Study Finds Conservative Trust In Science Declining

Conservative voters say that they have less confidence in the institution of science now than they did during the mid-1970s, claims a study published last Thursday in the American Sociological Review.

According to reporter Jason Koebler, the study, which was conducted by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sociologist Gordon Gauchat, found that just 35% said that they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. In comparison, in 1974, 48% said that they trusted the discipline of science.

“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,” Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed wrote on March 29. “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.”

Jaschik said that Gauchat’s findings are “significant” for both scientists and educational institutions that are attempting to garner support for their research projects amongst the public. The lack of confidence in science among conservatives also spills over into the political realm, especially in terms of the right’s attitude towards issues like climate change policy decisions in the context of the upcoming Presidential election.

“Science has always been politicized,” Gauchat wrote, according to John Timmer of Ars Technica . “What remains unclear is how political orientations shape public trust in science.”

The UNC researcher used information from the General Social Survey to gauge the public’s opinions regarding science, and his research uncovered other interesting trends as well, Timmer said. For most of the period dating back to the 1970s, Gauchat discovered that moderates, not conservatives, actually had the lowest confidence level in the discipline, while liberals tended to be the most trusting of science over the 30-plus year time span.

“The levels of trust for both these groups were fairly steady across the 34 years of data,” the Ars Technica reporter said. “Conservatives were the odd one out. At the very start of the survey in 1974, they actually had the highest confidence in scientific institutions. By the 1980s, however, they had dropped so that they had significantly less trust than liberals did; in recent years, they’ve become the least trusting of science of any political affiliation.”

The reason for this, Gauchat told Koebler, is both a rebellion by those with a conservative ideology against science, as well as the media and higher education, as well as a shifting in the priorities of science from space exploration and defense to regulatory policy such as climate change and environmental issues.

“The perception among conservatives is that they’re at a disadvantage, a minority. 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,” he told US News on Thursday.

Gauchat added that since the middle of the 20th century, “science has become autonomous from the government — it develops knowledge that helps regulate policy, and in the case of the EPA, it develops policy. 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.”