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Conservative Trust Of Science At All Time Low, Study Confirms Chris Mooney Thesis

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"Conservative Trust Of Science At All Time Low, Study Confirms Chris Mooney Thesis"

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Looks like there has been a conservative war on science after all, just as Chris Mooney asserted in his 2005 bestseller.

A major new study sought to “test Mooney’s (2005) claim that conservatives in the United States have become increasingly distrustful of science.” The analysis of 1974 to 2010 data (PDF here) finds that support for science has remained relatively flat among liberals and moderates, while it has steadily declined among self-identified conservatives:

This politicization long precedes Al Gore’s 2006 movie. Extensive polling data simply doesn’t support that widely-held myth Gore polarized the debate (see “Exciting” Public Opinion Study Debunks Claim Al Gore Polarized the Climate Debate and here).  I’ve asked many leading experts on social science and public opinion — including Stanford’s Jon Krosnick, as well as McCright and Dunlap, authors of “The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s views of global warming, 2001–2010.″ They all agree the data don’t support this myth.

Let’s get back to this new study. Since it vindicates Mooney’s analysis, it seems only fair to reprint Mooney’s discussion of it from DeSmogBlog.

Conservatives versus Science: A New Scientific Validation of the Republican War on Science (and Republican Brain) Thesis

by Chris Mooney

For a while now, I’ve been aware of a powerful new paper that directly tests the central argument of my 2005 book The Republican War on Science—and also validates some key claims made in my new book, The Republican Brain. I’ve had to keep quiet about it until now; but at last, the study is out—though I’m not sure yet about a web link to it.

The research is by Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and published in the prestigious American Sociological Review. In the study, Gauchat uses a vast body of General Social Survey data to test three competing theses about the relationship between science and the U.S. public:

  1. The cultural ascendancy thesis or “deficit model” view, according to which better education and engagement with science lead all boats to rise, and citizens across the board become more trusting of scientists and their expertise;
  2. The alienation thesis, according to which modernity brings on distrust and disillusionment with science (call it the “spoiled brat” thesis if you’d like); and
  3. The politicization thesis—my thesis—according to which some cultural groups, aka conservatives, have a unique fallout with science for reasons tied up with the nature of modern American conservatism, such as its ideology, the growth of its think tank infrastructure, and so on.

The result? Well, Gauchat’s data show that the politicization thesis handily defeats all contenders. More specifically, he demonstrates that there was only really a decline in public trust in science among conservatives in the period from 1974 to 2010 (and among those with high church attendance, but these two things are obviously tightly interrelated).

And not just that.

Gauchat further validates the argument of The Republican War on Science by showing that the decline in trust in science was not linear. It occurred in association with two key “cultural break” points that, I argue in the book, heightened right wing science politicization: The election of Ronald Reagan, and then the election of George W. Bush.

This one figure from the paper really, really says it all [see figure above].

As you can see, conservatives go down, down, down in their trust in science over the period in question—which, of course, is also the period that thoroughly divided and polarized America.

And it’s not just these new findings that resound. Much of Gauchat’s data also validate key points from my new book The Republican Brain, which is in many ways my deeper elaboration of the arguments of the Republican War on Science.

First, Gauchat shows something I also highlight: Graduate degrees are now much more numerous among liberals, and the graduate education gap between left and right is widening. This factor—reflecting liberals’ greater Openness to scientific information and new ideas, as well as unending conservative attacks on academia (and recourse to ideological think tanks to take its place)—is a key structural force involved in driving conservatives away from science.

Second: Gauchat also captures, once again, the “smart idiot” effect: Conservatives becoming more factually wrong—or, in this case, more distrusting of science, which to me is basically the same thing—as their level of education advances. Here let me quote in full, because frankly, the finding can only be called highly disturbing:

…conservatives with high school degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and graduate degrees all experienced greater distrust in science over time and these declines are statistically significant. In addition, a comparison of predicted probabilities indicates that conservatives with college degrees decline more quickly than those with only a high school degree. These results are quite profound, because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.

The key question to pose, after reading Gauchat’s paper, is why this occurred. Clearly, The Republican War on Science’s politicization thesis is being strongly validated—a thesis that attributes the problem to the growth of a modern conservative movement, its need to appease its core interest groups and constituencies (corporate America, conservative Christians), its need to have its own alternative expertise and journalism (think tanks, Fox, Limbaugh), and so on.

