Science & Technology

Why Don't Conservatives Trust Scientists Like They Used To? Are They Just Anti-Evolutionary, Anti-Global Warming Jag-Offs or Could There Be Other Explanations?


From Instapundit comes a quick summary of the latest sign that conservatives (self-defined in this instance) are just totally like the neanderthals they probably don't really believe ever existed given their wariness about evolution and all that jazz:

CONFIDENCE IN SCIENCE BY CONSERVATIVES HAS DECLINED SINCE 1974: "That represents a dramatic shift for conservatives, who in 1974 were more likely than liberals or moderates (all categories based on self-identification) to express confidence in science. While the confidence levels of other groups in science have been relatively stable, the conservative drop now means that group is the least likely to have confidence in science."

The reason is the use of science as an argument-from-authority for bigger government. If scientists want more trust, perhaps they should try not to be tools.

"If scientists want more trust, perhaps they should try not to be tools." Hmm. I think he may be on to something there.

The link in the InstaP gloss above goes to a story in the excellent Inside Higher Ed (a must-read for anyone interested in post-secondary education issues, IMO). Here's the lede of the piece:

Just over 34 percent of conservatives had confidence in science as an institution in 2010, representing a long-term decline from 48 percent in 1974, according to a paper being published today in American Sociological Review.

The paper in ASR draws on attitudes as reflected in the General Social Survey, a "long-term study asking people various demographic and self-identification questions (including political identity) and for their attitudes on certain groups, including confidence in certain institutions." The author of the paper, a post-doc at University of North Carolina, says:

Less-educated conservatives didn't change their attitudes about science in recent decades. It is better-educated conservatives who have done so, the paper says.

In the paper, Gauchat calls this a "key finding," in part because it challenges "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."

I haven't read the paper in question but here is the question from the General Social Survey on which its "key finding" apparently is based:

166. I am going to name some institutions in this country. Some people have complete confidence in the people running these institutions. Suppose these people are at one end of the scale at point number 1. Other people have no confidence at all in teh people running these institutions. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. Where would you place yourself on this scale for: k. Scientific community?

Note the wording of the question, which stresses attitudes toward "the people running these institutions." It doesn't ask whether you think science has changed. It's specifically asking about the folks wearing literal and figurative lab coats who are running joints like the National Science Foundation, testifying before Congress, appearing on The Tonight Show while forecasting famine up the ying-yang and praising coercive population control measures, and who often end up being totally wrong about everything.

If it's "educated conservatives" who have lost faith in scientists, a fully plausible possible explanation is simply that they recognize what libertarians and crypto-libertarians ranging from Thomas Szasz to Michel Foucault have been pointing out since the early 1960s in works starting with The Myth of Mental Illness and The Birth of the Clinic: That much if not all of what passes for dispassionate scientific discourse is hugely implicated in power struggles that have little or nothing to do with disinterested, true-for-all-times-and-all-places Truths with capital Ts.

I do not doubt that conservatives are, in their heart of hearts, jugheaded buffoons who simply want to will away inconvenient truths by plugging their ears and covering their eyes when faced with cognitive dissonance. I'm confident that they argue from authority when it serves their purpose and then are muy skeptical when confronted with authority they don't like. I'm metaphysically certain that many are repllent and repulsive and altogether awful and that they tend to love dogs and cats in the abstract more than they do their fellow human beings in the flesh. In all this, I suspect, they are incredibly similar to liberals and, alas, libertarians, and everyone else.

And that to the extent conservatives have less and less confidence over time in "the people running these institutions" of science, government, education, business, law, medicine, you name it, they are absolutely to be looked upon as role models.

For the curious, here's data from Gallup on American confidence in institutions, 2011 vs. historical averages since 1973. You'll note that the vast majority of institutions are taking it on the chin for reasons that stem not from rampant paranoia (due to fluoride in the goddamned water supply I bet or maybe mercury in vaccines or incontrovertible evidence that J. Edgar Hoover wore cocktail dresses while taking dictation from LBJ on the crapper or simply that schools really don't do a very good job) but from the growing willingness of more and more Americans to challenge the authority of priests, coaches, lawyers, stockbrokers, ad men, doctors, and Indian chiefs.

Suggested soundtrack: The Godfathers' "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," featuring the line "Thing's ain't what they used to be/Cary Grant's on LSD."