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Some people are more distrusting of science than others, especially on themes concerning climate change, vaccinations and genetic modification of food. The reasons for distrust differ per theme and can emanate from political, religious or spiritual beliefs. Social psychologist Bastiaan Rutjens will research if the principle of psychological distance can transcend these differences and explains some of the distrust across domains.

Parents demonstrate against the mandatory vaccination
Parents protesting against mandatory vaccinations

Distrust in science plays a clear role in discussions about climate change, vaccinations, genetic modification of food and evolutionary theory. 

'We can now reasonably predict who will be sceptical about which theme. But we don't yet know how to change scepticism.'

Bastiaan Rutjens FMG
Bastiaan Rutjens

In the last couple of years, social psychologist Bastiaan Rutjens and other academics have conducted research on scepticism about these topics, leading to a relatively clear picture of what groups are distrusting and to which themes this distrust applies.


Differences in trust

A range of political and religious beliefs play a role in this distrust in science. Climate sceptics, for example, are mostly politically motivated and generally politically conservative. Distrust in genetically modified food seems to revolve more around lack of knowledge, and religious and spiritual beliefs tend to be a factor in distrust in vaccinations.

Importantly, different people are sceptical about different topics . One person might be distrusting of scientific research into vaccinations and at the same time be convinced that climate change is caused by human behaviour.

People’s beliefs are hard to influence

These differences make it difficult to decrease science scepticism. Moreover, the political and religious beliefs that lie at the heart of some forms of science scepticism cannot simply be changed. Since the effects of distrust in science can be concerning, such as is the case with climate change denial or decreasing levels of vaccination coverage, it is important to understand the psychological principles behind the distrust.

One explanatory psychological principle

Bastiaan Rutjens has received a starting grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to look for a general psychological principle that explains different forms of distrust in science. Specifically, he will be researching the role of psychological distance, or the degree to which people perceive science to be far removed from their lives or not.

If people do feel that there is a psychological distance to science, the next step is to see how to shorten that distance to bring science closer to people. Would this reduce distrust in science?

How will Rutjens research this?

Through large-scale surveys, Rutjens will map out the role science plays in the lives of people in 20 different countries worldwide. He will concentrate on topics such as climate change, vaccinations, genetic modification, evolution theory, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.

He will consider variables around religious beliefs, ideological beliefs, personal background, personal environment, etc. This is how he will investigate the relationship between psychological distance (how close does science feel to you?) and trust in science (from a lot to no trust in science).

In the next step of the research programme, Rutjens will set up several experiments to investigate whether psychological distance can be decreased, and what the effects of this decrease are.

Stay informed 

Via our faculty website Society & Behavior and our twitter channel we will keep you informed on the results of this research into trust in science.

Dr. B.T. (Bastiaan) Rutjens

Link to personal page Bastiaan Rutjens