Research ArticleCORONAVIRUS

Model uncertainty, political contestation, and public trust in science: Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic

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Science Advances  21 Oct 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 43, eabd4563
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd4563


While scientific uncertainty always invites the risk of politicization and raises questions of how to communicate about science, this risk is magnified for COVID-19. The limited data and accelerated research timelines mean that some prominent models or findings inevitably will be overturned or retracted. In this research, we examine the attitudes of more than 6000 Americans across five different survey experiments to understand how the cue giver and cue given about scientific uncertainty regarding COVID-19 affect public trust in science and support for science-based policy. Criticism from Democratic political elites undermines trust more than criticism from Republicans. Emphasizing uncertainty in projections can erode public trust in some contexts. Downplaying uncertainty can raise support in the short term, but reversals in projections may temper these effects or even reduce scientific trust. Careful science communication is critical to maintaining public support for science-based policies as the scientific consensus shifts over time.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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