People trust scientific experts far more than politicians, study shows

Harry Cockburn
Michael Gove said 'people in this country have had enough of experts' during the Brexit campaign: Getty

“The people of this country have had enough of experts,” Conservative MP Michael Gove famously declared ahead of the Brexit referendum.

But is the Leave campaigner right? A new study suggests not only that the public in the UK and America does have a strong sense of trust in scientific experts, but also that people trust experts more than politicians, even when the experts themselves are espousing “silly ideas”.

The large-scale study, conducted by academics at Queen Mary University in London, examined the responses of groups of people to “behavioural nudges”, suggested either by scientists, or by “a government working group consisting of special interest groups and policy makers”.

These nudges were behavioural interventions designed to improve day-to-day decision-making.

Some were real and had been implemented, such as using catchy pictures in stairwells to encourage people to take the stairs instead of the lift, while others were fictitious and implausible like the suggestion stirring coffee anti-clockwise for two minutes could help avoid cancerous effects.

The study, published in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology, found trust was higher for scientists than the government working group, even when the scientists were proposing fictitious nudges.

But the work also revealed there is a slight tendency for the US sample to find the nudges more plausible and more ethical overall compared to the UK sample.

Lead author Dr Magda Osman, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, said: “In the context of debates regarding the loss of trust in experts, what we show is that in actual fact, when compared to a government working group, the public in the US and UK judge scientists very favourably, so much so that they show greater levels of trust even when the interventions that are being proposed are implausible and most likely ineffective.

“This means that the public still have a high degree of trust in experts, in particular, in this case, social scientists.”

She added: “The evidence suggests that trust in scientists is high, but that the public are sceptical about nudges in which they might be manipulated without them knowing. They consider these as less ethical and trust the experts proposing them less with nudges in which they do have an idea of what is going on.”

Nudges are an increasingly popular means of influencing decision making, and are used by governments across a wide range of areas including health, personal finance, and general wellbeing.

According to the team at Queen Mary, it is thought nudges can help people make better decisions regarding their lifestyle choices, and those that improve the welfare of the state, through subtly changing the framing of the decision-making context, which makes the option which maximises long term future gains more prominent.

Dr Osman said: “Overall, the public make pretty sensible judgments, and what this shows is that people will scrutinise the information they are provided by experts, so long as they are given a means to do it. In other words, ask the questions in the right way, and people will show a level of scrutiny that is often not attributed to them.

“So, before there are strong claims made about public opinion about experts, and knee-jerk policy responses to this, it might be worth being a bit more careful about how the public are surveyed in the first place.”