Monday, April 16, 2012

Trust in Science

The current issue of the American Sociological Review has an interesting article by Gordon Gauchat, Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. The abstract provides a nice summary of the content:
This study explores time trends in public trust in science in the United States from 1974 to 2010. More precisely, I test Mooney’s (2005) claim that conservatives in the United States have become increasingly distrustful of science. Using data from the 1974 to 2010 General Social Survey, I examine group differences in trust in science and group-specific change in these attitudes over time. Results show that group differences in trust in science are largely stable over the period, except for respondents identifying as conservative. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest. The patterns for science are also unique when compared to public trust in other secular institutions. Results show enduring differences in trust in science by social class, ethnicity, gender, church attendance, and region. I explore the implications of these findings, specifically, the potential for political divisions to emerge over the cultural authority of science and the social role of experts in the formation of public policy.
Gauchat contextualizes his findings in relation to three different hypotheses present in the existing literature:
  • "The cultural ascendency thesis predicts a uniform increase in public trust in science across all social groups. In other words, the special congruence of science and modern institutions increases the need for scientific knowledge and public education, which, in turn, encourages public trust in science"
  • "By contrast, scholars have predicted a uniform decline in public trust across all social groups, or the alienation thesis. This decline in public trust is associated with a cultural backlash against technocratic authority and science’s inability to defend itself against its own standards in public discourse"
  • "Finally, the politicization thesis predicts that ideological conservatives will experience group-specific declines in trust in science over time. Conservatives’ distrust is attributable to the political philosophy and intellectual culture accompanying the [new right] and the increased connection between scientific knowledge and regulatory regimes in the United States, the latter of which conservatives generally oppose."
Here is the summary of his findings as it relates to the three hypotheses:
(T)his study shows that public trust in science has not declined since the 1970s except among conservatives and those who frequently attend church. Accordingly, the analysis provides negligible evidence for the cultural ascendency thesis, which suggests that trust in science will increase over time. Nor do results support the alienation thesis that predicts a uniform decline in public trust in science. In general, results are consistent with claims of the politicization thesis and show that conservatives experienced long-term group-specific declines rather than an abrupt cultural break.
The study's findings also have interesting implications for the 'deficit model' which predicts that individuals with higher levels of education will possess greater trust in science.
Additionally, one of the key findings here involves the relationship between education and trust in science. In essence, this study greatly complicates claims of 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. This interesting result may indicate that educated conservatives have been most affected by the NR’s (New Right's) identity work. Moreover, it suggests that scientific literacy and education are unlikely to have uniform effects on various publics, especially when ideology and identity intervene to create social ontologies in opposition to established cultures of knowledge (e.g., the scientific community, intelligentsia, and mainstream media).
While Gauchat's analysis does little to explain precisely why conservatives, and not other groups, have disproportionately lost their trust in science, he does report several tantalizing suggestions:
  • One way of thinking about science is as one form of knowledge among others such as common sense and religious tradition. Gauchat found that "conservatives were far more likely to define science as knowledge that should conform to common sense and religious tradition."
  • Secondly, "conservatives’ unfavorable attitudes are most acute in relation to government funding of science and the use of scientific knowledge to influence social policy (see Gauchat 2010). Conservatives thus appear especially averse to regulatory science, defined here as the mutual dependence of organized science and government policy."
This latter pattern leads to a speculation about the process responsible for the historical change:
Paradoxically, it is possible that science’s cultural authority engendered politicization, particularly its role in policy formation and regulation of private interests. This assumes that science’s cultural authority has grown—especially among legal, political, and economic institutions (see Jasanoff 2004)—to the point that the scientific community inevitably becomes entangled in polarized conflicts (e.g., economic growth versus environmental sustainability). As a result, science is “increasingly seen as being politicized and not disinterested” (Yearley 2005:121).

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