March 29, 2012 at 2:41 AM ET
An analysis of 36 years' worth of polling data indicates that confidence in science as an institution has steadily declined among Americans who consider themselves conservatives, while confidence levels have been at steadier levels for other ideological groups.
The study, published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, provides fresh ammunition for those who complain that conservative views on issues such as climate change are at odds with the scientific consensus.
"You can see this distrust in science among conservatives reflected in the current Republican primary campaign," Gordon Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Sheps Center for Health Services Research, said in a news release from the American Sociological Association. "When people want to define themselves as conservatives relative to moderates and liberals, you often hear them raising questions about the validity of global warming and evolution, and talking about how 'intellectual elites' and scientists don't necessarily have the whole truth."
It's not clear how much impact Gauchat's study will have on the debate over politics and science: Liberals are likely to see it as confirmation of what they already believe, while conservatives who are skeptical about the scientific elite are likely to greet these scientific claims with skepticism as well.
But the analysis represents a serious effort to flesh out political attitudes toward science with real data. Gauchat bases his findings on a statistical analysis of survey results from the General Social Survey, a long-running project that has weighed public confidence in social institutions since 1974. The GSS has been conducted annually or semiannually by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, or NORC, with an annual average of 1,500 Americans taking part.
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.
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."
Gauchat's findings run counter to at least one liberal stereotype about conservatives: that right-wingers are distrustful of scientists because they have less education. The figures do support a link between more education and more trust in science, but they also show that more highly educated conservatives are, if anything, more distrustful.
That trend fits best with the concept that "educated or high-information conservatives will hold hyper-opinions about science, because they have a more sophisticated grasp about what types of knowledge will conform with or contradict their ideological positions, and they will prefer to believe what supports their ideology," Gauchat wrote.
So what does this mean for the role of science in setting national policy? "In a political climate in which all sides do not share a basic trust in science, scientific evidence no longer is viewed as a politically neutral factor in judging whether a public policy is good or bad," Gauchat said. Heightened distrust could turn young people away from careers in science and engineering, and in the long run, that could hurt America's standing in a global economy that is becoming increasingly competitive on the technological front.
'The Republican Brain'
Gauchat took on this project to assess the claims made by science journalist Chris Mooney in his 2005 book, "The Republican War on Science" — and Mooney, who reviewed the paper before publication, said the findings confirmed those claims.
"It's certainly gratifying to see this study come out," Mooney told me. "I appreciate that the author actually undertook to use data. I'm glad I wasn't just whistling in the wind when it came to Republicans and science."
Now Mooney is coming out with another book, titled "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don't Believe in Science."
"In the book, I'm really careful to say there's what we call 'nature' and what we call 'nurture,' and you can't explain anything in politics without both of them," he said. "Whenever you see change in a group over time, that's probably 'nurture.'"
Mooney said the factors Gauchat mentioned would fit in the nurture category, along with the GOP's "Southern strategy" to bring what were once traditionally Democratic states into the Republican fold. "This is tapping into the power of nurture, but I also say we've ignored nature for too long," he said.
In "The Republican Brain," Mooney weaves his case for "nature" in politics from a variety of studies tracing the brain-based differences between liberal and conservative views of reality. (You'll find some of them by following the links below.)
"You're starting to find things about fixity of belief, desire to have certainty, and you see that these things are also associated with conservatism," he said. "These traits are content-neutral. You could take today's conservatives, stick them in [Soviet] Russia, and they can be very pro-science."
Mooney said people may be born with brains that predispose them either to liberal-leaning traits such as "openness to experience," or conservative-leaning traits such as "conscientiousness."
"The research suggests that people are born with a predisposition, but it's only a predisposition," Mooney said. "'Just born that way' is a phrase that makes me uncomfortable, because it implies some sort of hard wiring. Genes aren't destiny."
If you haven't figured it out by now, Mooney considers himself a liberal, and he's doubtful that any amount of "nurture" could turn him into a conservative. But he said liberals could learn a lot from conservatives, specifically about loyalty to leaders and to their cause. Like conservatives, some liberals may find themselves at odds with the scientific consensus on some issues. Which issues, specifically? Mooney pointed to hard-line stands against hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking), nuclear power, childhood vaccination and genetically modified organisms.
"Liberals have wanted to believe that if the system were just fair, then everybody would agree with us," he said. "That's a liberal fantasy. Actually, it turns out that liberalism is not the only way of being. ... Liberals should realize that not everybody's like them, and liberals' instincts in politics could be exactly what you don't want to do."
I'm imagining there's a lot to disagree with here, whether you're a liberal or a conservative. Good thing there's a comment section below. To paraphrase Monty Python, this is the right room for an argument.
More about politics and science:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.