Conservatives Exhibit Growing Distrust Toward Science

April 7, 2012 Updated: April 7, 2012

At the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama declared that he would renew America’s commitment to the rigors of research.

In an April 27, 2009 speech before the National Science Academy, the president said what many scientific organizations and advocacy groups had waited nearly a decade to hear: that a new administration would work to base federal policies on “the best and most unbiased scientific information.”

“I want to be sure that facts are driving scientific decisions,” President Obama said, “and not the other way around.”

After two terms under President George W. Bush—a period by critics as a period of American policymaking that was dismissive to the scientific community—many science organizations believed that conservative ideology posed a serious threat to their cultural authority. But a new study reveals that this trend may have first emerged when science expanded its own political influence.

In this month’s American Sociological Review, Gordon Gauchat examines nearly 40 years of data evaluating the nation’s trust in science. His research shows that while public faith in the scientific community has remained relatively consistent overall throughout the past four decades, trust among conservatives has taken a nose dive.

Given contemporary conservative attitudes towards science methodologies and research-based policymaking, Gauchat’s findings may not come as much of a shock. What is unexpected, says Gauchat, is that trust in the scientific community hasn’t diminished uniformly like many sociologists had predicted. Instead, Gauchat’s report demonstrates a clear trend specific to one social group.

His findings are based on a periodic survey that has been evaluating American societal trends since the 1970s. When the test began, well-educated conservatives actually exhibited the greatest trust in science compared to other groups. But by 2010 their numbers had fallen the farthest—nearly 30 points since 1974, leaving only about a third of conservatives who still place their trust in the scientific community.

While some say the trend owes influence to the religious right, or to the establishment of a conservative-leaning media empire, Gauchat suggests that much of the political polarization could stem from conservative views that determine what role science is meant to play.

In the years following World War II, analysts observed that political ideologies of either stripe exhibited relatively consistent respect toward the scientific establishment. But in the following decades, when the focus of science shifted from weapons and technology to increasing involvement with policy influence and industrial regulation, a conservative backlash was born.

“In the past, the scientific community was viewed as concerned primarily with macro structural matters such as winning the space race,” writes Gauchat. “Today, conservatives perceive the scientific community as more focused on regulatory matters such as stopping industry from producing too much carbon dioxide.”

While a scientific study may point to a change in social policy or stricter environmental regulations, research does not always hold the same weight on both sides of the aisle. Gauchat explains that in some cases, research results can clash with traditional values or other interests specific to conservative principles. In other cases, the scientific process itself is called into question.

Conservative critics contend that while a study may strive for neutrality, it can also succumb to the interests of the various players involved. Analysts say that conservatives who reject research may insist that behind supposedly objective results can lay an institutional agenda that can be further influenced by powerful funding organizations.

While trust in science may not have changed among all groups as some sociologists had forecast, Gauchat says his predecessors also fall short on how to address a dwindling faith specific to conservatives.

Previous remedies for a lack of trust called for more education, where non-believers could come to see the value of scientific rigor by better learning how the mechanics of science work. However, since the greatest number of conservatives turning their backs on research involve individuals with the highest levels of education, this fix no longer seems appropriate.

“Simply put, science has always been politicized,” writes Gauchat. “What remains unclear is how political orientations shape public trust in science and how these dynamics might influence the way science is organized.”

What is clear, is that without the neutral and objective clout necessary to tame highly politicized matters, the cultural authority of science will continue to remain at risk.

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