Thursday, March 29, 2012

STUDY: Trust Science? You're a Liberal!

Towleroad reports about a very disturbing result that public distrust of science is correlated with partisanship. In "Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010" published in the American Sociological Review (Volume 77, issue 2, pp. 167-187), Gordon Gauchat, a professor at the University of North Carolina, details the ongoing politicization of science. Conservatives mistrust science the most, with Liberals trusting science the most and Moderates are closer to conservatives than liberals in this instance.

From the graph above you can see that conservative trust of science is at an all-time low, with just 35% of self-identified conservatives saying that they have "a great deal of trust in science." The numbers for conservatives have been dropping for year while those of liberals have remained relatively steady.

In his paper, Gauchat says:
As mentioned, one interpretation of these findings is that conservatism in the United States has become a cultural domain that generates its own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of science. For example, on fundamental ontological questions about who we are and how we got here, conservatives are far more likely to doubt scientific theories of origins, including theories of natural selection and the Big Bang (Newport 2007, 2009). A growing number of conservatives also doubt climate change: in 2010, only a third of conservatives believed that global warming is occurring, compared to almost half in 2008 (Jones 2010). These particular opinions, coupled with the general trends examined in Table 2, suggest a growing chasm between conservatives’ ideas about “what is the case” and liberals’ willingness to trust science on these matters. 
Given the theoretical relationship between education and confidence in science, an additional explanation relates to whether conservatives’ educational composition changed over the period. Simply, if conservatives as a group are less educated than they once were, this might account for the decline in trust in the scientific community. First, according to the combined GSS data, the proportion of conservatives who received at least a high school degree is greater than the proportion for liberals. Second, the percentage of conservatives and liberals who received bachelor’s degrees is nearly identical, approximately 17 percent. Liberals, however, were more likely to receive graduate degrees compared to conservatives, and the gap between ideological groups grows over the period. Importantly, this growing gap is due to an increase in the percentage of liberals receiving graduate degrees and not a decline among conservatives. Altogether, the data provide little evidence that group-specific differences in public trust in science are attributable to changes in conservatives’ educational composition.
In other words, the increasing gap is not because conservatives are any less educated than liberals. Gauchat's overall explanation is that there has been a marked change in the distrust of science among people who are conservative and attend church frequently and this drives the overall decline in the numbers.

Do you agree with his explanation for the gap between conservatives and liberals? Do YOU trust science?

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