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Corruption changes the link between education and trust in science

By Büsra Elif Yelbuz, Sümeyra Bengisu Akkurt, Sinan Alper and Onurcan Yılmaz.

For years it was believed that the primary cause behind individuals rejecting science was merely a lack of knowledge. In line with this, a number of studies have suggested that individuals with greater knowledge tend to exhibit more trust in science and scientists.

If this were as simple, the solution would be quite easy: Just share the facts and increase the communication of science-related topics. In fact, an entire field mostly focuses on this exact strategy, science communication, which is the practice of making scientific evidence readily available and easy to understand by practically everyone. Needless to say, however, the solution is not as simple as initially assumed.

The COVID-19 pandemic, global warming, and the global energy crisis are just some of the examples in which we have seen science communication insufficient in raising public acceptance and trust in science. What seems to be the barrier, then? Could there be occasions in which distrust in science is not so dumb, but perhaps, reasonable?

The positive link between education and trust in science: Is it universal?

In our recent study, we suggest that one of the most neglected factors influencing the link between education and trust in science is social context, particularly a country’s level of corruption. In corrupt environments, there might be concerns that scientific information is polluted with biases, manipulated to favor certain interests, and compromised in objectivity and reliability. Consequently, in countries with high levels of corruption, even individuals with a high level of education might find it challenging to trust science and harbor suspicions about scientific integrity.

Empirically speaking, the previously found link between education and trust in science has mainly been observed in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) cultures. In our paper, we proposed that this positive association may not be universally sustained due to the different levels of perceived corruption across different countries.

To investigate the influence of the level of corruption in a country on the link between education and trust in science, we examined two large sets of data from surveys in various countries. We also took into account age, income, and location (urban or rural). To examine all of this, we employed an analysis technique called linear mixed model analysis, which enables us to look at data from multiple countries at once.

Corruption influences education’s impact on trust in science and scientists

Our findings suggest that in countries with severe levels of corruption, the relationship between education and trust in science and scientists deteriorates. In other words, educated people in high-corruption regions are less likely to have a strong trust in science and scientists than those in low-corruption countries.

In addition to corruption, we looked at other country-level characteristics, including GDP (gross domestic product) and WEIRDness as possible agents affecting the relationship between education and trust in science. We observed that similar to corruption, these country-level variables weakened the link between education and trust in science.

We noticed that the relationship between education and trust in science was weaker in nations with lower GDP and WEIRDness. This intriguing discovery implies that income and cultural differences, as measured by GDP and WEIRDness, might impact belief in science. on Freepik

What are the likely reasons for why high levels of corruption undermine trust in science, even among highly educated people? The simplest answer that comes to mind is that individuals in countries with high-levels of corruption may have more reason to distrust science and scientists since dishonest and fraudulent conduct is widespread in many organizations, including scientific ones – especially with a general expectation of secretive alliances and real conspiracies.

Keep in mind: The critical role of social context

Overall, our findings have significant implications for understanding the complicated link between education, trust in science, and the social context. The results emphasize that trust in science and scientists is generated not only by individual educational attainment but also by larger societal factors, such as corruption.

We recommend that future research addresses the impact of corruption and other contextual issues when analyzing trust in science and scientists. Trust in science and scientists might be potentially influenced by sociopolitical factors such as economic prosperity, fairness in wealth distribution, institutional trust, trust in the justice system, and trust in government. These societal elements, among many others, may interact with educational levels to shape trust in science and scientists.

Most importantly, however, our research shows that developing a trust in science and scientists requires tackling not just individual knowledge and cognitive abilities but also the societal framework in which this trust is formed. It might be overly naive to simply assume that people's trust in science is low because they are ignorant. 

Read the original article: The positive association of education with the trust in science and scientists is weaker in highly corrupt countries

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Büsra Elif Yelbuz is a doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Crime, Security, and Law. Her research focuses on the dispositional and social factors that influence selectivity in prosocial and anti­social behavior.

Sümeyra Bengisu Akkurt has a master's degree in psychology and is an independent researcher. Her research interests are mainly social identity integration, belief in conspiracy theories, and engagement in collective action and prosocial behavior.

Sinan Alper, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Yasar University, Türkıye. His research interests include conspiracy, paranormal, and pseudoscience beliefs; political psychology; moral psychology; and cognitive processes underlying social attitudes.

Onurcan Yılmaz, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Kadir Has University, Türkiye. He serves as the director of the Moral Intuitions Laboratory (MINT Lab; His research explores the cognitive and contextual factors that influence moral judgments and behaviors.