But frankly, I don’t think this thesis goes far enough. That is the whole point of The Republican Brain, where I assert that we need a nature plus nurture account to understand why conservatives deny science and reality. And all of this stuff Gauchat is talking about is sociology—aka, “nurture.” It’s very real, undeniably so—but is it the whole story?

I doubt it. For instance, in their book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler have shown that as the “New Right” emerged in the U.S. in the wake of the cultural battles of the 1960s and 1970s, it mobilized strong forces of authoritarianism—e.g., psychological rigidity and closed-mindedness. In this era, driven by hot button “culture war” issues, authoritarians moved to the  right, leaving behind the Democratic Party, particularly in the South. These were the so-called “Reagan Democrats.”

I find it hard to believe that this trend is not also showing up in Gauchat’s data. If anything, the finding about church attendance kind of gives it away—in the U.S., authoritarians are often biblical fundamentalists.

Whatever the underlying causes, though, the punchline of the story that Gauchat tells—reaffirming the story I have told—is unmistakably grim. We now have a powerful linkage between a powerful political movement in the United States on the one hand, and the denial of science and reality on the other. This not only manifests itself every day in our dysfunctional political debates; it is a gigantic threat to the country’s future and its ability to cope with 21stcentury problems.

– Chris Mooney

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40 Responses to Conservative Trust Of Science At All Time Low, Study Confirms Chris Mooney Thesis

  1. denim says:

    I don’t recall Eisenhower being stupid, but he had compassion. Anyway, I think something like now has happened before. It is written in Isaiah chapter 29:13-14:
    “Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men: Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.” The Lord gives and the Lord takes away is an old saying likely base upon this.

  2. clays says:

    =============================================
    From the study:
    “The GSS asked respondents the following
    question: “I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence,
    only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them [the Scientific Community]?” Respondents were then given the
    choice to respond “a great deal,” “only some,”
    or “hardly any” (they could also choose
    “don’t know” or “refuse”)”
    ============================================

    Distrust in the people running an institution is not representative of distrust in Science itself.

    This is total garbage. Twisting and intentionally misrepresenting data to achieve a specific political goal. No wonder more and more have a distrust for the people running science institutions.

    • Scott says:

      The report section “Measurement of Trust in Science” explains why this question was examined and why it seems valid to use it as “a reasonable approximation of a favorable disposition toward science.” The question had been asked consistently for 36 years.

      Far from being total garbage, there are a number of interesting things to learn from the report’s data.

    • Scott says:

      The report section “Measurement of Trust in Science” explains why this question was examined and why it seems valid to use it as “a reasonable approximation of a favorable disposition toward science.” The question had been asked consistently for 36 years.

      Far from being total garbage, there are a number of interesting things to learn from the report’s data.

      • clays says:

        The report never ONCE gives a reasoning explaining why a question that specifically asks “as far as THE PEOPLE running these INSTITUTIONS are concerned” can even remotely be considered an approximation for peoples trust in measurement and observation to explain the world around them.
        The question is specifically designed to exclude peoples opinions about science as a means to explain the world and targets ONLY feelings about the INSTITUTIONS and PEOPLE running them.
        This is crap of the highest order. It’s this kind of dishonest turd bomb that makes conservatives distrust INSTITUTIONS and PEOPLE that excrete this garbage on a daily basis. All politics aside, this is seriously like 1984 newspeak type propaganda. A decent person would have trouble sleeping at night if they tried to peddle this joke of a study.

        But I’m sure Mr. Mooney has carved him self out a decent living with this stuff. He poops out bogus studies slathered in political undertones and motivations (isn’t science supposed to be blind?) and people pushing an ideology will keep giving him money. What a sleazily way to make a living.

        • Lara says:

          Bravo, usually this level of brutal honesty is missing in the comments on this blog.
          Please read some of Chris Mooney recent articles on “Truthiness” if you have the stomach for it. They are very illuminating as to the way his mind works.

        • Mike 22 says:

          Clay, why should conservatives have increasing distrust for our science institutions? What have they done in the last thirty years, besides provide civilization with a long list of modern miracles, starting with advanced medicine, and an ever more detailed understanding of this Earth? Where is there a reason for this distrust?

          • clays says:

            That’s an honest question, and I’m sure there are many answers.

            But that has nothing to do with representing a study about trust in INSTITUTIONS and PEOPLE as trust in measurements.

