There was a time when people on the right trusted science far more than moderates and liberals. Distrust of scientists, including levels that verged on raging paranoia, was limited to the left side of the political spectrum.

Now that is not so. Recent sociological surveys show that the right has become increasingly distrustful of science. Given yet another sociological study with delightful confirmation bias, you're going to read a whole lot of 'conservatives are anti-science' articles because science and science media is dominated by one side, the left. When I say 'left', I do not mean it in the insulting 'leftist' vein that political pundits use the term - clearly if there are two sides, 50% of people are on each. In science specifically, there is a good left, actual liberals in the classic sense, but the more ridiculous claims we get will be from the bad left - kooky progressives. 

If you frame the data the right way, it certainly does look like the right is anti-science instead of not trusting their political opposition. And there is a lot of framing that goes into this topic - if you read more than one article (this one) on this survey that is not harping on how stupid conservatives are, it will be a shock. A critical look at the data and its underlying concept won't happen because science journalists have become advocates for progressive good works so they won't ask any awkward questions of this like they would if the conclusion were the opposite - and the conclusion has an element of truthiness because only 6% of academia is Republican.  The 'why' of the result is what should concern us all.

Sociologists recognize it is easy to demonize minorities when there are so few that there are no repercussions in the hallways and office buildings, i.e. not having to look people in the face after you insult them. That doesn't mean they mind when it happens. And it happens a lot in academia about right wing people now, especially in the humanities and the social sciences. In fairness to other scientists, the more you go toward hard science, the more balanced political views are. We can address that later. First, let's get to the newest survey results collated by Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research and published in the American Sociological Review. He says trust in science has dropped 25% among conservatives over the last nearly 40 years while it remained flat among the left.

I'll tell you up front; I am buying it. I do not think this is a spin result concocted because sociology is 99.5% left wing people. The 'why' is what will be important and Gauchat makes up a nice little confirmation bias answer that, unfortunately, is easily dispelled if anyone even glances at the real cultural landscape. We'll get to that in a bit. First, let's see if there is an answer that can be more objective.

In 1974, when I was a wee lad. trust in science among conservatives was quite high - the highest of any political group. Now their confidence in science is lowest. Did they get stupid?  Did their political skew overwhelm their reason?  Some will frame it that way.  It needs to be considered that the same cultural skew that critics contend makes science academia hostile to women and minorities also drove out political diversity - and once the echo chamber was installed, confidence in the field waned because scientists became a political bloc rather than a force for public good.  You don't see anyone complaining doctors are left wing, for example.  

One side or the other has always trusted science more.  Why are current times so special? Credit:

It wasn't a gradual shift

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Learning surveyed the political persuasion of professors ten years later, in 1984, and found that liberals outnumbered conservatives on university faculties 39 to 34 percent. Insignificant. But by 1999, liberals were suddenly a 5-1 majority on college faculties.  In a 15 year period of time, things changed a lot.

Political activists in science and certainly science media will use that to trumpet how out-of-touch conservatives were even before Bush was elected in 2000, but it was actually the other way around.  In that same period, only 18 percent of the public identified as liberals, while 37 percent claimed to be conservatives and 55 percent claimed to be moderates. Academia had gone out of touch with the public even by then and in numerous fields, the skew is even greater now.

True believers in the 'conservatives are stupid' fringe will claim conservative drops in academia during the last few decades are self-selection bias - basically conservatives do other jobs because academia does not pay enough - or they are really dumb.  The self-selection argument is silly.  Professors actually get paid quite well and have a great deal of freedom compared to corporate America so people with a right wing mentality are not just getting better-paying jobs anywhere else.  Compared to previous decades, professors are paid much, much better now - academia used to be a truly low-paying job. Claiming conservatives did not care about money then, since there was near parity until the late 1980s, but do not choose academia now because they are greedy does not pass even the simplest logic test.

The 'conservatives are stupid' mentality is more common but that doesn't account for the skew either - it turns out more scientifically literate conservatives trust some fields of science even less. It seems to be just politics - and liberal persuasion is so assumed that anyone who seems to deviate from that gets a subtle knock on their careers - stereotype threat is what social scientists call that.  People who routinely believe that conservatives would discriminate against liberals, and that women and minorities are unfairly impacted because of existing demographics blocking their path, don't seem to think politics will matter in academia.  Yet somehow it does.  The reality is that while conservatives are not openly discriminated against, overwhelming numbers mean "liberals have a statistically greater chance of reaching the top tiers of the profession."(1)

Women in hard sciences can probably understand exactly what they mean.  

