Have Conservatives Lost Confidence in “Science”?

A new study purports to show that  trust in “science” as an institution has declined precipitously in recent decades.  This study has received substantial attention, including these stories in Inside Higher Ed and the Los Angeles Times.  The IHE story, which is fairly representative of the coverage, begins:

Just over 34 percent of conservatives had confidence in science as an institution in 2010, representing a long-term decline from 48 percent in 1974, according to a paper being published today in American Sociological Review.

That represents a dramatic shift for conservatives, who in 1974 were more likely than liberals or moderates (all categories based on self-identification) to express confidence in science. While the confidence levels of other groups in science have been relatively stable, the conservative drop now means that group is the least likely to have confidence in science.

This is a fair characterization of how the study’s author, Gordon Gauchat, characterizes the study.  The problem is this is not what the study actually shows.  To measure “trust in science” Gauchat relies on data from the General Social Survey (GSS) from 1972 to 2010, in which respondents were asked to rate the degree of “confidence” they have in various social institutions.  Yet the GSS specific survey question does upon which Gauchat relies does not actually measure trust in “science.”  Rather, the question asks respondents to rate their confidence in “the scientific community.”  But “science” and “the scientific community” are not the same thing.  The Gauchat study certainly finds something interesting, but it’s not quite what he claims.

Why does this matter?  Because one can have tremendous faith in science, as an institution and a process for discovering truth, while simultaneously lacking confidence in “the scientific community” as represented by current scientific leaders, science agencies, university researchers, those who purport to speak for science, etc.  This split is one possible explanation for Gauchat’s finding that the decline in confidence in “the scientific community” has been greater among more educated conservatives — those who may be more aware of actions by leading scientists and scientific institutions that have squandered some of science’s credibility as many scientists have embraced political advocacy and sought to claim that science supports specific policy agendas.  It’s also possible that some conservatives have become alienated from the scientific community insofar as they have perceived science to support “liberal” causes (e.g. environmental activism, government regulation) as opposed to “conservative” causes (e.g. military technology, industrial progress, etc.), as well as by the outward hostility toward religion voiced by many prominent scientists.  See also these comments by Glenn Reynolds and Nick Gillespie.

In my view, both conservatives and liberals are guilty of politicizing science and pretending as if science supports their policy agendas, and this approach to science encourages partisans to be unduly suspicious of scientific findings that undermine a particular worldview.  So conservatives are unduly skeptical of scientific evidence for climate change (lest global warming become a justification for bigger government) and liberals are unduly skeptical of scientific findings on GMOs or nuclear power.   The more scientists play into this approach — and many do — the more skeptical partisans become, and much of this skepticism of scientists is justified.  And insofar as specific scientific institutions have appeared to become more aligned with “liberal” causes, it should be no wonder that many conservatives have less confidence in such institutions, but that does not mean that conservatives have lost faith in “science” itself.

POST-SCRIPT: There are obviously some groups of conservatives, particularly those who deny evolution and claim “intelligent design” is a scientific theory, who lack confidence in anything we would recognize as science, but this is not the phenomenon Gauchat claims to be observing.