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Social psychological factors that explain science scepticism with regard to climate change and vaccinations also provide insights into mistrust surrounding COVID-19, according to social psychologists Bastiaan Rutjens (UvA), Sander van der Linden (University of Cambridge) and Romy van der Lee (VU University). They therefore mapped out research into these factors and identified lessons for COVID-19. ‘Political ideology and affiliation seem particularly relevant when trying to understand and study responses to the current COVID-19 pandemic.’

Although confidence in science is still relatively high in many countries, science scepticism seems to be on the rise. This is worrying, as systematic rejection of the empirical evidence that science provides and the methods used for this can have far-reaching consequences for public health, the economy and the environment.

The growing mistrust does not apply to science in general, however, but to certain controversial topics on which public opinion is strongly divided. These already included climate change, vaccination and genetic modification, and COVID-19 has now joined the list.

COVID-19 is not going to disappear any time soon, if ever. To gain a better understanding of the sociopsychological background of COVID-19-related science scepticism, social psychologists Bastiaan Rutjens (University of Amsterdam), Sander van der Linden (University of Cambridge) and Romy van der Lee (VU University) revisited what we know about the social psychology behind climate and vaccination scepticism and drew parallels with COVID-19.

Political ideology and mistrust

‘An important insight from the existing literature is that the role of a person's world view or ideology in relation to science scepticism depends on the subject,’ say the authors. For example, scepticism around climate issues is mainly influenced by the ideology of the free market and that of personal freedom. Measures to tackle the climate crisis conflict with this and therefore arouse mistrust. The authors can identify a similar dynamic in science scepticism about COVID-19 and the measures being taken worldwide. ‘Here too, measures such as compulsory self-isolation and restrictions on travel, shopping and social interactions clash with the political ideology of the free market and little government intervention.’

The authors are therefore not surprised that recent research shows that, compared to liberals, conservatives are much less likely to trust COVID-19 experts, less likely to adhere to coronavirus rules and potentially more likely to endorse misinformation on COVID-19. ‘Political ideology and affiliation seem particularly relevant when trying to understand and study responses to the current COVID-19 pandemic,’ conclude the authors.

Mistrust surrounding vaccinations

Since COVID-19 is closely linked to the topic of vaccination, the authors say that it is also useful to pay special attention to vaccination scepticism. However, they state that the role of free-market ideology is less clear in the case of attitudes towards vaccination. Instead, recent research highlights the role of spirituality, belief in science, scientific literacy and conspiracy thinking. ‘These variables have been associated with vaccine scepticism in research, and it seems plausible that they may also be related to attitudes and behavioural intentions towards COVID-19 vaccines,’ write the scientists. For example, research in 24 countries showed that people with a strongly individualistic world view were more likely to be anti-vaccination, and conspiracy theories had an even greater influence.

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories about science abound, for example in the areas of climate change and vaccination. Around 50% of Americans now believe in at least one conspiracy, and on social media, conspiracy theories around science are shared almost three times more often than scientific content. ‘One of the reasons why conspiracy thinking contributes to science scepticism is that it is often directed at alleged abuses in institutions and against elites and authorities, to which science and scientists are also supposed to belong,’ explain the authors. When people believe in conspiracies surrounding the virus, research also shows a clear link to personal doubts about vaccines, a lower willingness to recommend the vaccine to vulnerable people and a lower overall compliance with public health measures.

What can we do about it?

So what is the best way to respond to mistrust in science and conspiracy thinking? According to the authors, research provides various useful pointers. For example, education and scientific literacy training have been shown to be useful for topics such as genetic modification. Another promising line of research is so-called psychological ‘inoculation’, whereby people are preventively exposed to small doses of mistrust and deviant behaviour so that they build up resistance to future larger ‘attacks’. This has been successfully applied in the context of climate change and anti-vaccination, for example. Where this is not possible, the real-time refutation of scientific denial also yields promising results for topics such as vaccination and climate change.

Publication details

Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Sander van der Linden and Romy van der Lee (2021), Science skepticism in times of COVID-19, Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. 2021;24(2):276-283. doi:10.1177/1368430220981415

Dr. B.T. (Bastiaan) Rutjens

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group Social Psychology