Authority, Controversial Topics, Ethics, Peer Review, Research, Social Role, Sociology, World of Tomorrow

Why Is Science Both More Important and Less Trusted?

The Rachel Maddow Show (TV series)

The Rachel Maddow Show (TV series) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are more social and policy discussions based on science? Or is science being used as cover for political and social machinations?

In an interesting interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” Rachel Maddow — one of today’s most informed, thoughtful, and sensible personalities — discusses the roles of facts and reputations; specifically, how malleable and variable facts and reputations have become in the modern world, and how difficult it is to get people to be accountable for their statements and claims, despite the fact that both are often dressed in scientific garb:

. . . it bothers me as a rational human being . . . as somebody who wants accountability. . . . I think this is a contested area, in terms of not only how the media has diversified over the last couple of decades, but in terms of how we argue with one another. People who disagree on important issues don’t agree on the facts. It used to be, I think, that we agreed I think on the basic facts we were fighting over and we had different opinions about them. Now, I think we accept different sources of authority.

The interview goes on to discuss how scientific authority is too easily had or invented — from temporary statuses with slow-moving associations that take time to detect and reject rogue members, to fake statuses with make-believe organizations of their own invention. Maddow recounts a situation in which a person masquerading as an authority was later kicked out of one association, relocated to another, was kicked out of that — but in the meantime, he was able to get cited literature into the scientific record and into books that had large cultural consequences, including justifying at least one despot to terrorize a class of citizens based on this false science.

A recently published study by Gordon Gauchat at the University of North Carolina brings further perspective to the heart of this phenomenon. His study made waves this week because it found that conservatives and those who regularly attend church distrust science at an increasing rate. Reading the study itself, it’s a very nuanced and informative bit of research and interpretation of data.

In essence, there are four competing sociological hypotheses about how the reputation of science might proceed:

  1. Ascendancy — the hypothesis that trust in science will increase over time.
  2. Alienation — the hypothesis that trust in science will decrease over time.
  3. Deficit — the hypothesis that more education creates more trust in science, while educational deficits lead to decreased trust of science.
  4. Politicization — the hypothesis that political systems and beliefs create more or less trust in science.

Gauchat’s study, covering trends in public trust from 1974-2010, found that only the politicization hypothesis conformed with the data. As for the other three hypotheses, trust in science is not increasing or decreasing uniformly, and educational attainment did not correlate directly with trust in science in all groups (it seemed to more in political moderates).

While science has always been politicized, the credibility of scientific knowledge over the past century has been tied to perceptions that it’s politically neutral and objective. But recently, science has exerted an amount of regulatory authority — via the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other governmental bodies — which puts it directly at odds with conservative deregulatory tendencies. As Gauchat writes:

. . . public trust in science . . . may be slowed by a general distrust in power and authority.

This is particularly problematic for science and scientists, since both have skepticism as their modus operandi. As Gauchat puts it, summarizing other research findings:

. . . the cultural authority of science is destabilized by the application of scientific rigor to itself; that is, the intensity and ubiquity of scientific skepticism undermines its own credibility and ability to influence public debate.

Inherent skepticism provides the perfect lever for anti-authority forces to pull — namely, amplify skepticism, and you undermine science. This is done deftly by claiming evolution is “just a theory.” It sounds ultra-skeptical, but is intended to undermine science.

In 2005, Chris Mooney published the excellent, “The Republican War on Science,” a book that revealed the many tactics that have been used to cloud the scientific record. One such tactic is to create false equivalency — publish a fringe study to introduce statements or weak facts to confound discussions and conclusions. Conservative and right-wing think tanks, media outlets, networking sites, and publishing houses represent new voices in scientific discourse, voices that are:

. . . an alternative to academic locations and the scientific community and is often socially distinguished and reinforced through its criticism of “liberal” bias

Mooney’s book outlines many battles in which conservative politicians, entrenched business interests, and right-wing advocates combine forces to foster confusion, confound sensible and evidence-based policies, and maintain the status quo. Gauchat notes that in his data sets:

. . . conservatives were far more likely to define science as knowledge that should conform to common sense and religious tradition. . . . [conservatives appear to be] especially adverse to regulatory science, defined here as the mutual dependence of organized science and government policy.

Of course, common sense isn’t as common as we think — and generally leads to disagreements about values, priorities, and politics. It’s a form of circular thinking. And religious tradition has an unflattering history when it comes up against science. Yet, in the United States, this is where we find ourselves — with an increasingly reactionary religious right holding more power in government and creating tremendous problems for science.

It’s worth noting that it’s not an entirely bleak situation — science’s authority has grown to such an extent that it is no longer separable from governmental policies. It is culturally dominant. But science’s strengths in finding truth are also its weaknesses in the political arena — no politician would survive long being open to skepticism, accepting alternate hypotheses, and always seeking better evidence.

Where do we go from here? How can we have accountability, honesty, facts, and debate to some conclusion beyond status quo orthodoxy?

Obviously, science won’t be enough. We need leadership. Unfortunately, there’s even less evidence of that in our politics than ever.

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About Kent Anderson

I am the Founder of Caldera Publishing Solutions, a consultancy specializing in informed growth and smart strategy for academic, scientific, and scholarly publishers. I have worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of the STRIATUS/JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are my own.


16 thoughts on “Why Is Science Both More Important and Less Trusted?

  1. I look forward to your fellow blogger David Wojick’s comments on this, given his personal experience in helping to bring about the state of affairs you describe.

    Posted by Jeremy Fox | Mar 30, 2012, 7:19 am
    • This issue is discussed at length, and in some depth, here: with 170 comments so far. Mooney is not treated well.

      Those of us who do not consider “right wing” to be a pejorative term tend to respond as follows. Conservatives have gone from the strongest supporters of science to the weakest because science has increasingly become a tool of liberal (or left wing) causes. The climate change debate has been by far the most important factor here. The environmental movement captured a scientific community, as part of a major move for political power. The history is fascinating, but the result is inevitable. I have been warning for twenty years that the integrity of science would suffer from this unfortunate politicization. Low, it has come to pass.

      But of course it all depends on which side you are on. Politicization is like that.

      Posted by David Wojick | Mar 30, 2012, 1:43 pm
      • Can you identify the scientific evidence that would lead you to change your mind about global warming?

        Posted by Tim Vines | Mar 30, 2012, 2:04 pm
        • Tim, I don’t see this as the forum for debating climate science, unless Kent says that is what he wants. (Feel free to join my Yahoo! group at or post at, my two active debating sites.

          But the short answer is the debate in not primarily about evidence, but rather about resolving some alternative hypotheses, mostly having to do with natural variability of climate, and certain other uncertainties, especially with the data. The complexity is fascinating (and complex issue analysis is my field).

          Posted by David Wojick | Mar 30, 2012, 2:26 pm
          • Yes, this isn’t a climate science blog. We’re here to debate general issues in scholarly publishing, not have specific scientific debates.

            Posted by Kent Anderson | Mar 30, 2012, 2:38 pm
      • What a coincidence that you would cite only a climate change denialism blog’s comments to “debunk” Mooney. I could of course cite any number of blogs where one could read the comments and gain a rather different impression.

        Your comment that conservatives have turned away from science because science has become a tool of left wingers is interesting. So I take it evolutionary biology is also a tool of left wingers?

        But I won’t comment further, it would be pointless to do so. Not about climate change or other specific scientific topics, which Ken quite rightly would rather not have debated on this blog. Rather, it would be pointless to debate with you on the topic that Kent raised–the general politicization of science and associated distrust of expert authority on what would appear to be factual matters. Discussion of these issues with you would be fruitless because anyone seriously engaged in a politicized debate will always insist that *they* are the non-political ones and its only their opponents who are political (or perhaps that both sides are political, but their opponents were the first to politicize things, so they have no choice but to, however regrettably, respond in kind). Admitting that you are politicizing things without having been somehow forced to do so is to instantly lose whatever politicized debate you were engaged in. Which inevitably prevents any non-politicized discussion of the politicization process itself, because any general discussion of the politicization of science, at least one that goes beyond the vaguest platitudes and broad-brush generalizations, has implications for the interpretation of specific cases. And as noted, you can’t afford for the interpretation of specific cases you care about (climate change, and perhaps others I’m unaware of) to cast a bad light on your side.

        Politicization is like that.

        Posted by Jeremy Fox | Mar 30, 2012, 5:44 pm
        • I see little evidence that science in general has become increasingly politicized. In fact the claim that it has seems to be largely political, with little scientific basis. The US Congressional committees that oversee science are among the most bi-partisan. The blogosphere, which is the new political arena, seems to pay little attention to most of science. Politicization seems to be confined to a few isolated, issue driven areas.

