Conservatives have long been caricatured as ignorant, backwards, and anti-scientific. “Stupid people are generally conservative,” wrote John Stuart Mill, “I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.” Indeed, entire books have been written about conservatives’ anti-scientific bias. And yet, according to a recent Pew Research survey, “GOP-sympathizers are better informed, more intellectually consistent, more open-minded, more empathetic and more receptive to criticism than their fellow Americans who support the Democratic Party.” As Pew notes, “Republicans fare substantially better than Democrats on several questions in the survey, as is typically the case in surveys about political knowledge.”
It is true that self-described conservatives have a lower level of trust in scientific institutions than do self-described liberals. That wasn’t always the case. As recently as the 1980s, conservatives and liberals both expressed about the same level of confidence in the scientific community (while moderates, interestingly enough, were less trustful). Since then, however, conservatives’ trust in scientists has fallen, such that conservatives and moderates now are approximately equal in their scientific skepticism, leaving liberals alone in their confidence.
How does conservatives’ skepticism about the scientific community square with their being better informed about current events? Well, one possibility is that they’ve been reading stories like this one from the Boston Globe:
Last year set a record for retractions from the scientific literature, with some 400 in recognized scientific journals. This year looks on pace to meet or possibly even exceed that mark. In fact, an anesthesiologist in Japan may set a new individual record, with 193 papers under suspicion for bad data.
Retractions happen for many reasons, from honest error to plagiarism and faked data. The trend is clear: Journals today are retracting more than 10 times as many articles each year than they did a decade ago, while publishing only about 50 percent more studies than before.
I would consider myself very pro-science. All conservatives should be. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t real problems with the way our scientific institutions are operating today. Recognizing that doesn’t make you anti-science. It just makes you informed.