Sunday, April 1, 2012

Declining Trust in Science Among Conservatives

In a newly minted, open-access article published in the American Sociological Review (here), Gordon Gauchat reports on a survey of public trust in science relative to political beliefs, and compares the findings to past studies. Self-described "Conservatives" used to have greater confidence in science than either "Moderates" or "Liberals." But the picture has changed since the mid-1970s. According to Gauchat's data, in 1975 approximately 50% of Conservatives trusted science, but that percentage has declined to below 40%. Liberal trust in science, which was slightly less than 50% in 1975, has risen only slightly during the period under study.

Gauchat offers a number of hypothetical explanations for decline in Conservative trust of science, ranging from consistency with a broader erosion of trust in social institutions to a more ideologically based explanation, relating for example to the rise of the "religious right" within the Conservative movement. But as Gauchat notes, such explanations are not necessarily consistent with the decline in trust of science even among Conservatives with higher levels of education. That group actually experienced a great decline in trust in science than other Conservatives. On the other hand, Gauchat also finds that belief in science has also declined among non-Conservatives who "frequently attend church."

The most surprising aspect of the study to me (and not discussed by Gauchat) is why trust in science among self-described "Moderates" was significantly lower than for either Conservatives or Liberals, and why it remains today nearly as low as for Conservatives. Is it a symptom of a broader skepticism of all knowledge that has been a hallmark of moderate worldviews since Hume? But the whole point of the scientific method and, generally speaking, the history of science (since Bacon) has been to improve the reliability of knowledge about the world.  

Gauchat rightly cautions readers about the limitations of his study, including the all-important problem of defining what constitutes "science." Nevertheless, it is an exceptionally interesting study.

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