Prof. Yue Qian’s recent study, “Belief in Science and Beliefs about COVID-19: Educational Gradients,” was recently published in Sociology (the flagship journal of the British Sociological Association). Prof. Qian draws on nationally representative US data to explores people’s beliefs about COVID-19 and belief in science influenced by their education level. The study proposes that beliefs about COVID-19 could be an additional risk factor for COVID-19 infections.
We spoke to Prof. Yue Qian about her recent publication.
Congratulation on publishing your study about how beliefs about science and COVID-19 could be a risk factor for COVID-19 infections. What inspired you and your team to dive deep into this particular aspect?
Since the onset of the pandemic, I have been working with an international team to develop a COVID-19-related US survey. At the time, American public health scholars argued in op-eds that distrust in science threatened the country’s capacity to control COVID-19 spread. Nevertheless, empirical evidence was lacking. Thus, we designed original questions in the survey and collected the data to empirically answer this question.
What’re your research findings and what’re the implications of these findings?
Drawing on nationally representative US data, we show that highly educated people are more likely than the less educated to adopt beliefs that affirm the seriousness of COVID-19. Further, the lack of beliefs that acknowledge the seriousness of COVID-19 among less-educated Americans is largely attributable to their distrust of and disbelief in science, manifested through lacking confidence in scientists and rejecting evolution.
It’s worth pointing out that beliefs do shape behaviour. If individuals take COVID-19 more seriously, they are more likely to take part in actions that help reduce the risk of infection and slow the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing, staying home and wearing masks.
Our findings suggest that the lack of trust and belief in science among the US public poses challenges to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Going forward, there is an urgent need for the government, the media and the scientific community to rebuild Americans’ confidence and trust in science.
“It’s worth pointing out that beliefs do shape behaviour. If individuals take COVID-19 more seriously, they are more likely to take part in actions that help reduce the risk of infection and slow the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing, staying home and wearing masks.”
It’s interesting that one of your measures of COVID-19 beliefs mentions the protection of God, how do you see religion plays a part in influencing people’s attitudes and beliefs about COVID-19?
Prior research finds that in the US, science and religion are politicized and widespread fundamentalist religious views inhibit the acceptance of evolution (which is a scientific concept). Relatedly, our paper shows that rejecting evolution is associated with treating COVID-19 less seriously, particularly believing in God’s protection against COVID-19. For example, the percentage of respondents who strongly believed in God’s protection against COVID-19 was 21% among evolution disbelievers and only 3% among evolution believers. By contrast, the percentage strongly disagreeing with God’s protection against COVID-19 decreased from 60% among evolution believers to 11% among evolution disbelievers. These results highlight religious polarization of Americans’ belief in science.
Your study focuses on the US population, do you think it could be applied within the Canadian context?
The US is unique among western developed nations in that a large proportion of its citizens do not trust science. For instance, over 30% of American adults thought that evolution was ‘definitely false’, compared to 7–15% in European countries. It would be great if we have comparative data between the US and Canada. Some research shows that the share of Canadians who are skeptical of science has dropped from 29% before the pandemic to 21% during the pandemic. Thus, the CBC has a news article reporting that “Pandemic may be boosting Canadian trust in scientists.” More research is needed regarding how trust in science and scientists plays out in Canada and in Canada’s pandemic responses.