This study explores time trends in public trust in science in the United States from 1974 to 2010. More precisely, I test Mooney’s (2005) claim that conservatives in the United States have become increasingly distrustful of science. Using data from the 1974 to 2010 General Social Survey, I examine group differences in trust in science and group-specific change in these attitudes over time. Results show that group differences in trust in science are largely stable over the period, except for respondents identifying as conservative. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest. The patterns for science are also unique when compared to public trust in other secular institutions. Results show enduring differences in trust in science by social class, ethnicity, gender, church attendance, and region. I explore the implications of these findings, specifically, the potential for political divisions to emerge over the cultural authority of science and the social role of experts in the formation of public policy.


Mooney, Chris. 2005. The Republican War on Science. New York: Basic Books
>[ Gordon Gauchat: "Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010", American Sociological Review 77(2) 167–187 ]
The cultural ascendency thesis predicts a uniform increase in public trust in science across all social groups. In other words, the special congruence of science and modern institutions increases the need for scientific knowledge and public education, which, in turn, encourages public trust in science (Barber 1990; Parsons 1962; Whitehead 1946).

By contrast, scholars have predicted a uniform decline in public trust across all social groups, or the alienation thesis. This decline in public trust is associated with a cultural backlash against technocratic authority and science’s inability to defend itself against its own standards in public discourse (Beck 1992; Holton 1993).

Finally, the politicization thesis predicts that ideological conservatives will experience group-specific declines in trust in science over time. Conservatives’ distrust is attributable to the political philosophy and intellectual culture accompanying the NR[new right] and the increased connection between scientific knowledge and regulatory regimes in the United States, the latter of which conservatives generally oppose.


Figure 1. Unadjusted Means of Public Trust in Science for Each Survey Year by Political Ideology (Note: Figure shows three-year moving averages for each group, which smooth the patterns overtime.)

Barber, Bernard. 1990. Social Studies of Science. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers
Beck, Ulrich, 1992. Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London, UK: Sage
Holton, Gerald. 1993, Science and Anti-Science, Cambridge, MA; Harvard University Press.
Parsons, Talcott. 1962. “The Institutionalization of Scientific Investigation.” Pp. 7–15 in The Sociology of Science, edited by B. Barber and W. Hirsch. Glencoe, IL: Free Press
Whitehead, Albert North. 1946. Science and the Modern World: Lowell Lectures. London: Scientific Book Club.

[ Gordon Gauchat: "Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010", American Sociological Review 77(2) 167–187 ]
Using predicted probabilities derived from this model, we see that conservatives with high school degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and graduate degrees all experienced greater distrust in science over time and these declines are statistically significant. In addition, a comparison of predicted probabilities indicates that conservatives with college degrees decline more quickly than those with only a high school degree. These results are quite profound, because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives. Put another way, educated conservatives appear to be more culturally engaged with the ideology and, in Martin and Desmond’s (2010) terms, more politically sophisticated.

Martin, John Levi and Matthew Desmond. 2010. “Political Position and Social Knowledge.” Sociological Forum 25:1–26.

[ Gordon Gauchat: "Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010", American Sociological Review 77(2) 167–187 ]






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