While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummetted to its lowest level since 1974.
Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.
“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”
Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974.
Here’s the chart that tracks the change in conservatives, liberals and moderates.
Gauchat’s findings are published in the April issue (pdf) of the American Sociological Review.
Of course the big question here is what happened to provoke this split among Americans who pretty much agreed on how much trust they put in science in 1974?
Two of the three hypothesis put forth by Gauchat would have trust in science decline or ascend uniformly. But the third, which is the one Gauchat puts his money on, is the “politicization thesis.”
“Gauchat says conservatives’ rebellion against the ‘elite’ and the shifting role of science in society is to blame for the decline. He argues that the conservative minority has rebelled against science in the same way it has against media and higher education.
“‘It kind of began with the loss of Barry Goldwater and the construction of Fox News and all these [conservative] think tanks. The perception among conservatives is that they’re at a disadvantage, a minority,’ he says. ‘It’s not surprising that the conservative subculture would challenge what’s viewed as the dominant knowledge production groups in society — science and the media.’
Gauchat also argues that science changed over time to become the means of answering questions that religion used to be charged with.
We’re talking to Gauchat later on today. We’ll update this post with a little more detail on his thoughts and findings.