Survey shows science on the ropes with conservatives

Conservatives Losing Trust in Science, Study Finds | Politicalization of Science | LiveScience.

Politically conservative Americans have lost trust in science over the last 40 years while moderates and liberals have remained constant in the stock they put in the scientific community, a new study finds.

The most educated conservatives have slipped the most, according to the research set to appear in the April issue of the journal American Sociological Review. The change in conservative attitudes likely has to do both with changes in the conservative movement and with changes in science’s role in society, said study author Gordon Gaulet, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Liberals had the most trust in science as a whole over the survey period (1974 to 2010), with 47 percent reporting a “great deal” of trust on average, while moderates were the most consistently skeptical of science, with 42 percent trusting the scientific community a great deal. (The moderates in the survey tended to have the least understanding of science as any group, possibly explaining the finding, Gaulet said.) An average of 43 percent of conservatives said they trusted scientists a great deal over the study period.

But only conservatives showed a change over time. At the beginning of the survey, in the 1970s, conservatives trusted science more than anyone, with about 48 percent evincing a great deal of trust. By 2010, the last year survey data was available, only 35 percent of conservatives said the same.

Tip: @LiveScience via Twitter

Oh. Dear. This survey, from what is summarized in this article, is a hot mess. I hate to speculate, not having seen the survey results and the way the questions were phrased, but being familiar with science and policy issues, I believe we have a highly complicated issue shoe-horned into some catch-all questions. People’s ideas about science are more complicated than that. Please don’t put too much stock in this but take away the big picture instead.

The comments to this post on Live Science IMMEDIATELY descend into hot button issues like climate change and creationism. But a pertinent comment noted that everyone likes science when it’s on their side. Very true. Even conservatives will try to get credentialed scientists to vouch for their viewpoints. Science is a pawn these days, which does suggest that it is VALUABLE as something to have for support for your cause. On the other hand, just the value judgements imposed upon it show how terribly the American people misunderstand it and wish to manipulate it for their own purposes.

Enough opinionating. There is more here than I can put in a commentary blurb… but there is much to take away from this. It is not good. Not good at all. But, it’s raw material to work with in regards to American ideas about what science is and how it might be used.

UPDATE (1-April-2012): I read the Gauchat paper and found it highly interesting and well done. See my comments below. However, this article from LiveScience rubbed me the wrong way. I suppose this issue is so complicated that it can’t be taken away in a snapshot. That’s was irked me – that people would not understand the nuances that are present here and just say Oh, Republicans hate science. That’s not it. Most often, the story is far more complicated than that. And, yes, LiveScience did get the name wrong.

UPDATE (2-April-2012) Chris Mooney distills the results in Salon.

  19 comments for “Survey shows science on the ropes with conservatives

  1. March 30, 2012 at 1:10 AM

    Really, we haven’t seen enough evidence of this? From well-funded political think tanks dedicated to science-bashing, to state officials zealously hounding scientists with legal actions (Michael Mann), to presidential candidates calling college “snobbish” (Santorum) or that makes research into alternative fuels a punchline (Gingrich)? Which administration was it that had a political officer editing NASA scientists who contradicted creationism (google George Deutsch)?

    Which party is Florida Governor Scott, who said his state had too many anthropologists?

    Do you honestly not think it is the case that one of the two major parties in this country has decided for a blend of financial, but mostly religious reasons, to define research and academic science particularly as the enemy?

  2. March 30, 2012 at 1:12 AM

    Also, I’d note, this survey has been conducted for almost 40 years. Most of today’s hot button science issues didn’t even exist then, other than perennials like creationism which was not the massive political issue then it is now.

