The scary thing isn’t just that conservatives reject science

A new study links the rejection of science with political party, and the correlation that turned up should surprise no one. Chris Mooney writing at DeSmogBlog looks at the results:

(DSB) — Gauchat further validates the argument of The Republican War on Science by showing that the decline in trust in science was not linear. It occurred in association with two key “cultural break” points that, I argue in the book, heightened right wing science politicization: The election of Ronald Reagan, and then the election of George W. Bush. .. Gauchat also captures, once again, the “smart idiot” effect: Conservatives becoming more factually wrong—or, in this case, more distrusting of science, which to me is basically the same thing—as their level of education advances.

The first part is nothing new, but that second graf is something there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about.

The data, and Mooney’s own work in his new book The Republican Brain, suggests that conservative rejection of science grows more resolute the more educated they are! It’s as if those with far right leanings utilize the greater scientific awareness and improved critical thinking skills education ostensibly provides to more effectively dismiss reality and/or encourage their fellow conservatives to follow suit.

What might explain that? It makes sense that there could be both a cultural and physiological basis. Humans are capable of believing bizarre things, this entire blog network was founded to combat the most pervasive of those irrational beliefs, religion. The fact is our brains are not lie detectors, they are survival engines, selected and crafted by evolution by factors having nothing to do with our opinion on the scientific consensus on evolutionary biology or climate change. Take that ancient, plastic brain and run it through a cultural wringer, and you just might end up with a subculture where rejecting science is a sort of rite of initiation, a mental lodge sign, flashed between people to signify membership in a de facto tribe. And that really depresses the shit out me.


  1. says

    Well, I’m thinking there’s a “correlation does not prove causation” scenario that hasn’t been controlled for here.

    It is possible that it is simply more likely for Republicans with more education to be on tv/politicians/lobbists/people in positions of power/whatever. These people are more likely to have financial interests in the rejection of science, whether it be deregulation of pollution and global warming or getting the flock to hang on your every word with your rejection of evolution.

    I honestly don’t think that everyone who openly and loudly rejects science actually believe the crazy crap they say (I even wrote a post about pat robertson to this effect).

    I think to circumvent this the correlation would need to control for status/financial interests etc. as well, i.e. only compare people with a comparable income level or people with no other reasons to reject science

  2. jamessweet says

    Wait, but moderates lagged both for almost the entire time, and they are still not significantly any better than conservatives.

    That’s actually really depressing to me. It is beginning to appear to me that swing voters, i.e. the people who actually end up deciding the results of elections, aren’t uncommitted because of open-mindedness, they are uncommitted because they are “low information voters” and/or idiots. This graph only increases my belief in that. Oy…

  3. says

    Yeah that was surprising to me too. But I think you’re right, considering that moderates probably include a lot of people who just don’t pay as much attention to current events, maybe they’re just generally less informed and less engaged all around.

  4. Trebuchet says

    It occurred in association with two key “cultural break” points that, I argue in the book, heightened right wing science politicization: The election of Ronald Reagan, and then the election of George W. Bush.

    Except that the election of Reagan in 1980 coincides with a sharp uptick in respect for science on both the conservative and moderate graphs.

    What’s really sad is that liberals are also stuck at around 50% for the entire time.

    By the way, I really hate graphs that don’t start at zero, giving overemphasis to differences that aren’t as great as the graph makes them look.

  5. Alverant says

    One possibility is that the more educated you are the easier it is to dream up questions and believe that if you can’t answer your own question then people who’ve been studying it for years can’t either. Another possibility is that the more education you have, the less you want to admit that you were wrong so anything that goes against your personal beliefs must be wrong so you can remain correct.

  6. Alverant says

    #3 I think the uptick in 1980 was caused by the increase in science for the military programs like Star Wars. People were confident that Science! could knock out those commie nukes from space ergo it trusted scientific claims. But when those claims started to prove things conservatives didn’t like, the trust went down.

  7. The Lorax says

    It’s possible that those with greater educations think that they know more than other people, and so, with diploma in hand, it doesn’t occur to them that they might be wrong. “Hey, I graduated, I have a degree, and you don’t. Therefore, I am more intelligent than you, and whenever your facts disagree with mine, you must be wrong.”

  8. says

    The right and the left have different ideas on what constitutes education. Roughly speaking, the right sees education as similar to what I see as indoctrination. That is, they see education as providing the “right” beliefs. The left sees education as opening the mind to a broader range of ideas.

    The political spectrum has moved to the right. Somebody who was a moderate in 1975 would be considered a pinko commie liberal today. I don’t know whether part of that graph is a reflection of this rightward shift.

  9. Pierce R. Butler says

    … run it through a cultural Wringer…

    Fix dat for ya.

    The correlation with Reagan’s election may be that RWR dragged Jerry Falwell along with him, and over the next eight years cultivated the whole hyperchristian “Moral Majority” faction with all the political steroids Lee Atwater could pump.

  10. Brony says

    My hypothesis?

    Tribalism and a cognitive need to “win” rather than be “correct” about reality.

    I hate political parties.

  11. arno says

    Does the data support the interpretation as causation rather than selection? Maybe someone who does value evidence could be a Republican if uneducated, but when gaining education terminates the affiliation?

    Basically, the three properties to trust science, to be educated and to be a Republican seem to be somewhat mutually exclusive.

  12. vandelay says

    The question asked in the survey was, “As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them?”

    So it wasn’t a question of acceptance of science itself as a tool or method, but confidence in the men and women who presently (or at whatever time the question was asked) comprise the scientific establishment.

    It also wasn’t a question of acceptance or dismissal of “reality”, as you put it.

    I’m not sure what to attribute the fluctuations of acceptance to, but it seems to me like a very reasonable conservative position to express lack of confidence in temporal leadership. I would assume, for example, that you would have approved of low confidence in the scientific establishment of the Soviet Union during the reign of Lysenkoism.

  13. F says

    2 & 3, jamessweet & Stephen:

    These “moderates” may (or may not) fall not into the underinformed voters group, but the misinformed voters group, which is less likely to understand actual issues and make rational decisions or arguments than groups which are completely ignorant. I would think that there is at least some crossover/interplay here.

    However, this is just a guess and not a well-formed hypothesis. A meta-analysis might reveal something.

  14. geraldmcgrew says

    IMO, the more important aspect of this data is the trends. Since the election of Reagan, moderates have shown no trend, liberals a slightly increasing trend, and conservatives a decreasing trend. The conservative and liberal trends seem to coincide with the GOP increasingly making science-related topics political issues (and being on the side of bashing science). Conservatives fall in line with the party and the liberals naturally react in the other direction. Meanwhile the moderates don’t change much at all.

    BTW, what the heck happened in the late 1970’s that caused everyone’s opinion to drop so sharply?

  15. bad Jim says

    Suppose that, at the beginning, “liberal” and “conservative” were labels claimed by minorities whose members tended to think for themselves (and were pro-science), while the thoughtless (and anti-science) majority called itself “moderate”.

    Beginning with the Reagan era, the “conservative” label became more popular among the thoughtless, and as they swelled the conservative crowd they reduced its average respect for science. At the same time the “liberal” label became less popular, so the less thoughtful (and more anti-science) changed their designation to “moderate.”

    Alternatively, intelligent conservatives and stupid liberals are dying breeds, and the trend simply reflects mortality.

  16. vandelay says

    “Vandelay, are you seriously proposing that US conservatives are as equally accepting or more accepting of science as progressives?”

    I’m proposing that you are misrepresenting the poll that the study was based on. Scientist ≠ science. Not unless plumber = wrench.

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