Oct 29, 2020 - Science

Pandemic scrambles Americans' acceptance of science

Illustration of a telescope with a knot in it
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic is throwing a wrench into Americans' understanding of science, which has big implications for climate change.

Driving the news: Recent focus groups in battleground states suggest some voters are more skeptical of scientists in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, while surveys reveal the persistence of a deep partisan divide.

Why it matters: Science is at the heart of understanding the impacts of a warming world and what kind of policies governments should enforce.

  • The world's response to COVID-19 is providing what some experts say is a hyper-fast glimpse into how the world might address climate change over a longer period of time.
  • Climate change, because it's slower moving and its impacts more diffuse, is going to be even harder to tackle than a relatively fast-moving pandemic.

Where it stands: Swing voters in five battleground states surveyed over the last six months expressed an increasing skepticism about science as the pandemic took over America.

  • Focus groups with nearly 60 swing voters in Ohio, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin answered questions on several topics, including science and climate change, on a regular basis. (Most of the voters voted for Barack Obama in 2012, then Donald Trump in 2016.)
  • These focus groups, part of a broader project conducted by the nonpartisan research firms Engagious and Schlesinger, are a small handful of voters and don't offer a statistically significant sample like a poll would.
  • The responses nonetheless provide a richer snapshot inside the minds of voters in key states.

How it works: The voters were asked whether, during the pandemic, scientific experts are a net-plus or net-minus when it comes to guiding public policy.

  • In more recent months — August, September and October — the voters were more evenly divided on the question.
  • In earlier months (April to July), more voters said scientists were a net-positive than said they were a net-negative.
  • "I trust them a little less since COVID," said Taylor, an Obama-Trump Michigan voter. "They have gone back and forth too many times. First it was wear masks, then it was don't."

The intrigue: These snapshots provide a rich backdrop to surveys that suggest a mixed picture of Americans' acceptance of science.

  • Nearly a third of voters in several battleground states say they have greater confidence in scientists since the pandemic, while 22% say their trust in science has weakened, according to a survey conducted by centrist think tank Third Way and ALG Research.
  • That survey reiterated what Pew Research Center has found, which is that any increase in trust with experts has occurred almost exclusively among Democrats.

Methodology: Third Way's survey polled 1,500 likely voters across seven battleground states from July 23-29, with oversamples of 100 Black Americans and 100 Latinos. Its margin of error is +/- 2.5%.

Go deeper: Beyond America, trust in science rose during the pandemic

Go deeper