  3. Stew Green
    March 30, 2012 at 5:57 AM

    – clues to bogus stories
    1. They often begin with a “new survey says”
    2. The story is released first to media instead of through a peer reviewed journal first : The reporters narrative helps to frame the agenda; establishing a meme which sticks even if later contradicted when we see the data.
    3. The stories often include no clear link to the original source & a clear definition of what they are talking about i.e. “define your terms” : With loaded questions skewed answers can be produced. With reporting spin the story can be twisted to a narrative not shown by the data.
    4. False Dichotomy ? The narratives often defy full colour world complexities & oversimply rushing to state there is a dichotomy when the story cannot be so easily defined. With issues including safety of nuclear power & GMOs etc. can we so easily define people as trusting science ?
    5. Name calling : I can’t see any there, but it’s often used as part of creating a false dichotomy narrative of “us & them” thus dehumanising the “enemy” etc.

    – As DN pointed out today in the other blogpost “Missing the story via press release” without access to the actual journal article the Livescience article is just spin & speculation. Why should we worry about it until we can read the data ? Waiting instead of rushing to judgement is one of the best ways of getting to the bottom of a story.

    BTW Freakonomics have dealt with this issue more deeply,in the past

  4. Stew Green
    March 30, 2012 at 6:31 AM

    – Did Livejournal get the name of it’s source wrong ? : “Gordon Gaulet, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.”

    – coincidentally there is a Gordon GAUCHAT, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

    Publications: Gordon Gauchat. (Forthcoming). “The Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in Science in the U.S., 1974-2008.” American Sociological Review.

  5. Stew Green
    March 30, 2012 at 7:12 AM

    oops .. I meant LiveScience not Livejournal of course

  6. Jonathan
    March 30, 2012 at 8:21 AM

    “This survey, from what is summarized in this article, is a hot mess.” so you conclude that the study is a mess based on a very short interpretation of it? I’d say read what the actual results are and how the authors discuss them.

    Otherwise, it is not justified to restrict ‘conservative distrust’, as far as it exists, to issues like global warming and creationism. The book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway suggests otherwise; tobacco smoke, nuclear winter, acid rain, the SDI and DDT regulation have all seen conservative backlashes. There could very well be more cause for concern than just this study.

  7. March 30, 2012 at 8:31 AM

    I haven’t read the book, but I remember finding this column deeply unimpressive and not worth further note.

  8. idoubtit
    March 30, 2012 at 9:19 AM

    I currently have the survey and am digesting it. I will clarify in that I didn’t like this LiveScience summary of the survey. They DID mess up the researchers name, Stew, you were right, and I was turned off by their presentation of it.

    I’m not denying the results. I just think they are more complicated than expressed in this article.

    Jonathan: No, I conclude what is given in the article linked is a mess and people will take certain “facts” away from it. While I sometimes do a more indepth look at the stories presented, the point of this site to point out credibility issues and questions you should ask when consuming what the media delivers. I have previously referenced Merchants of Doubt and am very aware of the assault on science and reason. However, this one cited article is not a good one to base any conclusions on and I call it out.

    I also want to point readers to Chris Mooney’s piece about it…
    I have his book, Republican War on Science but haven’t gotten to read the whole thing. I do appreciate Chris’ broad and nuanced take on this issue. Check out his opinion which is a far more thoughtful piece than the LiveScience one.

  9. March 30, 2012 at 10:02 AM

    I do not agree with the personality/”conservative brain” theory.

    But I STRONGLY agree with the politicization model the paper apparently represents, as per the link Sharon posted. That narrative, that this is a new phenomenon, that while it has historical roots in longer-term American anti-intellectualism it is a unique phenomenon in our history based on more recent historical context, etc., all of that very much fits my understanding where we have been and where we are. If this paper quantitatively backs this up, it is quite important.

  10. LREKing
    March 30, 2012 at 1:26 PM

    Anybody remember the Wings Over the World section of Things to Come?

  11. Stew Green
    March 30, 2012 at 6:03 PM

    – One name came up repeatedly in connection : Chris Mooney
    “Gauchat took on this project to assess the claims made by science journalist Chris Mooney in his 2005 book, ‘The Republican War on Science’ ”

    – 1. By coincidence this book is being reissued on 3 April
    – 2. Why would anyone have any reason for hyping up controversy about Republicans ?… is there an election or something coming up in the US ?