    • Tony says:

      The idea that you can separate an abstract idea like “Science” from the subset of humanity known as “Scientists” is what is ludicrous. It would be like saying “I don’t distrust ‘politics’, I just distrust politicians.” Anyone who heard you say that would know immediately that you were confused.

      The connection is quite clear. You’re simply ignoring it because it conflicts with your personal bias. Your responses provide an excellent case study supporting the conclusions of the paper.

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It is deeply disturbing to some of us outside the USA as well, ME

  4. SecularAnimist says:

    There is no mystery about the “underlying cause”.

    For the last few decades, so-called “conservatives” have been aggressively and relentlessly targeted with corporate-sponsored propaganda and brainwashing, through the so-called “right wing” media, which brands any science that threatens the profits of those corporations as “liberal” and therefore illegitimate.

    The “conservative distrust of science” didn’t just arise spontaneously from the grassroots, due to obscure and mysterious psycho-social causes.

    It is the result of many millions of dollars poured into corporate propaganda and brainwashing that has created a cult-for-hire of Ditto-Heads, who slavishly believe, say and do whatever the fake “right wing” media brands as “conservative”, and despise and hate whatever is branded “liberal”.

    Indeed, the only real content of the phony pseudo-ideology called “conservatism” in America today is “whatever Fox News says on any given day”.

    • Tim says:

      Exactly.

      What has changed in the last 35 years is the willingness of right-wing power brokers to demonize and discredit any institutions in society that challenge their power. Intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences have been a target of the right for a long time. When Wall Street Republicans decided to forge the grand coalition with Southern fundamentalists, they finally decided to shed any intellectual integrity they ever had. The only way the GOP can maintain electoral viability is to placate the religious extremists in that coalition… and once a college-educated “conservative” decides s/he is willing pander to people who claim that creationism (repackaged as “intelligent design” or not) is a scientifically legitimate side in a “controversy”, then anything in science is up for grabs as well. If your campaign contributors want “climate skepticism” – that’s what they’ll get. Without the fundamentalist bloc, the GOP has no constituency other that the rich, and 1% of the vote doesn’t win elections. Fossil fuel corporations want climate denial wrapped up as another ingredient in the anti-intellectual narrative being sold the the religious right, and that’s what they’ll get.

      • clays says:

        The report never ONCE gives a reasoning explaining why a question the specifically asks “as far as THE PEOPLE running these INSTITUTIONS are concerned” can even remotely be considered an approximation for peoples trust in measurement and observation to explain the world around them.
        The question is specifically designed to exclude peoples opinions about science as a means to explain the world and targets ONLY feelings about the INSTITUTIONS and PEOPLE running them.
        This is crap of the highest order. It’s this kind of dishonest turd bomb that makes conservatives distrust INSTITUTIONS and PEOPLE that excrete this garbage on a daily basis. All politics aside, this is seriously like 1984 newspeak type propaganda. A decent person would have trouble sleeping at night if they tried to peddle this joke of a study.
        But I’m sure Mr. Mooney has carved him self out a decent living with this stuff. He poops out bogus studies slathered in political undertones and motivations (isn’t science supposed to be blind?) and people pushing an ideology will keep giving him money. What a sleazily way to make a living.

        • Tim says:

          What a joke!

          Climare scientists’ research has been attacked for years as “a hoax”. The right can’t openly admit they don’t “trust in measurement and observation” – instead they spin ridiculous theories wherein the overwhelming majority of climate scientists are all part of a conspiracy to mislead the public in order to, what? Sacrifice their freedom and follow them into some kind of Bolshevik hell?

          If you’re selling conspiracy theories, then the question to ask is “as far as THE PEOPLE running these INSTITUTIONS are concerned” – obviously.

          Spare us the indignation.

          • clays says:

            so why do they call it a hoax? If conservatives really distrusted the ability of science to answer questions, why would they label the research a hoax and attack the credibility of the researchers?

            If they don’t trust science why aren’t they talking about the failure of measurements to actually measure things?

        • Pangolin says:

          It was so nice of you to show up in the comments thread and give everybody a prime example of conservative reality denial; complete with words typed in all-caps.

          It’s a shame that your objection makes no sense.

  5. Carl says:

    The real surprise is the “moderates”. They’re not part of the reality-based community either.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    This rings true to me, and we’re disturbed about it here in the US too, Merrelyn. Surf cable TV these days and you see our future predicted through Nostradamus and The Book of Revelation. When things heat up, the conservatives will believe that they knew it all along, and that it’s punishment for our sins.

