The pandemic paradox: surviving a public health crisis breeds more science skeptics, researchers find

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It sounds crazy, but it could be true: The current pandemic experience of a crucial cohort of the world population could make future pandemics worse.

The surprising evidence comes from new research by Barry Eichengreen of the University of California at Berkeley, Cevat Giray Aksoy of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Orkun Saka of the University of Sussex.

They examined the attitudes and behavior of more than 75,000 people worldwide who had lived through an epidemic, focusing on those who were age 18 to 25 at the time. That age range is when individuals form long-lasting attitudes, psychologists report, and some of the attitudes formed by those in the study could endanger themselves and others in a future pandemic. Even decades after enduring an epidemic, the researchers found, the experience during those impressionable years “significantly reduces trust in scientists and in the benefits of their work.”

Even worse, those people are more skeptical of vaccines and are less likely to get their children vaccinated.

It’s hard to believe anyone could respond that way to today’s pandemic, when science is the hero. Worldwide trust in science is the highest in the three years that 3M has been sponsoring an annual State of Science Index; 54% of respondents said COVID-19 has made them more likely to advocate for science. Skepticism of science declined for the first time in the survey.

Yet the findings of the Eichengreen team could hold up even after this extraordinary pandemic. That’s because there turns out to be a significant difference between people’s attitudes toward science and their attitudes toward scientists. The researchers found that going through an epidemic in the impressionable years didn’t affect attitudes toward science as an endeavor; in the abstract, people approve of it for its potential to improve society. But “if past epidemics are a guide,” the researchers write, “the virus…will reduce trust in individual scientists, worsen perceptions of their honesty, and weaken the belief that their activities benefit the public.”

Those results are consistent with other research going back years. When bad things happen, people tend to blame individuals rather than institutions. In addition, the researchers note that in previous surveys “a significant share of respondents take disagreement among scientists, which is not unlikely in the context of a swiftly unfolding pandemic, as evidence that their conclusions are based on personal belief (rather than on issues of data and methodology), or as simply indicating that the investigators in question are incompetent.”

There’s reason to hope that at least developed countries might escape the worst of the damaging attitudes that may be sparked by this pandemic, since the research found that such attitudes were strongest in countries with low incomes and few physicians per capita. But another factor could be especially bad news for the U.S. and Europe. In the study, anti-scientist, anti-vaccine attitudes were stronger after the most severe epidemics, and COVID-19 has hit the U.S. and Europe harder than almost anywhere else; those countries haven’t experienced a pandemic as severe as COVID-19 in living memory.

This new research offers valuable help to policymakers hoping to maximize support for science, scientists, and vaccines in future pandemics. Don’t bother trying to persuade oldsters; they’re beyond help. And don’t worry about kids; their lasting attitudes won’t be formed until later. Go all in on Gen Z, starting today. The next pandemic could be years away, but it’s outcome may be partially determined right now.

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