Calgary·Analysis

CBC News Poll: In experts we trust (at least, more than we used to)

A new poll for CBC News suggests that even before COVID-19 spread across the globe, Albertans’ trust in experts was on the rise.

Poll suggests rising levels of trust for experts amongst Albertans, even before COVID-19 struck

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, so inspired Calgarian Alison Van Rosendaal with her calm, reassuring expertise that Van Rosendaal created a T-shirt in Dr. Hinshaw's honour. (The Canadian Press/whatwoulddrhinshawdo.ca)

Editor's note: CBC News commissioned this public opinion research before concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic mounted. About half of the total survey of 1,200 respondents was conducted before stock markets and oil prices plunged (March 2-8).  The other half of the interviews took place after this economic shock (March 9-18). Our analysis found no real difference in public opinion about experts between the two periods. Growing concerns about the pandemic continue to shape public attitudes.

As with all polls, this one is a snapshot in time. CBC News — and the public opinion experts consulted on this survey research — believe the data offers some valuable insights into Albertans' attitudes about the economy and politics just at the moment when COVID-19 changed everything.

This is the fourth article to come out of this research. Read the previous articles here:

Alison Van Rosendaal's eureka moment about experts came while tossing and turning in bed at 2:30 in the morning, unable to sleep. 

That's when she snapped a screen capture of Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw.

Later, she traced the photo of the public health official with a felt pen, creating a T-shirt with the slogan "What would Dr. Hinshaw do?" The shirt eventually raised thousands of dollars for children and food banks across the province.

Van Rosendaal wanted to publicly extol Hinshaw's calm, reassuring and expert delivery of lifesaving information in her daily briefings from the provincial capital about the coronavirus sweeping across the globe. 

"When people have more trust in experts, we have more in common with one another," she said.

The Calgary assistant school principal believes Alberta needs experts and scientists more than ever in this moment of profound uncertainty. 

Alison Van Rosendaal, right, had an idea late one night to honour the work of Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw. These T-shirts have raised thousands of dollars for food banks and food-insecure school children. (Submitted by Julie Van Rosendaal)

Grassroots vs. elites 

There has long been a tension in Alberta between "grassroots" thinking and the opinions of those who are referred to (often pejoratively) as "elites." This tension has been leveraged politically and socially to make arguments about whom to trust, but trust is more complicated than that.

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, being an expert is suddenly cool; people are tuning in to their press conferences, heeding their advice. And a new poll for CBC News suggests that even before cases of COVID-19 swelled worldwide, Albertans' trust in experts was on the rise. 

The poll found that 38 per cent of Albertans believe it's better to trust the down-to-earth thinking of ordinary people than the opinions of experts. That's a decline of seven percentage points from the last time CBC asked the same question, two years ago. 

Remember, a poll is only a snapshot in time, and this is a very particular time in our society. But there could be longer-term implications for Alberta politics and society as we, and our politicians, rely on expert counsel during these troubled times.

Trust in experts expected to grow

COVID-19 has concentrated Canadians' minds. We are increasingly turning to medical experts and scientists for information to keep us and our families safe.

"We're in a period right now where we're relying heavily on our experts to see us through," said Calgary-based pollster Janet Brown, who conducted the poll for CBC News.

Brown thinks that trust will likely rise amongst Albertans as they look for reassuring, credible leaders to help explain the social and economic upheaval sparked by the global pandemic. 

"When you go through a crisis like this, it shouldn't be the majority rule," Brown said.

"It should be the smartest people in the room taking control. And it's interesting to see that Albertans are thinking less in a grassroots way and thinking more about making smarter, strategic decisions and being driven by what experts tell us." 

Trust in government appears to be on the rise since self-isolating became the new normal. 

An Angus Reid online poll of nearly 1,600 Canadians recently found that trust in all government officials — local, provincial and federal — has risen over the course of the pandemic. 

