Conservatives trust science less than ever

Posted by Kate Taylor

Political conservatives are increasingly defining themselves as 'anti-science', with the number of Republicans saying they trust science having fallen dramatically over the last 25 years.

Back in 1974, say researchers from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, nearly half of conservatives said they trusted science - a higher proportion than for self-described moderates and liberals. By 2010, though, the figure had dropped to a third.

"You can see this distrust in science among conservatives reflected in the current Republican primary campaign," says post-doctoral fellow Simon Gauchat.

"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."

Relying on the 1974-2010 data from the General Social Survey, the study found that people who self-identified as conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, and ended the period with the lowest.

A similar trend was seen in regular churchgoers, who also showed a deline in trust over the survey period. By contrast, in previous surveys, religious people in Europe have shown themselves just as willing as the non-religious to believe in scientific evidence.

"This study shows that the public trust in science has not declined since the mid-1970s except among self-identified conservatives and among those who frequently attend church," says Gauchat.

"It also provides evidence that, in the United States, there is a tension between religion and science in some contexts. This tension is evident in public controversies such as that over the teaching of evolution."

For many, a refusal to believe in science seems to function as a badge of honor, a way of identifying with a group.

"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," says Gauchat.

"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.'"

The finding raises questions about a future where actual evidence is seen as largely irrelevant. And how much further could it go? After all, science hasn't just come up with evolution and climate theory.

Might conservatives take against the theory of gravitation, too, and start jumping off cliffs? Natural selection in action...