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Carl LeVan, Varieties of Mistrust and American Epistemic Fragility

Mistrust in both government and scientific authority has grown. Yet the relationship between these trends remains underappreciated, even though such mistrust shaped behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic and deserves much blame for America’s troubles with truth. Using original data from 3,000 American counties and at different points of time during the pandemic, SIS Professor Carl LeVan and his co-authors SIS Adjunct Professor Assen Assenov, SIS PhD Candidate Kimberly Tower, and Johns Hopkins University Professor Nicolette Carnahan identify social and political conditions that increase different types of “vertical” mistrust.

The authors use tax and Census data to proxy for political trust, and mask wearing and vaccination variables to capture trust in scientific authority. Statistical tests demonstrate a robust relationship between partisanship and both types of trust, confirming national polls and lending support to the “asymmetry hypothesis.” Tests also indicate that psychological distress and socioeconomic vulnerability contribute to mistrust, though partisanship has a powerful mediation effect. Controls reveal high levels of mistrust among evangelicals, rural residents, and some minorities while other minorities are strikingly trusting. The results hold under alternative statistical specifications. LeVan and his co-authors call for more research exploring the behavioral expressions of vertical mistrust, including how it manifests collectively in communities.

Read the article here.