By our nature, Canadians tend to defer to authority, says Duane Bratt, who heads the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University.

"I would say governments across Canada, no matter what their political affiliation is, have been fairly responsible, and have listened to the people who are experts in health pandemics," said Bratt. 

Still, partisanship and ideology play a role in which Albertans trust experts.

Trust and politics 

Exactly half of United Conservative Party (UCP) supporters (50 per cent) say it's better to trust the down-to-earth thinking of ordinary people than experts. Only 24 per cent of New Democratic Party supporters agree with that sentiment. In fact, 72 per cent of NDP supporters disagree or strongly disagree with the idea of trusting down-to-earth thinking over experts. 

Self-identified left-of-centre voters across Alberta prefer experts at 76 per cent; compared with 52 per cent of voters who describe themselves as either centrist or right of centre.

Politicians sometimes leverage the concept of "out-of-touch elites" — portraying themselves as "grassroots" or "common sense" to win votes. 

It plays well for some voters, especially those with more traditional values, as we can see in the graph above.

When it comes to religion, 48 per cent of those who say religion is important or somewhat important in their life trust experts over down-to-earth thinking. That number jumps to 67 per cent for non-religious voters.

Education also makes a difference. While 70 per cent of people with a university degree would rather trust experts, just 33 per cent of Albertans with a high school education feel the same way. 

There's also an age divide in Alberta. Fifty-one per cent of seniors are more likely to place their trust in down-to-earth thinking, versus only 30 per cent of those aged 18-24.

But trust, it turns out, is a different story when it comes to political elites.

(Dis)trust in politicians

It can be argued that politicians, too, are experts and elites. We trust them to make deeply informed, substantive decisions about our lives, the economy and the law.

But the CBC News Road Ahead 2020 survey suggests Albertans' distrust in politicians of all stripes remains high.

A full 78 per cent think politicians lose touch after they get elected. This has declined only slightly — by four percentage points — since CBC News asked the same question in 2018.

"I think the big story here is the lack of change," said data scientist John Santos, with Janet Brown Opinion Research.

"There's a slight drop between 2018 and 2020, and that's likely due to the UCP being in power and the fact that they have more partisans than the NDP does." 

There are simply more UCP supporters in Alberta than NDP partisans.   

Broadly, though, this shows that disaffection and cynicism toward politicians continues to be high in Alberta. 

Future trust 

Weeks and months of watching public health and scientific experts on our TV screens, and seeing them quoted in the articles we read, could have an impact on how Albertans trust experts down the road. 

"People might be thinking, experts like doctors and epidemiologists and statisticians, those are the people that are really important right now and they're going to help us through this crisis," said Santos. 

Alison Van Rosendaal, for her part, is heartened by the growing faith in experts amongst Albertans.

She hopes this growing trust can help foster more collective action.

"To live in a world where people lean into the experts … means that more of us are on the same side," she said. "So that gives me hope."

To track that, CBC News intends to repeat some aspects of the Road Ahead 2020 survey later in the year.


Methodology:

The CBC News random survey of 1,200 Albertans was conducted using a hybrid method between March 2 and March 18, 2020, by Edmonton-based Trend Research under the direction of Janet Brown Opinion Research. The sample is representative along regional, age and gender factors. The margin of error is +/- 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. For subsets, the margin of error is larger.

The survey used a hybrid methodology that involved contacting survey respondents by telephone and giving them the option of completing the survey at that time, at another more convenient time, or receiving an email link and completing the survey online. Trend Research contacted people using a random list of numbers, consisting of half land lines and half cellphone numbers. Telephone numbers were dialled up to five times at five different times of day before another telephone number was added to the sample. The response rate among valid numbers (i.e. residential and personal) was 13.2 per cent.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brooks DeCillia

Political researcher

Brooks DeCillia spent 20 years reporting and producing news at CBC. He splits his time now between researching public opinion about energy and the environment at the University of Calgary and teaching journalism at Mount Royal University.

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