Lawrence Solomon: Dare to question establishment science

(April 6, 2012) Well-informed conservatives realize that much of what passes for science today is deeply compromised.

The better educated you are, the more likely you are to put your trust in science, or so says what scientists call the “knowledge deficit model” of scientific literacy. So why do conservatives become more and more skeptical of the scientific establishment on issues such as global warming as they become more and more educated? And why do conservatives, who once held science in very high regard, now hold it in relatively poor odour?

This rising distrust among better-educated conservatives “is a significant finding and the opposite of what many might expect,” said Gordon Gauchat, author of a study published last week in the American Sociological Review that portrays educated conservatives somewhat as a species of their own. Gauchat, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina, offers several possible explanations for what makes conservatives tick in his study, Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.

Unlike uneducated, ill-informed conservatives who are incapable of reconciling scientific truths with their ideology, Gauchat theorizes, “educated or high-information conservatives will hold hyper-opinions about science, because they have a more sophisticated grasp about what types of knowledge will conform with or contradict their ideological positions, and they will prefer to believe what supports their ideology.” Well-educated conservatives have boosters in this task, too, as the Los Angeles Times explained in an approving editorial that elaborated Gauchat’s views: “Right-wing think-tanks, funded by corporate interests to undermine the scientific consensus on such expensive-to-fix phenomena as climate change, have proliferated, as have conservative cable-TV networks, blogs and radio talk shows. In general, these outlets are talking to a well-educated audience. And they’re presenting a very one-sided view of scientific issues.”

Gauchat speculates that conservatives resent science-based government regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency for curbing the free-market ideology that conservatives cling to. He speculates that the religious right and moral issues such as stem cell research play a role. He finds significance in church attendance. The only possibility that Gauchat seems not to have considered is that these well-informed conservatives are not anti-science at all but are instead aware — as Gauchat and other pundits are not — that much of what passes for science today is deeply compromised. Scientists who answer to the political needs of regulatory agencies have a habit of following the exigencies of their political masters rather than scientific rigour. Well-educated conservatives are aware of the politicization of the climate-change debate and understand that a vast number of prestigious scientists, likely the majority of top scientists, are climate-change skeptics.

Gauchat in his study strives mightily to disentangle his subsets of data and explain the mysteries of conservative thinking. Yet had he not been obsessively preoccupied with conservatives in what advertises itself as a study of the broad public’s trust in science, he could have stepped back from his data and seen it for what it actually shows. The conservatives aren’t the oddity; the true-believing liberals are.

In 1974, the starting point for the study, all political groups that he considered — liberals, moderates and conservatives — held science in high esteem, with conservatives the most enamoured of science of the three, followed closely by liberals and then moderates. It was the moderates, not the conservatives, who first became disillusioned with the scientific establishment, and the moderates remain relatively disillusioned today. After the moderates began their disillusionment, conservatives, too, began to question the science that the establishment was purveying. Today the conservatives are more disillusioned than even the moderates, but only by a small margin. These two groups started at about the same place in 1974 and they have today arrived at about the same place. Nothing especially noteworthy here.

The liberals, on the other hand, never stopped being enamoured by the scientific establishment, never took seriously the complaints of establishment critics, never themselves questioned the science that the establishment produced.

Gauchat himself never asked why the liberals seem relatively impervious to change over time — they are today at about the same place as they were in 1974 — and why the liberals more resemble the uneducated conservatives and moderates in his cohort, who have also been relatively resistant to change. That is a mystery worth delving into.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe.

This article first appeared in the Financial Post.

To see Gauchat’s study of attitudes towards science by liberals, moderates and conservatives, click here.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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2 Responses to Lawrence Solomon: Dare to question establishment science

  1. Holly Knote says:

    It seems to me that, instead of dealing with the uncertainty surrounding the science behind global warming, the trend among many educated conservatives is to deny the phenomenon altogether. I can understand the acknowledgement of uncertainty regarding the magnitude and time scale of damage, how much and how soon significant damage will occur, but I wonder, at this point, how it is possible to definitively deny that human accelerated climate change is occurring. I can understand some level of uncertainty towards temperature variances over geologic time as compared to the current “spike” in temperatures, but I find it hard to understand how it is possible to deny that significantly increasing GHG emissions, over the past 150 years (CO2 and methane have increased by 36% and 148% respectively since 1750), has, in no way, accelerated the warming effect on Earth.
    In addition, conservatives will tend to be skeptical of climate change because it is bad for conservatism. Educated conservatives are the business people of our nation. Many of the fundamental principles of modern conservatism clash directly with climate change mitigation. For example, one of the cornerstones of modern conservatism is to exercise economic prudence in government, generally by lowering taxes, and another is to maximize individual liberty by decreasing the power and influence of government. In addition, their ideological values often reflect corporate values, which are to operate in such a way as to act in their best interests, or, in other words, to maximize profits for shareholders. All of these fundamental principles are in direct conflict with climate change mitigation policy as it requires some sort of government intervention and spending, and clashes with the corporate cost minimization strategy.
    It is obvious why educated conservatives are most likely to be human accelerated climate change deniers, and, if these so called “educated individuals” have even a basic knowledge of the processes behind human accelerated climate change, it has little to do with uncertainty regarding the fundamental science behind the human accelerated greenhouse effect, and a lot to do with serving the corporate mandate.
    It is not an issue of bad science, it is a value judgement: which is more important, catering to corporate interests, or conserving and protecting environmental integrity?
    This is a valid question; whether human induced climate change is occurring, is not.

    • Larry Solomon says:

      Holly,

      You seem to be a courteous, thoughtful person. So how do you explain that the trend (according to public opinion polls) among liberals and independent is also toward skepticism? And how do you dismiss the many top scientists who refute the scientific claims of the global warming adherents?

      Lawrence

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