Fundamentally opposed to science?

Conservative religious fundamentalists really don’t trust the scientific establishment.

In the discussion of academia’s liberalism, we should also consider the public’s mistrust of science, especially the conservative and fundamentalist public. Why would people who don’t trust science become scientists?

Last year Gordon Gauchat reported in American Sociological Review that Americans’ trust in the scientific community was holding steady except for political conservatives and those who attend church regularly, and that the trend was not explained by the lower education levels of conservatives or religious people (in fact, educated conservatives expressed the lowest levels of trust in science). His conclusion was that the trend showed the politicization of science, which is not the way modernity is supposed to go.

In response, Darren Sherkat blogged that Gauchat underestimated the importance of religion in explaining conservatives’ opposition to science because he only used the General Social Survey’s measure of the frequency of religious attendance instead of a measure of beliefs. And he provided a chart from the GSS showing that religious fundamentalists had lower trust in science whether they were Republicans or not. Sherkat wrote:

Any social scientist who studies politics, religion, and science should know that the reason why Republicans are at war against science is to court the vote of fundamentalist Christian simpletons who are opposed to science and reason. … What drives Republican opposition to science is that more Republicans are fundamentalists who believe that the Bible is the literal word of god.

You got your fundamentalism in my conservatism

As I look at it, conservatism and fundamentalism are both at fault. My take on the trends shows that, in addition to the growing divide between politically conservative fundamentalists and politically liberal non-fundamentalists, liberal fundamentalists have grown more trusting of science, while conservative non-fundamentalists have grown less trusting.

I used the GSS from 1974 through the latest 2012 survey. To highlight the polarization I show only those who are “extremely liberal,” “liberal,” “conservative,” or “extremely conservative,” leaving out those who are “slightly” liberal or conservative, or moderate. So this is not the whole population (I’ll return to that below).

The question was:

I am going to name some institutions in this country. 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? … Scientific community.

It’s as close as we get to a question about science itself. For fundamentalism, GSS asked whether the respondent’s religion was fundamentalist, moderate, or liberal. I dichotomized it to fundamentalists versus everyone else (including people with no religion).*

These are the people expressing a great deal of confidence in the scientific community:

confidence-in-scienceThese trends are heavily smoothed (down to four decades), because the numbers bounce around a lot from year to year, as the samples are only between 60 and 220 in each cell in the individual years. To do a simple test of the trends, I ran a regression using time and interactions between time and politics-fundamentlism dummy variables, with controls for age and sex (old people and men hate science more than regular people, net of religion and politics).

The regression confirms what the graph shows: significant declines in trust among conservatives whether fundamentalist or not, and an increase in trust among liberal fundamentalists. The trend for liberal non-fundamentalists was flat. (Details on request.)

I left out of that analysis the people who were slightly conservative, moderate, or slightly liberal. That’s a shrinking majority of the population, which breaks down like this from the 1970s to the last decade (click to enlarge):

confidence-in-science-popsSo the bad news for science is that the increasingly anti-science groups are increasing in the population: conservative fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists. The big green majority is not growing more or less anti-science (even when you break it down by fundamentalism), but it’s also shrinking. The liberal fundamentalists are getting more into science, but also vanishing.

Just wait till they find out (some) sociology is part of the “scientific community.”

Note: This is a blog-post, not peer-reviewed research. I might be wrong.

* Skerkat instead uses a question about how to interpret the Bible instead of the fundamentalism question (literal word of God, inspired word of God, book of fables). 95% of the people who described themselves as having a “fundamentalist” describe the Bible as either the literal or the inspired word of God.



37 thoughts on “Fundamentally opposed to science?

  1. Two possible tests: (1) Does the same trend hold when you look at other measures of support for science? (say, the HARMGOOD variable – I know you lose some range)
    (2) Does the same trend NOT hold when you look at trust in other kinds of social institutions? (say, the press or congress)
    Seems like both of those would help make the case that it’s about opposition to science per se.


    1. The other institutions would help isolate opposition to science, or the science establishment, per se, but I’m not sure that’s necessary if the issue is really science itself. HARMGOOD is interesting, and I didn’t know about it. Looks like 32% of the people who think modern science does more harm than good have a great deal of confidence in the scientific community, which is interesting. Maybe they like science but don’t like government scientists or academia. The correlation between them is .25.


