Conservatives increasingly distrust science, study finds

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

Trust in science fell among self-identified conservatives by more than 25 percent between 1974 and 2010, according to a study released today by the American Sociological Review. Trust in science among those who self-identify as liberals and moderates remained stable.

People who self identify as conservatives began with higher trust in science than moderates and liberals and ended with the lowest, according to data mined from the General Social Survey by Gordon Gauchat, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.

Yale law professor Dan Kahan said the study is interesting because the trend Gauchat "identifies looks pretty similar to the one that public opinion surveys identify in views on climate change."The question of climate change started to polarize people along political lines in the 1990s, the same time that conservatives and liberals began to disagree on the question of "trust in science," Kahan said.

Given the similarity of these two trends, Kahan said, it may be the case that conservatives are translating the question "Do you trust scientists?" into "What do you think about climate change?"

"How 'confident you are in scientists' is essentially just an indicator of a latent attitude toward climate change," he said. To the extent that this is true, he continued, it casts some doubt on the assertion that conservatives are more skeptical of science.

"Opinions about climate science should not be taken as reliable indicators of how conservatives feel about scientists in general or on non-politicized issues," said Kahan.

Climate change skeptics

Some experts suggest conservatives' distrust of climate science is a function of ignorance: they aren't educated and they don't understand the facts. But a 2008 Pew Research Center study examining the relationship between party affiliation, acceptance of global warming and education level found that educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their fellow conservatives who do not have a university education.

"The most scientifically literate members of the public are the most divided along cultural or political lines," Kahan said.

If education doesn't explain the phenomenon, what does? One theory is that changes to organized science since the 1970s have mobilized conservative discontent. Chief among these is the growth of regulatory science, including institutions such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"The shift toward regulatory science that began in the 1970s could account for conservatives' growing distrust in science, given the group's general opposition to government regulation," Gauchat said. Regulatory science is problematic for partisans because of the way it connects to policy management. Public perception is that science is used to advance certain ideological agendas instead of being politically neutral and objective, he said.

Another factor may be an inherent tension between conservative ideology and the nature of scientific inquiry. Conservatives adhere to a political orthodoxy that emphasizes traditionalism, said Chris Mooney, author of the best-selling book, "The Republican War on Science." Scientific inquiry, on the other hand, is dynamic with "its constant onslaught on old orthodoxies, its rapid generation of new technological possibility," he said. Science demands flexibility and openness to new ideas, he said.

Liberal equivalent

If climate change is the hot-button environmental issue for conservatives, the liberal corollary is nuclear energy, Mooney said. "There is a long history of liberal distrust on the left," Mooney wrote in a story for AlterNet. "But this impulse puts them at odds with the views of the scientific community on the matter (scientists tend to think nuclear power risks are overblown, especially in light of the dangers of other energy sources, like coal)," he explained.

Although it may be reasonable to assume that liberals will behave like conservatives — that is, with resistance — in response to science that challenges their politics, the research shows something very different, Kahan said. His research shows that liberals do not become more worried about the risks of nuclear power as they become more educated. Rather, educated liberals tend to discount the risks of nuclear energy, moving in the opposite direction and coming more in line with the opinion of the scientific community, Mooney said.

Distrustful moderates

Though Gauchat's work focuses on the growing division between conservatives and liberals, the group the most distrustful of science is comprised of self-identified moderates. Since 1974, moderates' trust in science is considerably lower than that of conservatives and liberals. "Historically, more people characterize themselves as 'moderates' than as either liberals or conservatives," Kahan said. "Conservatives, then, have been historically more trusting than most ordinary, non-partisan citizens," he said.

EMAIL: mwhite@desnews.com

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