    They’re right, actually, but don’t realize that the sins are the way we are living, and that it’s been orchestrated by psychopaths.

  7. Chris says:

    Something tells me Conservatives won’t trust this study :-)

  8. John Lemons says:

    Perhaps readers might consider the ideas examined by Oreskes and Conway in “Merchants of Doubt” that supports the hypothesis that conservatives began to wage war on science sometime in the late 1970s, when scientific information began to yield information on increased threats to human health and the environment from expanding and consumptive societies. Consequently, for those primarily concerned with promoting ideology of “free market capitalism” (as well as the “war” of such ideology with communism) science implied that free market capitalism could not be unfettered, rather, it had to be regulated. And this was anathema for such ideologues. Consequently, the most outspoken proponents of free market capitalism denied and fought against mitigating problems of acid precipitation, destruction of the ozone layer, health impacts of smoking, global climate change, and other issues.

    Dr. John Lemons
    Professor Emeritus of Biology and Environmental Science
    Department of Environmental Studies
    University of New England
    Biddeford, ME 04005
    USA

  9. clays says:

    The report never ONCE gives a reasoning explaining why a question the specifically asks “as far as THE PEOPLE running these INSTITUTIONS are concerned” can even remotely be considered an approximation for peoples trust in measurement and observation to explain the world around them.

    The question is specifically designed to exclude peoples opinions about science as a means to explain the world and targets ONLY feelings about the INSTITUTIONS and PEOPLE running them.

    This is crap of the highest order. It’s this kind of dishonest turd bomb that makes conservatives distrust INSTITUTIONS and PEOPLE that excrete this garbage on a daily basis. All politics aside, this is seriously like 1984 newspeak type propaganda. A decent person would have trouble sleeping at night if they tried to peddle this joke of a study.

    But I’m sure Mr. Mooney has carved him self out a decent living with this stuff. He poops out bogus studies slathered in political undertones and motivations (isn’t science supposed to be blind?) and people pushing an ideology will keep giving him money. What a sleazily way to make a living.

  10. I don’t know who “Clays” is, but I think his internal hard drive is malfunctioning. He keeps repeating himself.

  11. Spike says:

    Hell this is in a Sociology journal. I guess if you had to think of one group that right wing radicals trust less than scientists….

  12. Well, this does seem broadly consistent with attitudes I see expressed on TV and so forth. Certainly conservative commentators have had rough things to say about science. However, I am having trouble figuring out just what that “Trust in Science” parameter in the graph is and how it is calculated from the survey. I have looked through the PDF file referenced near the top of this post, but it doesn’t seem to be very clear on the subject, although the author himself mentions that this variable has limitations. A figure caption that just repeats the axis title is not much of an aid to understanding the figure (something I used to mention to students a lot). That is a lost opportunity to explain the variables. Does anybody have an explanation of how this was calculated? It might help my confidence in the study if I could just figure out the variables.

    By the way, I am not trying to say I know the study is wrong and certainly not trying to repeat the attitude expressed by “clays”. I just want to step back for a minute to try to understand what was measured.

    • clays says:

      I’m not saying the study itself is wrong. It’s a decent study into conservatives’ feelings towards scientific INSTITUTIONS. And I agree just from what I see. Conservatives distrust scientific institutions more than liberals.

      But then it’s presented, in the abstract and in Mooney’s representation of it as science as a means of understanding things. Like conservatives don’t trust thermometers anymore. That’s total horse crap. And anyone with a shred of reasoning capacity can see it.

      • Mike Roddy says:

        If conservatives don’t trust thermometers, how do you explain Anthony Watts’ “Temperature Stations Project” that, in spite of the evidence, imagines that simple measurements are part of a liberal plot? He has lots of followers, too.

        We’re tired of important decisions being made by idiots, supported by oil companies.

      • Robert says:

        One cannot disentangle “science” from the institutions. To the extent that science is a means of accumulating evidence-based knowledge about the world, science is “The Enterprise of Science,” wich comprises the people and institutions.

      • kermit says:

        I’d be interested in knowing why you think that conservatives don’t trust scientific institutions, and how they can do so but still “trust the science”.

        With climate change for example, does the typical conservative accept the mainstream science but still distrust the scientists doing the research? Or do they perhaps think the presented science is bogus or incompetent, and therefore the scientists are not to be trusted?

        A specific example would help me understand what you are objecting to in this study.

        • clays says:

          You can have trust in the scientific methods ability to explain the world around you, but not trust the people publishing scientific results.