          Posted by David Wojick | Mar 31, 2012, 7:32 am
  2. ” those who regularly attend church distrust science at an increasing rate”…”those who base their lives on a fairy tale, distrust facts”.

    Actually it’s worse, the existence of religious power structures depends on exploiting people, which depends on them believing in fairy tales, which requires that they are immunized against facts.

    No it’s worse than that, the existence of the economical powerful elite depends on exploiting people which depends on them believing in fairy tales (like climate change isn’t happening, smoking is good for you, I really MUST have that product, I don’t need a health care system because I not sick yet. etc) which requires them to be dumb, ill-informed and incapable of critical things.

    “Rachel Maddow — one of today’s most informed, thoughtful, and sensible personalities — ”
    By today’s standards, that’s three insults in one sentence.

    Posted by Dave Pullin | Mar 30, 2012, 7:22 am
  3. Scott Jaschik (Inside Higher Ed) does a good job summarizing Gauchat’s study

    Conservative Distrust of Science.

    Posted by Phil Davis | Mar 30, 2012, 9:01 am
    • Some aspects are interesting, although all we have without the actual study is a two point graph, as it were. First, back in 1974 conservatives were the most supportive of science, over libs and mods, at 48%. This would seem to falsify the thesis that conservatives are somehow anti-science. Second it shows that no group gives majority support to science. To me that is the bigger issue. The majority of Americans, of all stripes, distrust science.

      As for the conservative decline, my conjecture is that it starts from a high point due to the cold war. I myself spent the 1980’s working with the defense science establishment, especially ONR. Science was patriotic.

      As for the recent low, Gauchat’s opinion seems to be the same as mine. The Jaschik article says “And notably, he suggests that it may be issues like climate change — science that has the potential to lead to government regulation — that may have more of an impact on conservative attitudes about science than subjects like evolution or the use of stem cells in research.”

      Posted by David Wojick | Mar 31, 2012, 10:32 am
  4. Perhaps it is worth pointing out that the actual situation can be more complex. For example, there are many people who regularly attend church (and believe what some call “fairy tales”) who respect and accept the findings of science–evolution, climate change, the big bang, etc. I wonder if a more nuanced study would look at the subset of religious people and then distinguish among fundamentalists on the one hand and religious adherents who engage with science and modernity in fruitful ways on the other.

    Posted by Kevin Mulcahy | Mar 30, 2012, 10:37 am
    • I think you’re onto something. Going to church and respecting science weren’t irreconcilable positions in my parents’ era. Some strains of church have become politicized themselves, and those are probably the source of the confluence.

      Posted by Kent Anderson | Mar 30, 2012, 12:48 pm
  5. At least science gets an agenda at all in the USA. In the UK it is pathetic. Very few, if any, of our MPs are educated scientifically to university level. This is an apolitical comment, but under Tony Blair, science was supported strongly by government (eg GM crops, climate change) but now it is all flab or absent. Of course funding is also terrible but that’s a different story. What we lack here is any credible “voice” for science at this level. The public probably could not name any prominent UK scientists, other than David Attenborough (the superb naturalist), Brian Cox (presents astronomy/physics on TV) and Richard Dawkins – but the latter is more known in the UK for his stance on religion rather than for his (substantial) scientific contrubutions made some time ago. Where is science’s voice in the UK? Nowhere. Yesterday we learn that our nuclear energy programme (such as it is) will probably be the next scientific endeavour our government will pull out of, and animal research in general is in grave danger from targeted activism (targeted against carriers of animals).

    Posted by Maxine | Mar 30, 2012, 11:54 am
  6. Neither liberals nor conservatives seem to have an exclusive franchise on scientific ignorance. Science gets attacked when it tells us something we don’t want to hear. It’s been that way since Galileo. Education, in theory, should teach us to reason better, but we are losing that battle.

    Posted by Ken Lanfear | Mar 31, 2012, 12:28 pm
    • According to the study, conservative distrust of science actually increases with education, so it is not based on ignorance. Nor is science being attacked, but rather politicized science, and with good reason. As for science education, I recently completed a multi-year study of it. In my judgement it is doing very well. The education scare is bogus in my view, just more hype.

      Posted by David Wojick | Mar 31, 2012, 1:40 pm


  1. Pingback: Conservatives distrust official science « Jim’s Blog - Mar 31, 2012

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