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Science and the doubting conservatives

New research finds that among conservatives with college degrees, trust in science declined more over time than it did for conservatives with only a high school degree.

April 01, 2012
  • Analyzing results from the General Social Survey, which has been conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center since 1972, University of North Carolina doctoral fellow Gordon Gauchat found that for conservatives with college degrees, trust in science declined more over time than it did for conservatives with only a high school degree.
Analyzing results from the General Social Survey, which has been conducted… (David Gothard / For The Times )

With so many scientific issues becoming battlefields in the culture wars — from climate change to stem-cell research to evolution (see above) — we hardly needed a new study to tell us that scientists have become a favorite target of the right. Yet a paper written by University of North Carolina doctoral fellow Gordon Gauchat and published last week in the American Sociological Review also contains a highly counterintuitive finding.

Common sense, as well as past research, suggests that distrust of science correlates with lack of education; the less education a person has, the more likely he or she will favor traditional beliefs or religious dogma over scientific evidence. There's even an academic name for this theory: the "deficit model" of scientific literacy. When it comes to modern conservatives, however, the deficit model does not apply.

Analyzing results from the General Social Survey, which has been conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center since 1972, Gauchat found that for conservatives with college degrees, trust in science declined more over time than it did forconservatives with only a high school degree. (This was not true for liberals or moderates, whose views on science have been relatively static for decades.)

How did this happen? Gauchat theorizes that it came about because the most educated conservatives are also the most politically engaged and the most likely to seek information that conforms to their ideology — and in recent years they've been able to find it in spades. Right-wing think tanks, funded by corporate interests to undermine the scientific consensus on such expensive-to-fix phenomena as climate change, have proliferated, as have conservative cable-TV networks, blogs and radio talk shows. In general, these outlets are talking to a well-educated audience. And they're presenting a very one-sided view of scientific issues.

The results are dramatic. In 1974, people who identified themselves as conservatives were the most likely group to have a high degree of trust in science; now they're the least trustful. As Gauchat argues, this can probably be blamed on both the growing influence of the religious right, which rejects scientific contradictions of religious teachings on such issues as evolution and stem-cell research, and the growing use of science to inform public policy in such areas as environmental protection. Conservatives, ever wary of government interference with the free market, started to resent the scientists whose findings suggested such interference was necessary. Rather than debate remedies, they have turned on science itself.

Science doesn't just produce useful gadgets; it has propelled the advance of human society from the dawn of civilization to the modern world. Its politicization is a worrisome step backward.

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