Our trust in scientists is among the highest in the world, finds a just-published study that linked that faith to our support for Covid-19 vaccination and other health measures.
The analysis – which drew on data from 12 countries, including the US, UK, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Brazil and Sweden – also found that trust in science was likely to be a driving force in favourable attitudes toward vaccination.
The study's French and US authors explored trust among people across the dozen nations in scentists, along with their trust in their governments and other citizens, using a range of surveys carried out over different periods between March and December last year.
While trust in scientists was generally high across all of the countries – with a mean of 84 per cent – New Zealand, along with Austria, Canada and the UK had the highest support, followed by Australia, while it was lowest in France, Brazil, Poland, the US and Italy.
The analysis also found a solid link between Kiwis' trust in science and their willingness to be vaccinated and follow health measures.
Countries' ranking by trust in government and others was similar, with New Zealand, Austria and Sweden topping the list, and Italy, Brazil and France sitting near the bottom.
The authors noted that trust in government was "more ambiguous" than that in scientists – and where recommendations from experts and leaders clashed, such as in US and Brazil under presidents President Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, there was lower support for virus-stopping health measures.
Interestingly, the study also found that, in countries where people had greater trust in each other, support for health measures were lower, due to higher expectations that others would voluntarily social distance.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's chief science advisor, Professor Dame Juliet Gerrard, told the Herald it was "very heartening" to see New Zealand's high ranking.
"A likely contributor is the tireless work done by our scientists and public health experts to support the Covid-19 response, and that of our science communicators as they tenaciously communicated the science behind the measures that were taken," she said.
"I'm hopeful that this gives us a sound basis for strong vaccination uptake and acceptance of basic public health restrictions that will be necessary to move to the next phase of the pandemic."
Massey University communications lecturer Dr Jagadish Thaker noted another fascinating experiment that featured in the study, which was published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).
"In New Zealand, respondents were more likely to agree to wear a mask at home to fight the coronavirus epidemic if the recommendation was from the World Health Organisation than from the Prime Minister," Thaker said.
"However, Nobel Laureates in medicine recommending such a measure had no difference when compared to a similar recommendation by the Prime Minister, indicating a greater trust in institutions than individuals."
Thaker said that scientific independence was "critical" for giving objective advice to governments and maintaining public trust.
In countries such as Brazil, Italy, France and Poland, for instance, the study found how trust in scientists fell over the pandemic, with more people perceiving that scientists were likely to hide information.
And sometimes, Thaker added, initial public distrust toward government could fuel distrust with what could be viewed as a "scientific elite".
"In times of crisis, we look to trusted sources for information and advice. But that trust also depends on the competency of the people and institutions to respond to a crisis," he said.
"Ensuring high levels of trust in scientists and the Government is the key to enjoy sustained public support and enthusiasm to follow Covid-19 safety behaviours."
Victoria University psychology researcher Professor Marc Wilson said he and his own colleagues' own work had found Kiwis to be both slightly more trusting of scientists and more scientifically literate than Americans.
"However, we find that the things that predict trust in scientists differ in strength," he added.
"Distrust in scientists is significantly more strongly associated with politically conservative attitudes and religion in the US, than in New Zealand."
That suggested that politicisation of science was one of the reasons for those differences observed in the new study.
As well, he said religion in New Zealand wasn't as strongly tied to politics in the way that it was in the US, where just around half of Americans agreed with the idea of evolution and accepted climate change.
Wilson pointed to some further New Zealand research that found Kiwis appeared to suffer fewer psychological effects over last year's nationwide lockdown – and maintained a high trust in scientists and the government throughout.
"My interpretation is, in part, that we benefited from an unambiguous lockdown, and trusted our medical, scientific and governmental experts that this was the right thing."