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Dublin: 10 °C Friday 16 November, 2018

People trust science experts more than the government - even when they say outlandish things

Researchers from London conducted three large-scale experiments in the US and the UK for the study.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/l i g h t p o e t

PEOPLE IN THE UK and the US place a far greater trust in scientific experts than the government, according to a new study by Queen Mary University of London.

Using nudges – or positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to influence someone’s decision-making – in three large-scale experiments, the researchers found that people trusted scientists far more, even when what they were proposing was outlandish.

The study participants were given these nudges either by a group of leading scientific experts, or a government working group that consisted of interest groups and policy makers.

The nudges ranged from the real and have been implemented – such as using catchy pictures in stairwells to encourage people to take the stairs – or were completely fictitious and implausible – like stirring coffee anti-clockwise for two minutes to avoid any cancerous effects.

Co-author of the study, Professor Norman Fenton, said: “While people judged genuine nudges as more plausible than fictitious nudges, people trust some fictitious nudges proposed by scientists as more plausible than genuine nudges proposed by government.

For example, people were more likely to trust the health benefits of coffee stirring than exercise if the former was recommended by scientists and the latter by government.

Dr Magda Osman, who led the study, said that the research comes at a time when debates are being had in the US and UK about the loss of trust in experts.

“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,” she said.

When it came to nudges where people had a good background in the topic at hand, the researchers found trusted the experts less in these areas.

The scientists noted that nudges have become highly popular methods used by governments to support their decisions in a variety of areas such as health, personal finances and general wellbeing.

The theory behind it is that by subtly changing what may influence the decisions that people make, it will lead to better lifestyle choices and choices that improve “the welfare of the state”.

Dr Osman added: “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.

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.

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Sean Murray

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