      1. I think the other institutions would still be useful: if we know these patterns hold for all social institutions, not just science, then our theorizing will probably take us down a different road than thinking it’s about fundamentalists rejecting specific scientific tenets.


  2. Isn’t it odd how these religionists reject science EXCEPT when it validates their religious point of view? i.e. Regnerus Then they are all over it, passing it all around their religious websites like a common communion cup.

    In a similar vein, there is a new study out of Belgium by a Catholic University that shows, the more religious people are, the more they hate the PERSON more than hatting the SIN. This is interesting as it is counter to what they claim to believe. it is a key component to why religionists feel no compunction in denying Equal Civil Rights to those they categorize as sinners. It’s because they really do hate the person.


  3. I did fieldwork in creationists high schools for a year and a half and my dissertation is really about this. One of the problems here is that people feel very differently about an abstract entity called “science” or scientists than more specific things (kind of like asking about “the government” versus specific services like fire or police). The creationists I worked with were cool with the vast majority of science when the issues were posed differently.


    1. Not sure “posed differently” is the issue there, if what’s really going on is selective agreement according to ideology. If someone is sure gravity will definitely still work tomorrow, but doesn’t believe that evolution by natural selection produced humans, then would you say they are cool with the majority of science? Science is a jealous lover. If you think it’s only true when it’s convenient, science isn’t interested.

      Anyway, I’m sure you’ve got a lot more to say about this – keep us posted on your research!


      1. If you think it’s only true when it’s convenient, science isn’t interested.
        I’m sure “they” would say that it’s not science which is the problem, but Atheists’ misinterpretation of data and thus invalid conclusions.


  4. It’s interesting, seeing that religion might also be “outdated in the 21st century.” Maybe it’s an entire movement of human nature diversifying.


  5. Delurking to underscore the point that the item in the GSS is a measure of confidence in the “scientific community”, rather than a process for discovery of knowledge or the products of that process. Often enough when discussing survey results, the three potential meanings of “science” (the method, the knowledge, the practitioners) are conflated. It isn’t hard to imagine different processes leading to trust or mistrust in the different meanings of “science”, but we can’t easily test those ideas with the science confidence item (there are other items available in the GSS, but we stray rather far from trust if we include them). Further, as Jeff points out, any lack of trust is likely centered around particular sticking point issues, or alternately a more generalized anti-intellectual orientation.


      1. Good point on the electric cars. People don’t realize that if they plug in the car, there’s a good chance a dirty coal-burning plant is providing the electricity. It’s the problem people tend to have in not looking too far down the supply chain.


  6. Hi Philip. I think scientists–especially folks like Dawkins–really want it to be the case that if you accept gravity you accept all of science, but that’s just not the case. Creationists–and I suppose a lot of us–are pragmatic about what we believe and what we don’t. Creationists are just the best example of motivated reasoning. They could tell you the weight-bearing load of a rock and build you a fine bridge: they just think the rock is 6000 years old. They could do a fine surgery on your appendix. They just don’t think that appendix is evolved from an earlier species. They’re pragmatic. Science might be a jealous lover, but it’s got a broken heart, because use it every which way.


  7. Since 2000, Conservative + Extremely Conservative has held steady at 19-20%; Fundamentalist has decreased from 30% to 25%. So I’m not going to get too worried just yet. The question is whether they have disproportionate leverage in matters like government funding of science.


    1. I mostly agree. The small pop of conservative fundamentalists has gotten more extreme on science since the 1980s, but they’re already mostly electing Republicans in their districts. You see the effects, though, where things are flaring up and the margins are slim, like in North Carolina, where a small shift tipped the whole state government red — and anti-science is part of their agenda.


  8. Jeff Guhin has a point. You won’t see a fundamentalist Christian not becoming a Chemical Engineer because he doesn’t believe in chemistry, or an Electrical Engineer because he doesn’t believe that electricity exists.

    Why should any conservative (religious or not) touch Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, etc with a 10 foot pole when teachers regularly cram their outdated left wing dogma down people’s throats, and can’t fathom that “thing” in a woman’s uterus is more than an nonviable tissue mass.


      1. The typical 1990s answer to that question is that conservatives actually have Real Jobs instead of obsessing over petty Academy politics and Marxist reinterpretations of obscure Medieval Bulgarian poetry.


  9. Exactly what is the question posed? Is it “Do you have confidence in science?” That question is susceptible to a multiplicity of interpretations. I would like to see the results of a study asking respondents “Do you believe that you understand scientific method?” and then go on asking questions that reveal whether they actually do.


    1. See above: Q: I am going to name some institutions in this country. 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? … Scientific community.


      1. The question is not specific enough to give confidence in the understanding respondents had of it or of their answers to it.


    1. I’m kidding. I too have left-leaning friends with strong anti-GMO positions. It’s just a difficult issue because the politics and science are entangled (Monsanto is evil but genetic modification isn’t inherently bad). If it were anywhere near my expertise I’d figure out how to write about it.


  10. Any chance you could run this again with the RELTRAD typology? It creates a lot of lines (Evangelical, African American, Mainline, Catholic) but it makes me wonder how that looks.


  11. I’m not supposed to be working on this until I finish my book….but I have outlined a paper examining the issues and also some history about how Americans have interpreted science over the last four decades. The key is that back in the 70s and 80s “science” was interpreted through the lens of the cold war arms race, nuclear power, and environmental degradation, The collapse of the Soviet empire changed that view, and now science is more linked to things like evolution…..


  12. It’s not just GMO. Just look at the nature vs nurture thing; even today we have people who think that Herrnstein’s book was somehow representing fringe views.

    My belief is that both liberals and conservatists don’t like things in science which does not fit in their beliefs. Now, I live in Poland, which may somehow impact my view (e.g. creationists in Poland are virtually non-existant as a coherent group, and when someone like them appears he/she is made fun of, not discussed with).


  13. Before we ask questions like this we really ought to be making sure respondents have an understanding of the scientific method. Can they determine if a hypothesis is falsifiable and do they know why that matters? Can they examine an experiment and determine if there is a proper control group?

    My own experience is many people who mistrust science have no real understanding of these things. Their opinions matter because they shape public policy, but their opinions are based on inadequate information. The other problem is people like this don’t realize how deficient their knowledge is, and assume that they know enough to have an informed opinion.


    1. Hi Smrnda,

      In my ethnographic work and pretty wide reading of creationist literature, these creationists know the scientific method–and the philosophy of science–really, really well. (It’s a somewhat illogical fusion of Kuhn, Popper, and Bacon, but that’s neither here nor there.) They tend to insist on falsification within a lab, which is harder to do for the historical arguments they most opposed (i.e. macro-evolution and the age of the Earth). It’s motivated reasoning, certainly, but it’s not ignorance.


      1. On the Left side, I’m sure you’ll see mistrust of Big {Pharma/Oil/Agriculture/etc} as the root of distrust of “science”. (At least they have some tangible evidence for their distrust…)


      2. Jeff – I’ve noted the same thing from back when I was in college – the lack of a clean-cut laboratory experiment that would prove or disprove evolution is something that most creationist proponents would leap on. As for knowing the philosophy of science, it’s always seemed to be a kind of ‘let’s pull out enough quotes to refute “scientism.” ‘ I’m not really a biologist, so it’s really not a discussion that I can contribute much to, except that I find that creationists aren’t so much propping up valid alternative theories as just trying to instill doubt.

        I’m a lot more dismissive of these types of things once I’d done research with people in social psychology, where the inability to do totally controlled experiments is something you just have to come to terms with. It can mean being cautious about extrapolating experimental results, but it doesn’t mean just abandoning any and all research.

        ronjohn: I notice this the most with “Big Pharma” and how alternative med and other sorts of woo can appeal to leftist types, even relatively educated ones who should know better. (There’s a lot of strange comparmentalization in terms of ‘science skepticism.’) . A problem is that it seems like people can’t admit that Big Pharma can be big, greedy and powerful, but that their products might actually work.


        1. Right. And the important piece here is that creationists are elsewhere totally comfortable with “science” that isn’t done in labs, like mainstream economics, or epidemiology, or all sorts of other things. It’s motivated reasoning, and not at all consistent. In terms of their philosophy of science, like I said, it’s sort of a grab big without a lot of consistency, and I think you’re right it’s more to create doubt (though, to be honest, the folks I met knew there WAS a philosophy of science, which is more than I can say for most people.) My argument isn’t that creationism is good science, or even science at all. I’m only arguing that creationists argue what they do out of motivated reasoning, not ignorance.


        1. It’s a concept used often in psychology and political science. Heres one of the main articles: “The case for motivated reasoning.” Kunda, Ziva
          Psychological Bulletin, Vol 108(3), Nov 1990, 480-498. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.108.3.480


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