Trust in Science

The scale of the universe mapped to branches of science.

What makes people distrust science? Surprisingly, not politics” is an insightful piece recently penned in Aeon magazine by psychology professor Bastiaan T Rutjens.

Let me start by saying that today’s distrust of science is astonishing when you consider that every single moment of your life you benefit from science. From the clean water your drink to the sewer systems that remove waste, from the marvels of modern medicine to wonders of technology, from the bridges you cross to the building you live in, from the phones and TVs you watch to the cars and planes you travel in, all result from the success of science. Half the people reading this post would have died of childhood diseases had they been born just a few generations ago. Before modern science and the technology that results from it, life was indeed nasty, brutish, and short. Why then is there so much distrust of science?

The article begins by exploring a tentative answer—political ideology must be the culprit.

The sociologist Gordon Gauchat has shown that political conservatives in the United States have become more distrusting of science, a trend that started in the 1970s. And a swath of recent research conducted by social and political psychologists has consistently shown that climate-change skepticism in particular is typically found among those on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

However, research by the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky, as well as research led by the psychologist Sydney Scott, finds no relationship between political ideology and attitudes toward genetic modification and vaccine skepticism. So there must be more to science skepticism than mere political ideology. But what? To answer this question Rutjens and his colleagues recently published multiple studies that investigated both trust and skepticism of science. What they found were

four major predictors of science acceptance and science skepticism: political ideology; religiosity; morality; and knowledge about science. These variables tend to intercorrelate—in some cases quite strongly—which means that they are potentially confounded. To illustrate, an observed relation between political conservatism and trust in science might in reality be caused by another variable, for example religiosity.

Rutjens and his colleagues found that:

a) climate change skepticism was most pronounced among the politically conservative;

b) skepticism about genetic modification wasn’t related to political ideology or religious beliefs, but correlates highly with science knowledge—the more you know about science the less skeptical you are about the safety of, for example, genetically modified food;

c) vaccine skepticism also had no relation to political ideology but was strongest among religious participants and those with moral concerns about the naturalness of vaccination.

As for general trust in science and the desire for more funding for scientific research, the results were clear: it is by far the lowest among the religious. The religiously orthodox have the most negative views of science and don’t want to invest federal money in science.

To summarize the findings Rutjens writes that, with the exception of climate-change skepticism, distrust in science isn’t driven by political ideology. Moreover, with the exception of the case of genetic modification, scientific literacy doesn’t seem to remedy distrust in science. Finally, regarding vaccine skepticism and distrust of science, religiosity plays the largest role.

Brief Reflection – I would also propose that poor education combined with our many cognitive biases and bugs undermined trust in science which is both the best way we have to uncover the truth about the world and the only cognitive authority in the world today. Here’s to hoping that we don’t revisit The Demon-Haunted World that Carl Sagan wrote about so movingly.

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2 thoughts on “Trust in Science

  1. I think that Mr. Rutjens is missing a major consideration in discussing the relationship between confidence in science and political inclination: the degree to which a specific scientific conclusion clashes with a person’s political preferences.

    Thus, climate science deniers aren’t motivated strictly by their conservatism; it is the combination of their conservatism and the fact that climate science clearly requires us to make stronger environmental efforts. To conservatives, anything environmental is necessarily evil; therefore, any science supporting any environmental policy must be wrong, in their perception. We see the same thing with Mr. Pruitt’s attempts to undermine the basis for many environmental regulations supported by various health care studies.

    We can be certain that any science supporting a conservative political position would be applauded enthusiastically by conservatives.

  2. Thank you for opening this subject and for prompting me to think about it because, being a physicist myself, I have always felt uncomfortable about those who deny science or some aspects of it.

    When ordinary people think of science they don’t think of the pure activity of the scientific method that leads to discoveries and useful applications, rather they think of some of the products of science and depending on how such products affect them either positively or negatively they will pass their judgement about science and scientific activities in general.

    In fact, all activities are neutral by themselves. It is only when man becomes engaged in any given activity with a specific intention in mind whether neutral, good (for the benefit of all) or bad (for narrow selfish ends) that the activity begins to generate results or outcomes that are neutral, good or bad. The undiscerning mind, depending on how it is affected, will pass its general judgement on the activity as a whole. This will apply to political science, economics, business and management, religion, agriculture, education and every activity in fact. For example, many intellectuals distrust politics and religions because of the way they have been used by some people to further their ends. But if you probe those same intellectuals further they will not be short of many examples of political and religious activities towards which they feel quite positive.

    Those who are against vaccination are so because they believe perhaps, that big pharmaceutical industries are hiding the ‘truth’ about the dangers of vaccination in order to sell more vaccines; they are not against science per se. And similarly, those against climate change theory (apart from some industries with vested interests) are so because they believe climate change scientists are idealists who are against their modern ways of living and who fancy to live closer to nature. But they are not against science the benefits of which they cannot deny.

    However, there is one very strong aspect where some people may appear to be anti-science and that is the case when science gives explanations and views that are contrary to the religious beliefs held by these people such as the origin of man and the reality of the afterlife, etc. But again, those religious people will only be against these scientific conclusions but not the whole of science and the reason is because such conclusions threaten their worldviews upon which they have built their whole lives which they are not willing to abandon because it will mean committing suicide socially and psychologically.

    I believe that research about people trusting science should be more fine-grained to see what people are really against; is it science as the scientific thinking and method or is it some outcomes from scientific activities which were produced with bad or perceived to be bad intentions?

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