Confidence in the scientific community has diverged along ideological lines over the past two decades. Conservatives’ trust in science has declined, while the trust of liberals and moderates has remained relatively stable. This divergence threatens policymakers’ ability to engage in scientifically informed decisionmaking and makes political consensus less likely. But are conservatives unique in discounting science? Our new research suggests not. It turns out that liberals do it, too.
One explanation for the decline in scientific trust among conservatives is the “Republican War on Science,” purported to have emerged in the late 1990s. The claim is that fundamental psychological differences linked to ideology contribute to a “scientific deficit” unique to conservatives. In other words, conservatives are inherently predisposed to reject scientific evidence and to distrust the scientific community.
We are skeptical of this interpretation and join other researchers in arguing that conservatives and liberals can both be biased in how they process scientific information or trust scientists. Whether liberals or conservatives are more likely to distrust in science will depend on the specific issue under debate.
We recruited a diverse group of 1,500 adults from a national online panel of volunteers and randomly assigned them to read scientifically accurate statements about different science topics. Some read about issues where there is significant partisan divide, including climate change, evolution, nuclear power, and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of natural gas, while others read about issues that tend to be viewed as ideologically neutral, namely geology and astronomy.
Unsurprisingly, we found that conservatives who read statements about climate change or evolution reported more negative emotions and greater resistance to the information, compared to liberals who read the same statements and compared to other conservatives who read statements about geology or astronomy. This lead conservatives who read these messages to report significantly lower trust in the scientific community.
But we found a similar pattern among liberals who read about nuclear power or fracking. Liberals exhibited the same negative emotions and resistance to the information. They also expressed less trust in the scientific community.
One finding was more surprising, and perhaps more distressing. Although liberals who read statements about climate change and evolution reported greater trust in science than conservatives who did the same, these liberals also reported less trust in the scientific community than liberals who read ideologically neutral statements about geology or astronomy. This suggests that partisan battles over science can erode public confidence in the scientific community, even among those predisposed to trust the evidence.
Even though both conservatives and liberals interpret science in a biased fashion, this is not an excuse for either side to do so. Our findings neither exempt nor validate the well-organized and heavily funded “climate denialist movement.”
We believe that our experiment has two important lessons for science communicators. The first is that political journalism too often treats science like a political issue to be debated by non-experts in televised partisan theater. This type of coverage often obscures the actual scientific evidence and consensus, deepens polarization by providing partisan cues for both conservatives and liberals, and depresses confidence in the scientific community among liberals and conservatives alike.
The second lesson is that that science communicators who target conservatives as uniquely deficient in understanding science turn the focus to ideological countermobilization or conversion (“If only everyone were liberal!”) and away from communication that bridges ideological gaps about science issues — since the implication is that conservatives cannot be moved. Demonizing a third of the population does nothing to solve the challenges of effective science communication.
Erik C. Nisbet and R. Kelly Garrett are professors in the School of Communication at Ohio State University.
This post is part of a series on politics and science. Other posts in the series include: