How Conservatives Lost their Faith in Science

Alan Boyle in MSNBC's Cosmic Log:

Gauchat cross-referenced attitudes toward the scientific community with various demographic categories, and found that two categories showed a significant erosion of trust in science: conservatives and frequent churchgoers. People who identified themselves as conservatives voiced more confidence in science than moderates or liberals in 1974, but by 2010, that level had fallen by more than 25 percent.

This graph shows the unadjusted mean values for public trust in science, classified by self-reported political ideology between 1974 and 2010. The figures are derived from the General Social Survey.

Why the drop? Gauchat suggested that the character of the conservative movement has changed over the past three and a half decades — and so has the character of the scientific establishment.

“Over the last several decades, there's been an effort among those who define themselves as conservatives to clearly identify what it means to be a conservative,” he said. “For whatever reason, this appears to involve opposing science and universities, and what is perceived as the 'liberal culture.' So, self-identified conservatives seem to lump these groups together and rally around the notion that what makes 'us' conservatives is that we don't agree with 'them.'”

Meanwhile, the perception of science's role in society has shifted as well.

“In the past, the scientific community was viewed as concerned primarily with macro structural matters such as winning the space race,” Gauchat said. “Today, conservatives perceive the scientific community as more focused on regulatory matters such as stopping industry from producing too much carbon dioxide.”