How did conservatives lose confidence in science?

March 26, 2021

Why don't conservatives trust science anymore? (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

While conservatives and liberals were similarly confident in scientists as recently as the 1980s, conservatives' views have since dimmed dramatically — a trend that new research says resulted largely from moral conservatives' move to identify with the political right.

In a paper published March 17 in Social Forces, author Austin Kozlowski analyzed responses to NORC's General Social Survey between 1984 and 2016, and found that people with conservative moral views differ starkly from economic conservatives in their skepticism of the scientific community. These moral conservatives, he said, drove much of the ideological divide over science as they identified increasingly as political conservatives.

That shift, which was accompanied by weakening scientific confidence among economic conservatives, shows the importance of understanding how different ideological factions come together to shape the dynamics of political polarization, according to Kozlowski.

His findings "strongly suggest that opposition to the scientific community is not a universal characteristic of the 'political conservative' identity, nor is it strongly associated with economically conservative ideology," he wrote. "Rather, it is predominantly concentrated within the morally conservative faction of self-identifying political conservatives."

"Understanding the political polarization of science and its development over time thus requires careful attention to the distinct strands of conservatism and their changing relationships," he added.

Earlier research on the politicization of science focused on the ways conservative movements have engaged in messaging campaigns designed to erode faith in science and scientists, shifting conservatives' views on topics such as climate change against mainstream scientific analysis, Kozlowski noted. 

While these prior studies contributed important insights, they tended to overlook the range of distinct subgroups that come together under the banner of political conservatism, he wrote. His study set out to investigate how changes to the conservative coalition — rather than changes in individuals' attitudes alone — could shed light on today's ideological divide.

"I argue that the long-standing anti-scientist sentiment of moral conservatives became organized under the label of political conservatism in the late twentieth century as key historic developments reshaped American conservatism into a bastion of moral traditionalism," he wrote.

That transformation, caused partly by the mobilization of fundamentalist Protestants behind a "family values" agenda and partly by concerns over birth control, stem cells, euthanasia and other issues without a specific religious constituency, lines up with the emerging ideological gap in scientific confidence. That gap had widened by 2016 to almost 15 percentage points, according to Kozlowski's analysis.

"The image of political conservatism thus shifted in the second half of the twentieth century, making it attractive for individuals with morally conservative views to begin to politically identify as conservative," he wrote.

Kozlowski used 19 waves of data collected between 1984 and 2016 by the General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey of adults in the U.S., to track the attitudes of 13,000 respondents over time. 

The questionnaire asks participants about their confidence in "the scientific community" among other institutions, information that allowed him to sort respondents into either a group reporting a "great deal" of confidence or a group with less confidence.

In addition to its seven-point scale of political ideology ranging from "extremely liberal" to "extremely conservative," the GSS also asks questions about "moral" issues involving abortion, homosexuality, pornography and marijuana. Kozlowski built a unified measure of moral conservatism based on participants' responses to each of these questions.

To pick out economic conservatives from the dataset, he used a similar method to build a unified measure of economic conservatism based on participants' attitudes toward government spending on social services and entitlement programs.

Kozlowski found that even as faith in scientists was dropping among political conservatives on the whole over the 1980s and 1990s, economic conservatives maintained disproportionately high confidence in the scientific community. 

Among moral conservatives, the data told a different story. Moral conservatism had a consistently negative effect on trust in scientists from the 1980s through 2016, and actually intensified slightly toward the end of that time frame. The effect magnitude of about -0.1 means that a person whose moral conservatism is one standard deviation above the mean is 10 percentage points less likely to express great confidence in the scientific community, as compared to a respondent with average moral conservatism.

Kozlowski then used a decomposition analysis to gauge how much of the observed gap in scientific confidence between liberals and conservatives was attributable to differences in these groups' respective levels of moral conservatism.

In 1984, the difference in the percentage of liberals and conservatives who reported a "great deal" of confidence in the scientific community was less than four percentage points; by 2010, the gap had increased to approximately 15 percentage points. The amount of this gap attributable to differences in moral conservatism grew alongside the total gap, Kozlowski said, "with moral conservatism initially explaining roughly five points of difference, and by the end of the series explaining approximately 13 points."

Holding the effect size of moral conservatism on confidence in science constant, Kozlowski discovered that the increasing contribution of moral conservatism to the ideological gap is explained mostly by the consolidation of moral conservatism under the banner of political conservatism.

Economic conservatism partially counteracted the growth of the ideological gap in scientific confidence until the 2000s, he found. From that point on, economic conservatism lost a statistically significant association with trust in science, leading the total gap between liberals and conservatives to widen in recent years.

"Hence, by losing its positive association, economic conservatism contributes to the growth of this gap despite never gaining a consistently negative association with confidence in the scientific community," Kozlowski wrote.

Taken together, he said, his results point to the value of peering under the hood of broad liberal and conservative coalitions in order to understand how certain issue areas become politicized — and depoliticized — over time.

Polarization over moral issues may have fed the ideological gap in attitudes toward scientists, he said, noting that much of the skepticism coming from moral conservatives stems from the view that scientists motivate immoral practices such as encouraging birth control and harvesting stem cells.

"My research suggests that it was the growing prominence of 'moral political' issues that recently politicized public trust in scientists," Kozlowski told The Academic Times. "To see a depoliticization of science, I believe we would need to see new events, candidates or social movements reorganize partisan politics around dimensions other than moral issues."

Paying greater attention to the subgroups that constitute larger coalitions could yield insights into other contemporary flashpoints, he added, noting that conservative reluctance toward the COVID-19 vaccine could potentially be concentrated among moral conservatives.

"I don't have the data available to make that conclusion yet, but my previous study suggests that in matters of public trust in science, we should go beyond political self-identifications and examine the various distinct attitude groups subsumed under a common political identity," he said. "If we are to better understand the roots of vaccine hesitancy, I think it will require examining how this opinion fits into a broader set of political beliefs, not just how it correlates with a political identity."

In any case, Kozlowski added, the findings suggest that political ideology isn't always at the root of our disagreements — rather, it organizes them in ways that can conceal as much as they reveal.

"Sometimes politics truly has the power to drive us apart," he said. "But in other cases, it merely shines a spotlight on those divisions that were previously out of sight."

The article "How Conservatives Lost Confidence in Science: The Role of Ideological Alignment in Political Polarization," published March 17 in Social Forces, was authored by Austin C. Kozlowski, University of Chicago.

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