A UNC-Chapel Hill researcher studies why some people distrust science, and scientific results, more than others and comes up with some surprising answers.

By Kelsey Tsipis

Gordon Gauchat remembers when he found out about the attacks of September 11th, 2001. Then an undergraduate at the University of Connecticut, Gauchat doesn’t remember the details of the tragedy as vividly as he remembers his fellow classmates’ reactions and ideological shifts.

NASA scientist
Do you trust what this woman is doing? A UNC-Chapel Hill researcher finds the answer might depend on your political beliefs. Image of Goddard Space Flight Center scientist Jennifer Eigenbrode courtesy of NASA

“I was transitioning from undergraduate to graduate school when the Iraq War happened and I was kind of stunned by how little people gave a crap,” said Gauchat, now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“In fact, they didn’t want to discuss it at all. They weren’t really capable of analyzing what was going on or criticizing it.”

And that’s how Gauchat became interested in anti-intellectual culture.

“I would question people in college,” said Gauchat. “I was kind of being a jerk going around saying, ‘Why do you think this is the right thing to do?’ and people would give me reasons or just call me a jerk and go away,” Gauchat said. “That even interested me though… why people got so defensive, particularly in college, where the purpose is learning and talking about things like philosophy.”

Gauchat’s questions weren’t winning him many friends, but while he was getting his PhD in sociology from UConn, an advisor took note of Gauchat’s interest in anti-intellectualism. He told him while there’s no real data on anti-intellectualism, there is a lot of data on attitudes toward science.

So in 2004, Gauchat started writing a dissertation on people’s perception of science, which would later be published in the American Sociological Review.

“I had all this data on a topic I was really interested in, I had been studying it already, and I kind of got lucky.”

Gauchat’s curiosity would later lead him to a post-doctorate fellowship at the UNC-Chapel Hill Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, studying individuals’ views on science and how it correlates to their political ideologies.

The data Gauchat used was from a new questionnaire included in the General Social Survey, public research funded by the National Science Foundation. The survey is conducted every year on a random sample of adults to collect data on demographics and attitudes by asking questions on a wide range of topics — such as race relations, belief in God, or level of happiness. The data are collected house by house, similar to the census, it’s generally regarded as the best data available on social topics.

The questionnaire asked people questions on, for example, whether they think science is harmful or good, if it’s changed life too fast and whether the government should support scientific research.

Another question in the survey piqued Gauchat’s interest: “How much confidence do you have in the scientific community?” Answers to the question were collected from 1974- 2010.

“With that question I could track whether trust in science had changed or not,” said Gauchat.

What he found was surprising.

“At first I wasn’t surprised that there was this distrust among political conservatives in science recently, like in the past 10 years,” said Gauchat. “But what I was surprised to find was that there was this gradual decline over time. In the early 1970s, conservatives had the highest trust (of science) of all political groups.“

Gauchat’s study, which was released in the March issue of the American Sociological Review, concludes that trust in science among people who are politically conservative, and people who are frequent churchgoers has declined precipitously since 1974. But the most startling thing to Gauchat was that confidence in scientists has declined the most among the most educated conservatives.

“That’s the big conundrum,” said Gauchat. “It’s shocking because it means conservative discontent with science wasn’t attributable to the uneducated but instead to the rising distrust among the most educated conservatives.”

To highlight the dramatic impact conservative views of science have had on public opinion, Gauchat pointed to results from Gallup, which found in 2012 that just 30 percent of conservatives believed the Earth was warming as a result of greenhouse gases, versus 50 percent who believed that was the case in 2010.

The poll showed almost no change in the opinion of liberals, with 74 percent believing in global warming in 2010 versus 72 percent in 2008.

Gauchat suggested that the most educated conservatives are most acquainted with views that question the credibility of scientists and their conclusions.

“Educated conservatives probably are the most fluent in what it means to be conservative,” said Gauchat. “So they know it’s in conflict with science or universities or climate change and therefore have the hyperactive, stronger disbeliefs.”

Michael Specter, science reporter for The New Yorker and author of the book “Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives” writes in his book that when evidence becomes too powerful to challenge, collusion provides a perfect explanation, even for the highly educated.

“I think it’s a deep rooted distrust of not doing what you don’t want to do,” said Specter. “So if you feel like you want to associate something with something else and science gets in the way, people are just increasingly saying ‘to hell with science.’

“It used to be more common that people would say ‘Gee that’s too bad, but the facts are the facts let’s deal with them.’ Now they just ignore the facts. It’s pretty dangerous and it’s getting worse.”

But Specter doesn’t seem to think that the issue pertains only to conservatives. In his book he writes of highly educated, progressive friends who are adamantly against agricultural biotechnology.

“I think conservatives have certain issues, like climate change, where they don’t want to hear that they’re going to have to change,” said Specter. ” People on left seem to be more insane about food issues, and believe that anything scientific in food has to be dangerous.”

“It’s kind of remarkable because you get these right-wing people that don’t believe anything scientific about climate change and then these left-wing people that don’t believe anything (scientific) about genetically modified food and it doesn’t matter that it’s been tested for 40 years.”

Gauchat said the reasons for this increasing ‘denialism’ or deep distrust in science is twofold. One factor he cites is the increasing visibility of right wing culture, typified by commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, or those on FOX news.

“It’s creating a separate cultural location for conservatives that has it’s own knowledge and truth base,” said Gauchat. “I think that’s a reaction to science. There’s a natural conflict between those two things that has emerged in the US.”

Also, he says, institutional science itself has changed.

“Science used to be kind of hidden behind the department of defense,” said Gauchat. “A lot of funding of science went through defense department.

“Since the 70s, what’s happened is that science has become part of government regulation of industry,” he said. “So I think the more science is seen as a regulatory body, instead of being seen as an innovator, the more that bothers conservatives specifically.”

Whatever the reason, both Gauchat and Specter believe an increasing distrust in science has huge ramifications.

“I don’t agree that people should worry about vaccines and I don’t think there’s danger in genetically modified food. But I understand why people are concerned about that — because it’s food that goes into the mouths of their kids and its vaccines that are meant to protect the health of their children,” said Specter. “That’s not the same order of magnitude of me refusing to believe that we are the result of millions of years of evolution. Or that hundreds of years of tremendous industrial activity are the principal reason why our earth is getting hotter.”

“I think the right-wing issues are more a blatant refusal to accept reality,” Specter said.

Gauchat’s research recently got a boost from the National Science Foundation, which funded him to collect new data to try to pinpoint what it is about science that bothers certain groups.

“One of the things I want to focus on with the new questionnaire is specific controversies – Darwinism, evolution, climate change, genetically modified food, vaccines,” said Gauchat. “So I don’t not just general attitudes like do you think science is harmful or good – but more of what do people mean by that.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

11 replies on “Distrusting Scientific Research”

  1. Science biased by political agendas is why there is a “distrust” in science. It’s like developing a problem to fit a solution.. It’s stupid.

    1. As a scientist who acted as an editor or reviewer of over 1200 submitted manuscripts during my career, I know that science is based on objective analysis of data and scientific findings and reports are completely nonpolitical. Mentioning politics would get a scientific study immediately relected for publication. False results are quickly disproved and rejected by other scientists. The real science has not political agenda.

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