26th November 2020
David Spiegelhalter is chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University. Alex Freeman is the executive director of the Winton Centre. Michael Blastland sits on the management board of the Winton Centre. Theresa Marteau is director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at Cambridge University. Sander L van der Linden is an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge.
Honesty, competence and a willingness to give us all the facts are essential for establishing who to trust
You’d be forgiven for not knowing what to believe during this pandemic. Some scientists who say their claims are based on evidence tell us that lockdown is too severe; others say that we relax at our peril. Some argue that masks are of little use, others that they save lives. So, who can you trust?
During a crisis like this one, trust clearly matters. It changes what people are willing to do: whether that be wearing a face covering or getting a vaccine when one becomes available. Since the first lockdown, people have continued to trust scientists, despite their disagreements or changes in official scientific advice.
But knowing who or what to believe is difficult. The philosopher Onora O’Neill tells us that rather than focusing on trust, we should focus on trustworthiness. She advises that trust happens when people show honesty, reliability and competence, presenting evidence in ways that make it accessible, intelligible, useful and easily assessed (meaning you can check the workings for yourself, if you so wish). These principles form the basis for a useful guide for those trying to communicate evidence of all kinds during a pandemic, and for those of us trying to assess what to believe, whether from politicians, scientists or media pundits.