Science is for blowing up commies, silly!
by David Atkins
This likely won't come as a surprise to anyone:
Conservatives, particularly those with college educations, have become dramatically more skeptical of science over the past four decades, according to a study published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review. Fewer than 35 percent of conservatives say they have a "great deal" of trust in the scientific community now, compared to nearly half in 1974.
"The scientific community ... has been concerned about this growing distrust in the public with science. And what I found in the study is basically that's really not the problem. The growing distrust of science is entirely focused in two groups—conservatives and people who frequently attend church," says the study's author, University of North Carolina postdoctoral fellow Gordon Gauchat.
In fact, in 1974, people who identified as conservatives were among the most confident in science as an institution, with liberals trailing slightly behind, and moderates bringing up the rear. Liberals have remained fairly steady in their opinion of the scientific community over the interim, while conservative trust in science has plummeted.
It would be easy to take this data and simply add it as one more piece of evidence that modern conservatism is a truly radical and dangerous political movement. But it's more than that. This bit is very interesting:
Interestingly, the most educated conservatives have led that charge. Conservatives with college degrees began distrusting science earlier and more forcefully than other conservatives, upending assumptions that less educated people on the whole are more distrustful of science.
Gauchat attributes the changes to two forces: Both science and conservatives have changed a lot in 40 years. In the post-WWII period, research was largely wedded to the Defense Department and NASA—think the space race and the development of the atomic bomb. Now the scientific institution "has come out from behind those institutions and been its own cultural force." That has meant it is increasingly viewed as a catalyst of government regulation, as in the failed Democratic proposal to institute cap-and-trade as a way to reduce carbon emissions and stave off climate change.
There's a lot of truth to this. Back in the day when the image of a "scientist" was a clean-shaven white man working for the government to develop nuclear bombs to drop on the Soviets, or a space program to defeat the Soviets, or one-hit miracle drugs, conservatives could totally get behind it. Now that "science" seems to more about squirrely liberal types telling us about global sustainability and disease prevention, conservatives don't believe in science anymore.
It's not really that conservatism has gotten any more extreme since the days of Joe McCarthy and Jim Wallace. It's that the world has changed around conservatism. The biggest danger facing the world isn't a takeover by Hitler or Stalin, requiring bigger and bigger American bombs and space capabilities: the biggest danger lies in nuclear proliferation and climate change. Outright bigotry was accepted as part of the cultural norm in those days; today, while it's obviously still prevalent in multiple forms overt and covert, we as a society think of ourselves as more enlightened, expecting and demanding to move beyond it.
The modern world does not lend itself to the conservative ethic. If conservative ideas ever were decent solutions to major problems in the past (and that's being very generous), they've become increasingly anachronistic.
Conservatives understand this. If climate change is real and caused by humans, it means that something is deeply flawed within conservatism itself. There is no "free market solution" to a problem like climate change, caused by overconsumption of resources, and with a lag time of disaster that current consumers won't psychologically understand or address of their own volition. There is no "free market solution" to drug-resistant bacteria in a world where "healthcare consumers" will always demand antibiotics for even minor infections. There is no "military solution" to geopolitical problems in an economically interconnected world armed with nuclear weapons.
Faced with a world in which his values and beliefs have become irrelevant, the conservative's only answer is to divorce himself from it entirely.