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Study Finds Conservatives' Trust in Science at Record Low: Do You Agree With Its Reasoning?


"We use science because it has this objective point of view or credibility to figure out which policy to use ... but by doing that it becomes politicized."

A new review of data collected from 1974 to 2010 has found that public perception of science and trust in its findings has drastically fallen for those who consider themselves politically conservative.

(Related: New poll claims belief in global warming is rising...but that's not the whole story)

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who reviewed the data from the General Social Survey, found that conservatives have had the most variation in trust of scientific data, while moderates and liberals have remained constant in their confidence levels.

It wasn't always this way for conservatives. In 1974, 48 percent of conservatives reported having "a great deal of trust in science." At this time, Gauchat states in the report conservatives had the "highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates." The decline from there was gradual, according to Gauchat. By 2010, only 35 percent of conservatives reported having "a great deal of trust in science."

But why? Gauchat puts forward three hypotheses but one he believes is the primary cause for the steady decline:

The cultural ascendency thesis predicts a uniform increase in public trust in science across all social groups. In other words, the special congruence of science and modern institutions increases the need for scientific knowledge and public education, which, in turn, encourages public trust in science. By contrast, scholars have predicted a uniform decline in public trust across all social groups, or the alienation thesis. This decline in public trust is associated with a cultural backlash against technocratic authority and science’s inability to defend itself against its own standards in public discourse. Finally, the politicization thesis predicts that ideological conservatives will experience group-specific declines in trust in science over time. Conservatives’ distrust is attributable to the political philosophy and intellectual culture accompanying the NR [new right] and the increased connection between scientific knowledge and regulatory regimes in the United States, the latter of which conservatives generally oppose.

It is on politicization of science -- not by the left but by the right -- that Gauchat would place his bet, based on the data he analyzed. Gauchat also notes that a lack of education isn't the reason; he writes that "well-educated conservatives uniquely experience a decline in trust." Live Science explains further how Gauchat thinks we may have come to this position:

Research used to be done under the auspices of NASA and the Department of Defense, Gaulet said. Both of these agencies seemed far-removed from daily life. However, over the decades, science has become more intertwined with everyday policy. The Environmental Protection Agency is a "poster child" for science informing real-world regulation that some conservatives oppose, Gaulet said.

"It's almost a contradiction," he said. "We use science because it has this objective point of view or credibility to figure out which policy to use ... but by doing that it becomes politicized."

Gauchat conducted this review of survey data to test claims made in Chris Mooney's 2005 book "The Republican War on Science," specifically that the rise of the NR (new right) is involved. The NR is described as promoting "limited government, strong national defense, and protection of traditional values against what they view as encroachments of a permissive and often chaotic modern society." This group, according to Mooney and others, gained more political power in the Reagan-era. Two key groups pointed out by Gauchat within the NR includes the "religious right and transnational corporations."

Gauchat, in an interview with U.S. News, went further to attribute the decline confidence to conservative media and think tanks:

"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."

GBTV's S.E. Cupp weighed in on the issue on MSNBC's Now With Alex Wagner (via Mediaite) where she agreed politicization is what may be causing distrust in science. Cupp attributes the politicization to the left and the right to "corrupting science." Fellow panelist on the show Ari Melber disagreed saying it was not politicization but religious conflict with science. Watch the clip:

The GSS was conducted every year from 1974 to 1994, then every other year from 1994 to 2010. It should be noted that Gauchat has said there are "numerous limitations" associated with this study. He says based on previous studies, it is unlikely the public has a uniform definition of "what science is" and therefore it can be difficult to truly assess the general atmosphere of confidence surrounding the field.

This study was published in the American Sociological Review.

Let us know what you think of the reasoning provided for the decline of Conservatives' trust in science by taking our poll and providing your reasoning in the comments section.

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