The Two-Way
11:44 am
Thu March 29, 2012

Study: Conservatives' Trust In Science At Record Low

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

"Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period," Gauchat reports. "These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt."

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a "great deal of trust in science" in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974.

Here's the graph that tracks the change in conservatives, liberals and moderates:

Gauchat's findings are published in the April issue (pdf) of the American Sociological Review.

Of course the big question here is what happened to provoke this split among Americans who pretty much agreed on how much trust they put in science in 1974?

Two of the three hypothesis put forth by Gauchat would have trust in science decline or ascend uniformly. But the third, which is the one Gauchat puts his money on, is the "politicization thesis."

Here's how Gauchat explained that thesis to US News:

"Gauchat says conservatives' rebellion against the 'elite' and the shifting role of science in society is to blame for the decline. He argues that the conservative minority has rebelled against science in the same way it has against media and higher education.

"'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,' he says. '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.'

Gauchat also argues that science changed over time to become the means of answering questions that religion used to be charged with.

We're talking to Gauchat later on today. We'll update this post with a little more detail on his thoughts and findings.

Update at 5:15 p.m. ET. Even Educated Conservatives:

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor's degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions.

Gauchat said his data points at that second reason as the main source of distrust of science.

"What I know in the data I have is that conservative's perception of science as connected to government is what bothers them about science," said Gauchat. "So they don't necessarily see science as harmful or evil or something like that but they see it as something that is maybe too abstract or theoretical to inform how we live our life or our public policy."

Gauchat points at GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who during stump speeches has railed against climate science saying it informs a policy that tries to control American's access to energy.

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.