Expert Commentary

The politicization of science: A study of public trust in the United States, 1974-2010

2012 study in the American Sociological Review on trends relating to partisan affiliation and trust in science.

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 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, Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, analyzed more than 30,500 responses to the General Social Survey (GSS), which captures opinions on confidence in public institutions and political affiliations, over the period 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

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