The problem with the drastic shift that has occurred is not an erosion of confidence in science by a lot of people who need to support the endeavor for it to get funded, it is also a warning that science is losing diversity and therefore creativity.  We just may not have noticed it yet but if the top levels of science don't get women or minorities (including political ones, like conservatives) we may not be getting the best minds doing transformative research. We keep hearing that the 21st century is an information one so we can't contend people who vote Republican are automatically dumb while the party that believes the most in astrology and ghosts is the intellectual elite.

Instead of self awareness about the pitfalls of exclusion, overt or subtle, we are going to see a lot of blaming the victim.

The culture war hurts science acceptance

The new results also showed something else we all know; the more people go to church the less likely they trust scientists today. Socioeconomic status, race and gender were controlled for and not an issue, just church attendance. It can't be a positive thing that a large chunk of Americans feel like scientists are putting a secular left worldview ahead of scientific rigor but they don't do it to all science. Loud atheists claiming to represent all biology and climate science are the two that wreck the perception of science and both became hyper-politicized during the shift in academia and the decline in conservative confidence of science overall. Despite the fact that physicists are looking for a 'God particle' not many religious people deny physics.

John McCumber, a philosophy professor at UCLA, once made the patronizing claim that "a successful career in academia, after all, requires willingness to be critical of yourself and to learn from experience" and conservatives were not capable of that, he said.(2)  African-Americans and female minorities in academia remain understandably worried that progressives are not really on the side of diversity when they think like that.  Substituting virtually any demographic in that sentiment shows how dangerous it is.

Yet the most frequent claim of progressives who are the front line in the culture war is that being smarter leads to shifting left and that was also not found to be true. Education mattered little in the distrust by conservatives.  On the contrary, distrust rose as education did, the opposite of what happens in liberals. Basically, conservatives get more skeptical as they learn more while liberals get less. Don't like that spin?  Well, you now see the problem when the left does it.

Conservatives are not anti-science, they are anti-scientist. And only toward some scientists who seem to put politics ahead of reason.

Gauchat does not exonerate the left entirely, he just couches a mild qualifier in language designed to exonerate them. "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."

See?  It's not true, it is just the way they are perceived.  Again, this applies specifically to climate change, which is hyper-politicized.

What explains it?  

Sociology asks questions and gathers results, it does not provide answers, so finding one reason why conservatives distrust scientists more than they once did is not a reasonable task.  Gauchat makes the attempt, but it is unconvincing - namely that as the identification of conservatism changed, politicians changed to match that. It's the tired 'elites matter most' argument but it doesn't work because 'elites' among progressives are always invoking Frankenfood and anti-GMO rhetoric.  The current President of the United States correlated vaccines to autism during his 2008 campaign. If elite anti-science sentiment was all that counted the left would distrust science as much as the right.

Well, it turns out they do - but only the science they disagree with.  So Union of Concerned Scientists will say to trust scientists when it comes to global warming but that scientists are out to kill us when it comes to food.  What is the glaring difference?  Climate scientists are primarily left-wing.

Science sentiment changes over time, of course.  From World War II until the 1980s, the left wing and certainly loud progressives distrusted science because it was gradually becoming controlled by government funding and therefore was no longer independent - the same reason they like it more now.  Everyone likes people that are on their side. It could easily shift again, though Bush and a Republican Congress doubled funding for the NIH and that didn't endear them to biologists when they took a moral/ethical stand regarding limitations on human embryonic stem cell research.

History aside, the risk today is obvious; there is not going to be a long-term bulletproof majority in Congress or in society. Not now, not ever. If a large group of people cannot trust in the political neutrality of scientists,  they won't trust in the political neutrality of the evidence scientists produce. And that isn't good for any of us.


Citation: Gordon Gauchat, 'Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010', American Sociological Review 77(2) 167–187
DOI: 10.1177/000312241243822

(1) Stanley Rothman, S. Robert Lichter, and Neil Nevitte (2005) "Fundamentals and Fundamentalists: A Reply to Ames et al.," The Forum: Vol. 3: No. 2, Article 8. 

(2) KC Johnson, 'Proving the Critics' Case', Inside Higher Ed August 26, 2005