Conservative Distrust of Science

Survey tracks long-term erosion in confidence in research -- and suggests that evolution and social issues aren’t the cause.

March 29, 2012

Just over 34 percent of conservatives had confidence in science as an institution in 2010, representing a long-term decline from 48 percent in 1974, according to a paper being published today in American Sociological Review.

That represents a dramatic shift for conservatives, who in 1974 were more likely than liberals or moderates (all categories based on self-identification) to express confidence in science. While the confidence levels of other groups in science have been relatively stable, the conservative drop now means that group is the least likely to have confidence in science.

Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of the paper, said that the findings are significant for scientists and universities, which seek public support for research and for the research universities where so much science takes place. This year’s presidential election -- and in particular the skepticism of Republican candidates about climate change, despite a wide scientific consensus that climate change is real – point to the impact of this shift, he said.

And notably, he suggests that it may be issues like climate change -- science that has the potential to lead to government regulation -- that may have more of an impact on conservative attitudes about science than subjects like evolution or the use of stem cells in research.

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Gauchat's findings are based on the General Social Survey, a long-term study asking people various demographic and self-identification questions (including political identity) and for their attitudes on certain groups, including confidence in certain institutions.

The Republican presidential candidate who has most vocally questioned science (and the role of higher education) this year is Rick Santorum, and Santorum has done well with voters who do not have a college education. But Gauchat's analysis found that the decline in conservative confidence in science did not come from that group.

Less-educated conservatives didn't change their attitudes about science in recent decades. It is better-educated conservatives who have done so, the paper says.

In the paper, Gauchat calls this a "key finding," in part because it challenges "the deficit model, which predicts that individuals with higher levels of education will possess greater trust in science, by showing that educated conservatives uniquely experienced the decline in trust.” This finding also could make it difficult to change attitudes. Gauchat writes that the educational attainment data suggest "that scientific literacy and education are unlikely to have uniform effects on various publics, especially when ideology and identity intervene to create social ontologies in opposition to established cultures of knowledge (e.g., the scientific community, intelligentsia, and mainstream media)."

Clashes between some religious conservatives and science are, of course, nothing new (even if plenty of scientists in fact are people of faith, and plenty of religious people respect science). In the paper, Gauchat argues that much of the recent decline in conservative confidence in science may relate to a link in many (educated) conservative minds between science and government regulation. Research on climate change or on endangered species or on the safety of certain energy strategies is seen as bolstering an argument for regulation – so science is associated with imposing rules on businesses.

Gauchat said he sees conservative culture encouraging this skepticism. "If you observe the political landscape these days, conservatives really have their own subculture, complete with ontological claims about what the world is about. It makes sense that an ideology that is manufactured on the level that conservatism is in our culture, would come into conflict with science and other organizations charged with ‘presenting the truth,’ ” he said.

Asked about his own politics, Gauchat said that he is “certainly not a conservative," and that he dislikes political labels and considers himself "a pragmatist, in the philosophical sense." He said, however, that many of his ideas "overlap" with what most people call “liberal.”

So what should scientists do if they are concerned about the erosion of conservative support for their work?

"This is the question everybody wants to know," he said. And he doesn’t have "an easy answer."

"I think in many ways science is having these problems because it has become such a powerful cultural institution. It weighs in on political issues, it therefore becomes political."

But even if Gauchat doesn’t have an answer, he said that he hopes scientists will take up the question, and look for ways to reverse the erosion of confidence from the right. "The danger that has already begun to manifest is that the way science is organized might be changed -- privatized, limited access to knowledge and education, greater corporate or government control over knowledge production," he said. "These would have devastating consequences."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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