29 March 2012

A Loss of Trust in Institutions of Science Among US Conservatives

A new paper is out today in the American Sociological Review (here by subscription) by Gordon Gauchat titled "Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010." Here is the abstract:
This study explores time trends in public trust in science in the United States from 1974 to 2010. More precisely, I test Mooney’s (2005) claim that conservatives in the United States have become increasingly distrustful of science. Using data from the 1974 to 2010 General Social Survey, I examine group differences in trust in science and group-specific change in these attitudes over time. Results show that group differences in trust in science are largely stable over the period, except for respondents identifying as conservative. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest. The patterns for science are also unique when compared to public trust in other secular institutions. Results show enduring differences in trust in science by social class, ethnicity, gender, church attendance, and region. I explore the implications of these findings, specifically, the potential for political divisions to emerge over the cultural authority of science and the social role of experts in the formation of public policy.
The paper explores public trust in institutions of science and looks at differences among groups who self-identify into different political categories.  The paper explores three hypotheses that exist in the academic literature related to the relationship of the public and scientific institutions.  They are:
  • "The cultural ascendency thesis predicts a uniform increase in public trust in science across all social groups. In other words, the special congruence of science and modern institutions increases the need for scientific knowledge and public education, which, in turn, encourages public trust in science"
  • "By contrast, scholars have predicted a uniform decline in public trust across all social groups, or the alienation thesis. This decline in public trust is associated with a cultural backlash against technocratic authority and science’s inability to defend itself against its own standards in public discourse"
  • "Finally, the politicization thesis predicts that ideological conservatives will experience group-specific declines in trust in science over time. Conservatives’ distrust is attributable to the political philosophy and intellectual culture accompanying the [new right] and the increased connection between scientific knowledge and regulatory regimes in the United States, the latter of which conservatives generally oppose."
 Here is the bottom line of the paper's empirical analysis:
To summarize the main empirical findings, this study shows that public trust in science has not declined since the 1970s except among conservatives and those who frequently attend church. Accordingly, the analysis provides negligible evidence for the cultural ascendency thesis, which suggests that trust in science will increase over time. Nor do results support the alienation thesis that predicts a uniform decline in public trust in science. In general, results are consistent with claims of the politicization thesis and show that conservatives experienced long-term group-specific declines rather than an abrupt cultural break. Additionally, one of the key findings here involves the relationship between education and trust in science. In essence, this study greatly complicates claims of the deficit model, which predicts that individuals with higher levels of education will possess greater trust in science...
These conclusions mirror more broadly the dynamics that I discuss in The Climate Fix that have occurred in the case of climate change -- the perspectives of Democrats and Republicans have diverged dramatically on the issue as it has become more politicized. And just as in the case of climate change, the paper's conclusions are not about science per se, but about public views of the legitimacy of science institutions in politics:
...conservatives’ unfavorable attitudes are most acute in relation to government funding of science and the use of scientific knowledge to influence social policy (see Gauchat 2010). Conservatives thus appear especially averse to regulatory science, defined here as the mutual dependence of organized science and government policy. . .

Paradoxically, it is possible that science’s cultural authority engendered politicization, particularly its role in policy formation and regulation of private interests. This assumes that science’s cultural authority has grown—especially among legal, political, and economic institutions (see Jasanoff 2004)—to the point that the scientific community inevitably becomes entangled in polarized conflicts (e.g., economic growth versus environmental sustainability).

As a result, science is “increasingly seen as being politicized and not disinterested” (Yearley 2005:121). Although public distrust in science may not portend systemic crisis, social scientists, policymakers, and scientific organizations should remain concerned about public perceptions.
The paper provides a nice set of empirical evidence to support the arguments that have been made by Dan Sarewitz (and others) about the consequences of the politicization of the scientific community.  Writing in Slate last year, Sarewitz explained the basic dynamics at play here using the case of climate change:
Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence—or causation? Now this would be a good case for Mythbusters.
During the Bush administration, Democrats discovered that they could score political points by accusing Bush of being anti-science. In the process, they seem to have convinced themselves that they are the keepers of the Enlightenment spirit, and that those who disagree with them on issues like climate change are fundamentally irrational. Meanwhile, many Republicans have come to believe that mainstream science is corrupted by ideology and amounts to no more than politics by another name. Attracted to fringe scientists like the small and vocal group of climate skeptics, Republicans appear to be alienated from a mainstream scientific community that by and large doesn't share their political beliefs. The climate debacle is only the most conspicuous example of these debilitating tendencies, which play out in issues as diverse as nuclear waste disposal, protection of endangered species, and regulation of pharmaceuticals.
Sarewitz suggested as remedy that scientific institutions need more Republican scientists. That point is worth debating, but what is not debatable is that "the issue here is legitimacy."

What also seems clear is that continued efforts to use science as a "wedge issue" (by scientists, advocates and politicians alike) will not further the restoration of trust in scientific institutions among conservatives, and likely will have the opposite effect. And without trust from across the political spectrum, science will continue to be politicized as politics by other means, diminishing its ability to serve as an important input to policy debates.

It is therefore in the scientific community's best interests to address the declining trust among conservatives. The answer does not lie in trying to turn conservatives into liberals or otherwise vanquishing them from the political landscape as some in the science wars seem to think is possible. As conservatives are going to be a part of the social landscape for a long time, their trust in scientific institutions is important. How to rebuild that trust should be front and center in public institutions of science.