Social Facts: Gauchat (2012) “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere”

(Note: This style of post is inspired by Kevin Bryan’s discussions of econ papers on his excellent blog, A Fine Theorem.)

Gauchat (2012, American Sociological Review, available here for free) looks at the politicization of public trust in science in the United States, 1974-2010. Gauchat’s two main findings are straightforward but substantively important: 1. Growing conservative distrust in science, and 2. Growing distrust in science particularly among the most educated conservatives.

In 1974, conservatives had the highest trust in science by a small margin (with about 50% responding that they had a “great deal” of trust in science in the General Social Survey). By 2008, conservatives have the lowest trust in science, with a bit less than 40% reporting a great deal of trust in science. The overall time trend of decreasing trust in science is mostly attributable to this shift: liberals and moderates have very little change in their reported trust in science (though moderates reported a relatively low level of trust throughout, around 40%).

The growing conservative distrust in science, in turn, can be explained by a change in how educated conservatives perceive science. This finding adds more weight to the literature in science studies that disputes the “deficit model” of public (mis)understanding of science – the idea that people don’t trust science simply because they don’t have enough information. As Gauchat summarizes:

In essence, this study greatly complicates claims of the deficit model, which predicts that individuals with higher levels of education will possess greater trust in science, by showing that educated conservatives uniquely experienced the decline in trust. (182)

In analyses discussed but not presented in the article, Gauchat draws on the 2006 and 2008 supplementary science questions to show that contemporary conservatives are “far more likely to define science as knowledge that should conform to common sense and religious tradition” (182) as opposed to an abstract method (something done according to certain rules) or a cultural location (something done by a certain kind of people).

I like this paper a lot, as it extends a series of findings that I had thought were specific to the climate change debate on the growing politicization of belief that climate change is happening, is a thread, and is caused by human activity (e.g. McCright and Dunlap, and Hamilton). Gauchat shows that this finding generalizes to the broader notion of trust in science, and shows that it is indeed new, as is the interaction effect with education. I wonder if the discourse around “liberal academia” and such is cause and/or consequence of this growing distrust in science per se among educated conservatives. If the intellectual movements on the right have made bashing science a priority, then conservatives no longer have much reason to support academia as a whole, even the parts that were previously seen as apolitical.

EDIT: The Onion has slightly pithier coverage of the article here. “Maybe science should go back to bringing us less of the AIDS and climate change, and more of the polio vaccines and atom bombs.”

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