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With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, people were plunged into a situation that required them to acquire information about an emerging scientific issue to assess the adequacy of government actions and programs of significant personal import to each individual.

There are other important scientific issues like climate change or energy sources, but few involve short-term life or death consequences similar to the COVID-19 pandemic.

An international team led by University of Michigan research scientist Jon Miller found that people who earned a college degree and took the required college science courses gained a general level of biological literacy that enabled them to make more informed policy judgments about the effectiveness of the Trump administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the last week prior to the 2022 midterm elections, these results are important in understanding how citizens make sense of scientific or technical issues such as viral mutation and transmission and the efficacy of vaccines — and how their government worked to protect them against a deadly virus.

Using a national probability sample of adults, Miller and colleagues asked respondents about the importance of each of a dozen prominent issues ranging from health care to immigration in determining their vote in the 2020 presidential election and then about their views on the substance of each issue. Some of the traditional political issues were completely explained by an individual’s partisanship, but the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic displayed an independent influence on vote choice above and beyond partisanship.

Miller’s team found that nearly 60% of respondents who had a graduate or professional degree held a strongly critical assessment of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, and 45% of those who had completed one to three college science courses were highly critical of the administration’s performance. By comparison, just 6% of respondents with one to three college science courses were strongly supportive of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic.

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