Well-informed conservatives realize that much of what passes for science today is deeply compromised
The better educated you are, the more likely you are to put your trust in science, or so says what scientists call the “knowledge deficit model” of scientific literacy. So why do conservatives become more and more skeptical of the scientific establishment on issues such as global warming as they become more and more educated? And why do conservatives, who once held science in very high regard, now hold it in relatively poor odour?
This rising distrust among better-educated conservatives “is a significant finding and the opposite of what many might expect,” said Gordon Gauchat, author of a study published last week
in the American Sociological Review that portrays educated conservatives somewhat as a species of their own. Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, offers several possible explanations for what makes conservatives tick in his study, Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.
Unlike uneducated, ill-informed conservatives who are incapable of reconciling scientific truths with their ideology, Gauchat theorizes, “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.” Well-educated conservatives have boosters in this task, too, as the Los Angeles Times explained in an approving editorial that elaborated Gauchat’s views: “Right-wing think-tanks, funded by corporate interests to undermine the scientific consensus on such expensive-to-fix phenomena as climate change, have proliferated, as have conservative cable-TV networks, blogs and radio talk shows. In general, these outlets are talking to a well-educated audience. And they’re presenting a very one-sided view of scientific issues.”
Gauchat speculates that conservatives resent science-based government regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency for curbing the free-market ideology that conservatives cling to. He speculates that the religious right and moral issues such as stem cell research play a role. He finds significance in church attendance. The only possibility that Gauchat seems not to have considered is that these well-informed conservatives are not anti-science at all but are instead aware — as Gauchat and other pundits are not — that much of what passes for science today is deeply compromised. Scientists who answer to the political needs of regulatory agencies have a habit of following the exigencies of their political masters rather than scientific rigour. Well-educated conservatives are aware of the politicization of the climate-change debate and understand that a vast number of prestigious scientists, likely the majority of top scientists, are climate-change skeptics.
Gauchat in his study strives mightily to disentangle his subsets of data and explain the mysteries of conservative thinking. Yet had he not been obsessively preoccupied with conservatives in what advertises itself as a study of the broad public’s trust in science, he could have stepped back from his data and seen it for what it actually shows. The conservatives aren’t the oddity; the true-believing liberals are.
In 1974, the starting point for the study, all political groups that he considered — liberals, moderates and conservatives — held science in high esteem, with conservatives the most enamoured of science of the three, followed closely by liberals and then moderates. It was the moderates, not the conservatives, who first became disillusioned with the scientific establishment, and the moderates remain relatively disillusioned today. After the moderates began their disillusionment, conservatives, too, began to question the science that the establishment was purveying. Today the conservatives are more disillusioned than even the moderates, but only by a small margin. These two groups started at about the same place in 1974 and they have today arrived at about the same place. Nothing especially noteworthy here.
The liberals, on the other hand, never stopped being enamoured by the scientific establishment, never took seriously the complaints of establishment critics, never themselves questioned the science that the establishment produced.
Gauchat himself never asked why the liberals seem relatively impervious to change over time — they are today at about the same place as they were in 1974 — and why the liberals more resemble the uneducated conservatives and moderates in his cohort, who have also been relatively resistant to change. That is a mystery worth delving into.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe
To see Gauchat’s study of attitudes towards science by liberals, moderates and conservatives, click here