Study: Conservatives' Trust in Science Has Fallen
Dramatically Since Mid-1970s
While trust in science remained stable among people who
self-identified as moderates and liberals in the United
States between 1974 and 2010, trust in science fell
among self-identified conservatives by more than 25
percent during the same period, according to new
research from Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at
the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's Cecil G.
Sheps Center for Health Services Research.
"You can see this distrust in science among
conservatives reflected in the current Republican
primary campaign," said Gauchat, whose study appears in
the April issue of the American Sociological Review.
"When people want to define themselves as conservatives
relative to moderates and liberals, you often hear them
raising questions about the validity of global warming
and evolution and talking about how `intellectual
elites' and scientists don't necessarily have the whole
Relying on data from the 1974-2010 waves of the
nationally representative General Social Survey, the
study found that people who self-identified as
conservatives began the period with the highest trust in
science, relative to self-identified moderates and
liberals, and ended the period with the lowest.
In addition to examining how the relationship between
political ideology and trust in science changed over
almost 40 years, Gauchat also explored how other social
and demographic characteristics-including frequency of
church attendance-related to trust in science over that
same period. Gauchat found that, while trust in science
declined between 1974 and 2010 among those who
frequently attended church, there was no statistically
significant group-specific change in trust in science
over that period among any of the other social or
demographic factors he examined, including gender,
race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.
"This study shows that the public trust in science has
not declined since the mid-1970s except among self-
identified conservatives and among those who frequently
attend church," Gauchat said. "It also provides evidence
that, in the United States, there is a tension between
religion and science in some contexts. This tension is
evident in public controversies such as that over the
teaching of evolution."
As for why self-identified conservatives were much less
likely to trust science in 2010 than they were in the
mid-1970s, Gauchat offered several possibilities. One is
the conservative movement itself.
"Over the last several decades, there's been an effort
among those who define themselves as conservatives to
clearly identify what it means to be a conservative,"
Gauchat said. "For whatever reason, this appears to
involve opposing science and universities and what is
perceived as the `liberal culture.' So, self-identified
conservatives seem to lump these groups together and
rally around the notion that what makes `us'
conservatives is that we don't agree with `them.'"
Another possibility, according to Gauchat, is the
changing role of science in the United States. "In the
past, the scientific community was viewed as concerned
primarily with macro structural matters such as winning
the space race," Gauchat said. "Today, conservatives
perceive the scientific community as more focused on
regulatory matters such as stopping industry from
producing too much carbon dioxide. Conservatives often
oppose government regulation, and they increasingly
perceive science as on the side of regulation,
especially as scientific evidence is used more
frequently in the work of government agencies such as
the Environmental Protection Agency and in public
debates over issues such as climate change."
The study also found that the declining trust in science
among conservatives was not attributable to changes
among less educated conservatives, but rather to rising
distrust among better educated conservatives. "It is a
significant finding and the opposite of what many might
expect," Gauchat said.
As for the study's implications, Gauchat said it raises
important questions about the future role of science in
public policy. "In a political climate in which all
sides do not share a basic trust in science, scientific
evidence no longer is viewed as a politically neutral
factor in judging whether a public policy is good or
bad," said Gauchat, who is also concerned that the
increasingly politicized view of science could turn
people away from careers in the field. "I think this
would be very detrimental to an advanced economy where
you need people with science and engineering
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