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A recent paper published in the American Sociological Review concluded that over the period of 1974 to 2010 conservatives have become increasingly distrustful toward science.  This study based its findings off of data from the General Social Survey, a study issued to Americans annually until 1994, and biannually since then.

Other groups identifying with the labels “moderate” and “liberal” were reported to have remained consistent in their public trust for the discipline. Though a declining conservative trust in science may seem innocuous, I argue that it is indicative of a severe cognitive disconnect that allows ideological beliefs to take precedence over fact in situations where they conflict.

The implications of such a mindset have been incredibly damaging to our capacity to produce globally competitive scientists, and to the education of generations of youth who have been misled by their unreasonably skeptical parents.  However, I suspect that few are surprised by the findings of this report.  Consider the following generalizations:

  • Vaccination has been a target of criticism of social conservatives lately, despite its record of preventing hundreds of millions of deaths from ghastly diseases worldwide.  This is evidenced by the negative reaction of social conservatives to Rick Perry’s support of an HPV vaccine, or the praise Michele Bachmann received from conservatives when she linked a vaccine to mental retardation.​​

  • As of 2010 40% of Americans believe that God created humans within the last 10,000 years.  A large percent of them believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed.  Many of these Americans likely do not vote for the Democratic candidate. [Brief aside: it is no coincidence that when broken down into subcategories “those who attend church” were the only other group to exhibit a steady decline in trust for science since 1974, thus supporting the ideology over fact hypothesis.]

  • Generally speaking, conservatives are more likely to be outspoken critics of renewable energy.

  • Generally speaking, those who are skeptical of human induced climate change are of conservative ideology.  They share the belief that adding Gigatons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere (gas that traps heat in our planet) is not linked to a rise in global temperature, acidified oceans, and large melting continents of ice.

It is no laughing matter that conservatives are increasingly distrustful of the discipline that is the vehicle to paramount improvements in our quality of life.  Scientific innovation is historically interwoven with and inseparable from societal progress. But the most disturbing aspect of this report is that educated conservatives also showed declining trust in science, suggesting that conservative ideology has been uncompromising in this regard over the past four decades, even in the face of scientific progress and quality of life improvement.  But what are the driving forces behind this non sequitur?

At the heart of this disconnect is a conservative trend to be steadfast about one’s beliefs.  An example of such pressure is the daily barrage of media personalities that dissuade their audiences from compromise.  In today’s political climate, the word “compromise” is synonymous with weakness.  Though this phenomenon is true of all political parties, it is particularly widespread in the modern Republican Party.

The de-evolution of our discourse into a battle of absolute rights and wrongs – leaving a vacuum of compromise and concession in the middle – has only reinforced the habits of those who trust faith over fact, and ideology over scientific data.   The dangers in this cognitive process unmask themselves in the following critical difference: in scientific discourse, criticisms of an idea are encouraged and diligently incorporated in order to create an improved, more logical hypothesis. In our political climate, one must be unwavering in the face of criticism, or otherwise face charges of being spineless and treasonous.

Unfortunately, matters of governance and human well-being, the overarching theme of our political discourse, are philosophical topics to which certainty is quite detrimental.  Openness to criticism and application of the scientific method are the most logical ways for our species to co-exist in a pluralistic democracy.  Being critical of science is acceptable.  Distrusting science is irresponsible and only serves to breed ignorance and intolerance to what are typically revolutionizing ideas.

Published in 4/4/2012 

By Brian T. Murphy

A recent study shows that a conservative war on science may not be a myth after all. 

A Conservative War On Science?

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