    – News Media & Politics is all too much Russian doll inside a Russian doll for me
    – It couldn’t be that this whole story is politicizing science itself ?

    – Let me crawl back under a rock, so it can all wash over me instead of leaving me feeling spun & manipulated.

  12. Stew Green
    March 30, 2012 at 6:05 PM

    The Chris Mooney book is re-issued with the title : “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science.”

  13. March 30, 2012 at 7:27 PM

    No. I don’t think that at all. As was discussed, this was nothing new. Chris’ book had an interesting premise back in 2005. This was data that supported his idea. What’s so weird about that?

    I did the same when I did my Master’s research. I had suspected a premise to be true but no hard data existed. I collected data and when I analyzed it, sure enough, there was the support. You need to have a framework to place your facts. As I say above, I think this is REALLY complicated but there is a correlation here.

    I have the full report and will digest it over the weekend.

  14. Stew Green
    March 31, 2012 at 11:24 AM

    The Question wasn’t the same as the headline implies ?
    – (I am not bothered about the subject at all), but I just came across this at
    “Read the original paper”
    “all the newspaper headlines are wrong”
    ‘Politically conservative Americans have lost trust in science’- LiveScience
    ‘lose faith in science’
    ‘lose faith in science’
    ‘lose faith in science’ etc.
    – “The question asked isn’t about faith in science at all. It is about faith in scienTISTS.”

    does he have a point ?

  15. March 31, 2012 at 2:20 PM

    Stew: that was sort of my point that made me turn up my nose in the original post. I still have the study here to read though (busy weekend). I am afraid that this is a more complicated issue (you can hardly get much more murky and complicated than dealing with social issues and lots of other stuff thrown in). So there is a distinction to be made between trust in science and trust in scientists. And, it may depend on the field or the person or what org he is from, etc. I have seen this REPEATEDLY. A anti-science group will disparage scientists yet hire their own to say what they want him to say.

    I’m going to read the paper…

  16. April 1, 2012 at 9:46 AM

    I have read the Gauchat paper. I found it well done and informative.

    It talks about defining science. I still get tripped up here and the author notes that there is much to be done to tease out why people feel the way they do about “science”. In essence, though, “science” is representative of the people and the institutions

    I found the part regarding the rise of regulatory science very interesting and there is good foundation there. This is my professional field (as a scientist and in policy). Seeing how people have reacted to science-based policy, this interpretation of feeling that science and politics are entwine (they are because it all is), is understandable.

    The data begins in 1974 with a precipitous drop in moderate attitudes about science. (He does not use Republicans, Democrats, Independents.) I wonder why that is and I wonder what the previous years would have shown.

    Importantly, these results show support for the politicization model (that conservative views about science are correlated with politics) but is evidence against the views that support the deficit model (more learning will increase attitudes towards science – this is not true) and the “sign of the times” theory of alienation because not all political institutions experienced this decline in attitudes like science.

    There are MANY interesting ideas in here. I think this paper in important. Mostly, it makes me wonder what can be done. I can see what WON’T work – throwing money at science education. It appears a true fix involves restructuring the way science is done here and making attempts to change people’s opinions of what science is and what it’s good for.

    The models are not easy to understand but the concepts are. I would recommend the paper. It is available for download here:

  17. April 1, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    It certainly puts the debate of whether atheism/skepticism/secularism should be intertwined into a new light. One of the biggest arguments against it is that it drives away people. But if this research quantitatively suggests that the divide coincides with the politicization of the religious right (and its subsequent alliance with interests in conflict with regulatory and/or environmental science), that argument still has some merit, but much less because _that linkage already de facto exists in the worldview of those most likely to act on it._

    Other groups, when they are attacked by deceit and lies, get outraged, and they do make it political (we’ve seen a few examples of this in the last couple of months). By contrast, the scientific community for the most part is working on the old model, that they are above the fray, or even if they recognize the reality, they persist in the idealist dream that they are above the fray. The moderating voices try to bring us all back and pretend that if we just speak softly to the vast middle, Carl Sagan style, it will be ok. Well, it won’t.