  13. Peter says:

    Attempting to explain climate science/global warming to A conservative, T Party Member , Libertarian can be a frustrating and for the most part futile experience.

    They continue to deny all known scientific fact(s) and evidence. They pull out the same denier junk we are all so accustomed to.

    Their fanatical belief in the US Constitution (which they misinterpret) ‘Free Markets’ & a word they malign consistently; ‘freedom’ becomes a fanatical religious crusade against Scientists who they believe are trying to promote a ‘One World Government’. Talking to ‘these’ people is mostly impossible. I have given up.

    • Raul M. says:

      Has it changed so much from the earlier days that someone could go from being conservative to others to
      being a radical if shown that their wealth was I’ll gotten.

  14. Clays (online.wsj.com) and Lara,

    Did you notice that the study was done by Gordon Gauchat, not Chris Mooney? Oh, I guess you didn’t — you were too busy doing copypasta jobs and writing throwaway remarks to notice, eh?

    Joe Romm,

    But perhaps it’s not entirely their fault. Shouldn’t we focus more on what Gauchat is saying, and less on what Mooney is saying about, um, someone else’s work? Surely we should strive to be better than those who interpret interpretations…

    – frank

  15. Tom King says:

    Over the years I’ve had difficulty accepting that evolution could ever arc downward. I’ve listened as the biologists advise that evolution doesn’t necessarily favor the smart or the strong, but I resisted. (Actually I still do). There is no escaping this graph however, as it shows a decline in intellectual complexity among a significant subgroup. Even so, I somehow still believe that the solid squares are going to the eat the hollow square for lunch. If not physically, then at least economically, educationally, etc.

    • Mike Roddy says:

      Tom, if you study history, you will see many examples of sharp cognitive decline in societies.

      Greece and Egypt are the obvious ones, but also the United States and Germany.

      • Tom King says:

        Mike, I agree but with reservations. Every society requires a source of inspiration to advance. And when that source is consumed, the society must regress. Cut down the trees and the artists have nothing to draw, the athletes have nothing to climb, the ship designers have no material to build with, etc. But the genes of such a society are not damaged. In a sense, the creative genes go dormant and await a regeneration of resources.
        I’ve noticed that many of the best artists and most interesting people often come from cities with either beautiful buildings or landscapes. It seems to me that we have not yet learned to put a price on the inspirational value of what surrounds us. The conservatives are not just killing their Earthly environment, they are also destroying the intellectual environment that offers inspiration to the imagination. Thus, they will be superseded by those who keep their environments inspirational.

  16. Jay Alt says:

    The Oreskes / Conner book explains some of this.
    But there is a broader study of Conservative Think Tanks, 2008 -
    The Organization of Denial: Conservative Think Tanks and Environmental Scepticism

    That article was then expanded by the first author into a small, under-appreciated book. The topic is fully reviewed from a political science perspective. It is very insightful.

    Title: Environmental Skepticism.
    ISBN: 978-0-7546-7102-2
    ‘Environmental skepticism’ describes the viewpoint that major environmental problems are either unreal or unimportant. In other words, environmental skepticism holds that environmental problems, especially global ones, are inauthentic.

    Peter Jacques describes, both empirically and historically, how environmental skepticism has been organized by mostly US-based conservative think tanks as an anti-environmental counter-movement. This is the first book to analyze the importance of the US conservative counter-movement in world politics and its meaning for democratic and accountable deliberation, as well as its importance as a mal-adaptive project that hinders the world’s people to rise to the challenges of sustainability. Specific consideration is given to the threat of the counter-movement to marginalized people of the world and its philosophical implications through its commitment to a ‘deep anthropocentrism’.

  17. From Peru says:

    “support for science has remained relatively flat among liberals and moderates, while it has steadily declined among self-identified conservatives”

    What about socialists?

    In Europe and Latin America they win elections. How many socialists are out there in the USA, and how they view science?

  18. Eric Adler says:

    One thing to notice is the proportions are not all that different – 50% for liberals and about 38% for conservatives and moderates. The trust in science has gone down for conservatives, but not by that much.

    The difference of opinion on global warming between Democrats and Republicans is 77% versus 43%, a much bigger difference.

    The political implications of acceptance of global warming creates the cognitive dissonance that causes distrust of climate science in particular. What seems to have happened is that distrust of climate science has spilled over among some conservatives into a distrust of the scientific community in general that is reflected in the Gauchat’s survey.