This may explain some of the rhetoric we’ve been hearing in GOP stump speeches of late: The number of conservatives who say they have a “great deal” of trust in science has fallen to 35 percent, down 28 points from the mid-1970s, according to a new academic paper.
The study, which was published Thursday in the American Sociological Review, found that liberal and moderate attitudes toward the topic have remained mostly unchanged since national pollsters first began posing the question in 1974, back when roughly half of all liberals and conservatives expressed significant trust in science.
The peer-reviewed research paper explains: “These results are quite profound because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.”
The man behind the study, UNC Chapel Hill’s Gordon Gauchat, says the change comes as conservatives have rebelled against the so-called “elite.”
“It kind of began with the loss of Barry Goldwater and the construction of Fox News and all these [conservative] think tanks. The perception among conservatives is that they’re at a disadvantage, a minority,” Gauchat explained in an interview with U.S. News. “It’s not surprising that the conservative subculture would challenge what’s viewed as the dominant knowledge production groups in society—science and the media.”
The sociologist suggested that the shift is also likely tied to science’s changing role in the national dialogue. In the middle of the 20th century, science was tied closely with NASA and the Department of Defense, but now it more frequently comes up when the conversation shifts to the environment and government regulations.
“Science has become autonomous from the government—it develops knowledge that helps regulate policy, and in the case of the EPA, it develops policy,” he said. “Science is charged with what religion used to be charged with—answering questions about who we are and what we came from, what the world is about. We’re using it in American society to weigh in on political debates, and people are coming down on a specific side.”
Conservatives’ trust in science has declined sharply
Since 1974, when conservatives had the highest trust in science, their confidence has dropped precipitously, an American Sociological Review study concludes.
Confidence in scientists has declined the most among the most educated conservatives, the peer-reviewed research paper found, concluding: “These results are quite profound because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.”
“That’s a surprising finding,” said the report’s author, Gordon Gauchat, in an interview. He has a doctorate in sociology and is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
To highlight the dramatic impact conservative views of science have had on public opinion, Gauchat pointed to results from Gallup, which found in 2012 that just 30% of conservatives believed the Earth was warming as a result of greenhouse gases versus 50% two years earlier. In contrast, the poll showed almost no change in the opinion of liberals, with 74% believing in global warming in 2010 versus 72% in 2008.
Gauchat suggested that the most educated conservatives are most acquainted with views that question the credibility of scientists and their conclusions. “I think those people are most fluent with the conservative ideology,” he said. “They have stronger ideological dispositions than people who are less educated.”
Chris Mooney, who wrote “The Republican War on Science,” which Gauchat cites, agreed. “If you think of the reasons behind this as nature versus nurture, all this would be nurture, that it was the product of the conservative movement,” he said. “I think being educated is a proxy for people paying attention to politics, and when they do, they tune in to Fox News and blogs.”
Gauchat also noted the conservative movement had expanded substantially in power and influence, particularly during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, creating an extensive apparatus of think tanks and media outlets. “There’s a whole enterprise,” he said.
Science has also increasingly come under fire, Gauchat said, because its cultural authority and its impact on government have grown. For years, he said, the role science played was mostly behind the scenes, creating better military equipment and sending rockets into space.
But with the emergence of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, scientists began to play a crucial and visible role in developing regulations.
Jim DiPeso, policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, has been trying to move his party to the center on issues such as climate change, but he said many Republicans were wary of science because they believed it was “serving the agenda of the regulatory state.”
“There has been more and more resistance to accepting scientific conclusions,” he said. “There is concern about what those conclusions could lead to in terms of bigger government and more onerous regulation.”
The study also found that Americans with moderate political views have long been the most distrustful of scientists, but that conservatives now are likely to outstrip them.
Moderates are typically less educated than either liberals or conservatives, Gauchat said. “These folks are just generally alienated from science,” he said, describing them as the “least engaged and least knowledgeable about basic scientific facts.”
Gauchat, who has been studying public attitudes toward science for about eight years, has applied for a National Science Foundation grant to investigate why trust in science has waned. He plans to ask a battery of questions, including some focused on scientific controversies, such as those overvaccines and genetically modified foods, to try to understand what makes conservatives and moderates so distrustful.
“It’s not one simple thing,” he said.
Neela Banerjee in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.