Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010
The uses of science and its policy implications have always been filtered through American politics, but survey research has noted what some call an increasing “crisis of trust” in the core findings of science itself.
A 2012 study from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill published in the American Sociological Review, “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010,” examined the relationship between conservative, moderate and liberal political orientations and trust in science. The researcher analyzed more than 30,500 responses to the General Social Survey (GSS), which captures opinions on confidence in public institutions and political affiliations, from 1974 to 2010.
Key study findings include:
- Overall trust in science declined during the study period. Political conservatives showed the highest level of trust in science of any ideological group in 1974, but that level declined steadily over the past 26 years to the lowest of all political groups by 2010. “Conservatives experienced long-term group-specific declines [in trust] over time rather than an abrupt cultural break.”
- While conservatives’ trust levels varied according to level of education, the study’s findings “imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.”
- Moderates’ trust in science peaked in 1974, sank to its lowest level in 1980 and has since stabilized somewhere in between. Moderates had the lowest levels of trust among ideological groups for much of the study period until conservatives’ levels further plummeted.
- Liberals’ levels of trust in science have remained relatively consistent over the past 26 years; this cohort “ended the period with the highest levels of trust among ideological groups…. A large gap opens up between conservatives and liberals after the 1980s.”
- Among those reporting lower levels of trust in science were underprivileged groups, women, Southerners, those who attend church services regularly, and those with less education and with lower income.
- “Notably, both moderates and conservatives experienced group-specific increases in their trust in political institutions during the Bush presidency, and these shifts represented abrupt breaks rather than gradual changes. One explanation for these findings can be found in conservatives’ electoral successes during this period, which increased the New Right’s political influence in the federal government and made political institutions more palatable to conservatives.”
The researcher concluded that the findings “suggest that scientific literacy and education are unlikely to have uniform effects on various publics, especially when ideology and identity intervene to create social ontologies in opposition to established cultures of knowledge.”
In related research, a 2012 study in the journal Climatic Change, “Shifting Public Opinion on Climate Change: An Empirical Assessment of Factors Influencing Concern over Climate Change in the U.S., 2002-2010,” found that the most significant driver of public opinion on climate change was the battle between partisan elites over the issue. In addition, a 2011 study in the Journal of Risk Research, “Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus,” notes that citizens consistently assume ideas about scientific consensus that conform to their underlying cultural predispositions.
Tags: science, global warming, climate politics
Read the study-related Los Angeles Times article titled "Conservatives' Trust in Science Has Declined Sharply."
- What key points and issues in the article and study should reporters be familiar with as they cover issues relating to political outlook and trust in science?
- What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
- Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
- What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
- How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.
Newswriting and digital reporting assignments
- Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
- Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
- Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
- Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.
Class discussion questions
- What is the study’s most important finding?
- Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
- What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
- How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
- How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
- What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?