    I think one reason we have such a model, and why it doesn’t work anymore, btw, is the changing demographic of scientists. While there have always been exceptions, scholars of all sorts traditionally have come from the upper end of the economic spectrum, gone for education at the elite institutions, and so on. But in the post-WWII era, with NSF and other funding sources, with the rise of the state schools, researchers and academics (I would wager, I’d actually be fascinated to know if there is hard quantitative data on this) have more of a middle class background. Yet the perception is still one of an elite.

    I think this angle is very important. As my students learn in my intro course on American culture, there are ten times as many scientists in the U.S. as there are farmers, but this is not reflected in our worldview, our media, or our politics. Scientists are still strange exotic foreign people, and they shouldn’t be. Thinking about this, and given the increasingly geographical divisions we see in political ideology (not so much by region but the urban-suburban-rural spectrum), I wonder if the geographical clustering of scientists in major cities, research triangles, and college towns may also play a role.

  18. April 2, 2012 at 10:53 AM

    – “A anti-science group” – ehm that sounds quite a lot like a conspiracy theory to me. Granted there are religious groups like the Scientologists & extreme creationist groups, who insist there dogma trumps science and can’t be challenged, but most other organisations do believe in science even if they cherry pick & spin. In the end just as “truth will out”. “science will out” As the science for a particular sub-field proves itself and becomes irrefutable, then these organisations won’t argue.

    – Is there any wonder public trust in science is effected when the public are told these our top “climate scientists”, and then these “climate scientists” get caught making big mistakes.

    – Governments have injected political lies into science like “like these are our best climate scientists, trust us” and the media repeated them
    – But these have often turned out to be political appointments so when these the likes of IPCC boss Rajendra Pachauri & Australia’s Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery (who are not actually climate scientists) made mistakes like Flannery’s predictions which didn’t come true, then the confidence in science was greatly damaged

    Link to Australian Newspaper story listing Flannery’s mis-predictions

  19. Stew Green
    April 4, 2012 at 12:13 PM

    A lot of science is just plain wrong” a new report from Straight Stats a top UK fact-checking website. Too much “trust me” science ?
    – Again is there any wonder that the public don’t trust scientists/science bodies when there have been so many high profile cases of scientists cheating/getting it wrong particularly in psychology field. Recently Time magazine listed 8 recent science frauds and it’s by no means comprehensive as it misses the enormous scandal of pharmacy corps only publishing positive studies & suppressing the rest. ..misses that over the last 15 years when Dutch psychological researcher Diederik Stapel came up with results which were nice politically correct, people accepted them readily …except he cheated.
    Also missed : Dr. Roger Poisson, the “Baltimore Case”, Dog cloner Hwang Woo-suk.
    – John Ioannidis’s famous paper makes us think about Expectation Bias, Grant Bias : Dogma bias & other Systematic Biases.
    – Other papers have revealed scientists know there colleagues cheat : “More than one in 10 British-based scientists or doctors have witnessed colleagues intentionally altering or fabricating data during their research” British Medical Journal, Excellent Bad (Clinical) Science article
    – Then there is the research labs attached to PR agencies that produce those padding “a new study says” stories for lazy news organisation.
    – We have to take such science damaging events very seriously for the effect it has on the public e.g. the antivaccine “body count” is 866 for the last 4.5 years.
    – True the scientific process functions largely well in many countries and science saves billions of life days, some thousands life days are lost due to bad science fanned by a media which is too lazy about fact checking. However in many other countries large numbers of killer pseudosciences are accepted. (listed on
    – We have a duty to spread good science education to the world so people understand that there cannot be proper reasoning without skepticism.

    – The Good News : Understanding of the charlatans techniques is beginning to permeate into the minds of the public, so when those reports come on the radio with “a new study says…” there are increasing numbers of people at home spotting the errors : “sample size is too small” ,”confirmation bias”, “confusing mean with median”, “sidestepped peer review and gone straight to the media” etc. show less.

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