It's not just the vitriol surrounding this year's upcoming election: More conservatives than ever distrust science, according to a report released Thursday.
Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a "great deal of trust in science" in 2010, a 28 percent decline since 1974, when 48 percent of conservatives—about the same percentage as liberals—trusted science. Liberal and moderate support for science has remained essentially flat since 1974, according to Gordon Gauchat, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He published his findings in the journal American Sociological Review.
About 41 percent of Americans identify as "conservative," according to an August poll by Gallup, up from 37 percent in 2008.
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."
He says science has also changed—in the middle of the 20th century, science was tasked with creating things for the Department of Defense and NASA, things that "easily built a consensus."
"Since then, science has become autonomous from the government—it develops knowledge that helps regulate policy, and in the case of the EPA, it develops policy," he says. "Science is charged with what religion used to be charged with—answering questions about who we are and what we came from, what the world is about. We're using it in American society to weigh in on political debates, and people are coming down on a specific side."
Jeremy Mayer, a professor at George Mason University's School of Public Policy, disagrees with that notion. He says science was used in politics long before global warming was an issue, and that Gauchat's assessment "ignores the role that science played in supporting political views throughout American history. Segregationists relied on science for years to support their views that whites were superior. The fact that it was pseudo-science is obvious to us today. It was not so obvious then. Evolution was a political issue long before the space race, and so on."
Mayer, who co-authored Closed Minds?: Politics and Ideology in American Universities, says the "anti-intellectual" populist vote, which used to belong to southern Democrats, is now a Republican theme. "Ever since the [George] Wallace types joined the Republicans, they have gradually moved against science in increasingly open ways," Mayer says.
That dichotomy is no more evident than when you compare President Barack Obama with Republican contender Rick Santorum. In his first months in office, Obama told the National Science Foundation that "the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation - and our values as a nation - are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy." Meanwhile, Santorum has called human-caused climate change a "hoax," and "patently absurd," and has said that teaching evolution "promotes atheism."
Gauchat says those two issues are where conservatives most readily reject science. He used data from the National Opinion Research Center's General Social Survey that asks respondents, in general terms, their level of confidence in the scientific community, so it's impossible to tell which specific scientific developments conservatives reject. But he doesn't see it changing anytime soon.
"I think this is the new reality. The number of conservatives is growing," he says. "I think that there's a cultural clash that's occurring now, and I think there's a fundamental issue. Science has been dependent on the government for funding since World War II. Does that arrangement change if we're electing more conservative politicians?"