Economics is based on rational behaviour, sometimes referred to as homo economicus. It is known that this is an ideal-type assumption. The pandemic makes that more than obvious. Rejection of vaccination, denial of the pandemic or its danger and the rise of conspiracy theories - the list of oddities about a not-too-small group of people is long.
Maybe the oddities aren't that odd. Most of the knowledge we assume to be correct can never be verified by ourselves.
I've never checked whether the triple vaccination I received really protects against the coronavirus. I just couldn't. I am not a medic. Instead, I trust others. Scientists. Journalists who write about what scientists say. Also politicians, at least if they follow the advice of scientists.
If I didn't trust these people (sociologists call them the "ruling class"), I would think differently about the pandemic.
Therefore the diagnosis of a split in society is less about a split in what people know but more about whom they trust.
If someone doesn't trust in the entire political system, they will not believe anyone perceived in any way to be part of an imaginary 'establishment'. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that those who have little confidence in politics revolt against the management of the pandemic.
It is the same with science. Criticising Enlightenment and rationalism has a long history. And it is still alive. Technological progress is viewed critically per se by many, and obscurantism of all sorts is quite popular. Scepticism of the rationality of science is widespread. The pandemic has made this just more apparent.
It is, therefore, not astonishing what Yann Algan, Daniel Cohen, Eva Davoine, Martial Foucault, Stefanie Stantcheva have found out. They took data from 12 countries (from Europe: Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, United Kingdom, Sweden) to analyse how people responded to governments' impositions of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), such as school closures, non-essential business shutdowns, curfews, lockdowns, and mask requirements.
Their study shows that trust in scientists plays a key role in compliance with and support for non-pharmaceutical interventions and willingness to get vaccinated.
This is different with trust in government. The paper says that trust in government has a more limited effect on support for these interventions.
In some countries, the effect is even the opposite.
This is hardly surprising because some political leaders had publicly opposed NPIs recommended by scientists in some countries. "In the US, and, to a lesser extent, in Brazil, trust in government actually plays a negative role in support for NPIs," the authors write. (The data used is from between March and December 2020.)
Perhaps the most important finding: People trust science if science is independent. "When people associate scientists and scientific bodies with government action and political decision-making, it erodes their trust in these scientific institutions."
At least this lesson can be drawn from the pandemic: Independent science makes dealing with the pandemic easier. Because people then tend to believe in science. As a result, they behave more sensibly.
"It is therefore" the authors close, "crucial to guarantee confidence in scientists by preserving their independence."