Conservatives' trust of science has gradually decreased over the past 40 years, beginning perhaps when empirical research was increasingly used to justify government regulations, according to a new academic analysis.

The study, appearing this week in the April edition of the journal American Sociological Review, identifies a 25 percent drop among conservatives who express trust in the scientific community since 1974. That decline is striking to researchers because conservatives were more trusting of science than other political groups when data were first collected nearly four decades ago.

Today, they are the most distrustful, while the attitudes of liberals and moderates have held steady. The conservatives' migration into negativity makes liberals the most trusting group now, by default.

"[T]his study shows that public trust in science has not declined since the 1970s except among conservatives and those who frequently attend church," the study concludes.

The research also challenges popular beliefs that increased academic achievement and educational outreach will persuade people to believe in the scientific underpinnings of issues like climate change and evolution. It doesn't work that way, says Gordon Gauchat, the author and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Conservatives tend to be about even with liberals in terms of attaining high school and undergraduate degrees, he said. But the research suggests that well-educated conservatives are more skeptical of science than their less-educated counterparts.

"That was the biggest surprise finding," Gauchat said in an interview. "Highly educated conservatives are more fluent in what the [conservative] ideology means and its relationships with institutions. So they understand where the conflicts lie, what the value system is. In other words, they're more ideological."

'Regulatory science' cools support
The research also casts doubt on a social science hypothesis that predicts a wide-ranging decline in public trust in science across all social groups. The idea that there would be a backlash against a rising "technocratic authority" that uses science is challenged by the exclusive scope of conservative distrust, the paper says.

Instead, Gauchat settles on a third concept proposed among social scientists -- the "politicization thesis," which predicts that conservatives alone will feel alienated from science as it is increasingly used to justify regulatory regimes.

"Regulatory science directly connects to policy management and, therefore, has become entangled in policy debates that are unavoidably ideological," the paper says. "The shift toward regulatory science that began in the 1970s could account for conservatives' growing distrust in science, given this group's general opposition to government regulation."

In recent years, that disdain for regulations is perhaps illustrated nowhere as sharply as in the debate around climate change, Gauchat said. By coincidence, the paper is being published the same week that the Obama administration released its landmark rules regulating greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

The study also provides a warning about the potential impacts of losing conservative support for science.

"Transformations in the organization of science could change how the scientific community relates to large transnational corporations and private venture capital," the paper says. "These concerns are particularly relevant when we consider global climate change -- and growing public skepticism toward the problem."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500