Science and Politics

The tension between science, religion and politics that began several millennia ago continues unabated.

[div class=attrib]From ars technica:[end-div]

In the US, science has become a bit of a political punching bag, with a number of presidential candidates accusing climatologists of fraud, even as state legislators seek to inject phony controversies into science classrooms. It’s enough to make one long for the good old days when science was universally respected. But did those days ever actually exist?

A new look at decades of survey data suggests that there was never a time when science was universally respected, but one political group in particular—conservative voters—has seen its confidence in science decline dramatically over the last 30 years.

The researcher behind the new work, North Carolina’s Gordon Gauchat, figures there are three potential trajectories for the public’s view of science. One possibility is that the public, appreciating the benefits of the technological advances that science has helped to provide, would show a general increase in its affinity for science. An alternative prospect is that this process will inevitably peak, either because there are limits to how admired a field can be, or because a more general discomfort with modernity spills over to a field that helped bring it about.

The last prospect Gauchat considers is that there has been a change in views about science among a subset of the population. He cites previous research that suggests some view the role of science as having changed from one where it enhances productivity and living standards to one where it’s the primary justification for regulatory policies. “Science has always been politicized,” Gauchat writes. “What remains unclear is how political orientations shape public trust in science.”

To figure out which of these trends might apply, he turned to the General Social Survey, which has been gathering information on the US public’s views since 1972. During that time, the survey consistently contained a series of questions about confidence in US institutions, including the scientific community. The answers are divided pretty crudely—”a great deal,” “only some,” and “hardly any”—but they do provide a window into the public’s views on science. (In fact, “hardly any” was the choice of less than 7 percent of the respondents, so Gauchat simply lumped it in with “only some” for his analysis.)

The data showed a few general trends. For much of the study period, moderates actually had the lowest levels of confidence in science, with liberals typically having the highest; the levels of trust for both these groups were fairly steady across the 34 years of data. Conservatives were the odd one out. At the very start of the survey in 1974, they actually had the highest confidence in scientific institutions. By the 1980s, however, they had dropped so that they had significantly less trust than liberals did; in recent years, they’ve become the least trusting of science of any political affiliation.

Examining other demographic trends, Gauchat noted that the only other group to see a significant decline over time is regular churchgoers. Crunching the data, he states, indicates that “The growing force of the religious right in the conservative movement is a chief factor contributing to conservatives’ distrust in science.” This decline in trust occurred even among those who had college or graduate degrees, despite the fact that advanced education typically correlated with enhanced trust in science.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump:[end-div]