an inherently skeptical place, almost like that was the base framework where so many people would sit,” he said.

While the pandemic exacerbated mistrust in scientists, confidence in research has been slowly eroding for decades.

Another poll from Gallup found that confidence in science has declined since the 1970s, particularly among Republicans.

“The crisis of trust in our society didn’t start with COVID-19 and won’t end with COVID-19,” read an article from the Association of American Medical Colleges. “The pandemic provided a fertile environment for myriad social and technological forces to breed confusion and distrust.”

Scientists fear rampant disinformation and waning trust in scientific institutions will make it difficult to address some of the most pressing problems facing the world, like climate change, pandemics and social inequality.


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