Why American Conservatives Don’t Trust Science

Tea Party vs RealityGiven the mess that the farthest right wing of the American Republican party is causing in Washington right now, this study might not come as too much of a surprise, but researchers Stephan Lewandowsky, Gilles E. Gignac and Klaus Oberauer find that American conservatives have become increasingly skeptical of science since the 1970s, publishing their study, “The Role of Conspiracist Ideation and Worldviews in Predicting Rejection of Science,” in PLOSone. This is the abstract:


Among American Conservatives, but not Liberals, trust in science has been declining since the 1970’s. Climate science has become particularly polarized, with Conservatives being more likely than Liberals to reject the notion that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the globe. Conversely, opposition to genetically-modified (GM) foods and vaccinations is often ascribed to the political Left although reliable data are lacking. There are also growing indications that rejection of science is suffused by conspiracist ideation, that is the general tendency to endorse conspiracy theories including the specific beliefs that inconvenient scientific findings constitute a “hoax.”

Methodology/Principal findings

We conducted a propensity weighted internet-panel survey of the U.S. population and show that conservatism and free-market worldview strongly predict rejection of climate science, in contrast to their weaker and opposing effects on acceptance of vaccinations. The two worldview variables do not predict opposition to GM. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, predicts rejection of all three scientific propositions, albeit to greatly varying extents. Greater endorsement of a diverse set of conspiracy theories predicts opposition to GM foods, vaccinations, and climate science.


Free-market worldviews are an important predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested. We highlight the manifold cognitive reasons why conspiracist ideation would stand in opposition to the scientific method. The involvement of conspiracist ideation in the rejection of science has implications for science communicators.

The full study may be read at PLOSone.


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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37 Comments on "Why American Conservatives Don’t Trust Science"

  1. If pendejos could fly, the skies would be dark with them.

  2. Calypso_1 | Oct 5, 2013 at 1:20 pm |

    There is an inherent assumption arrived at by the study that acceptance of particular ‘conspiracy theories’ is the result of ‘conspiracist ideation’ yet nothing in the survey is designed to analyze thought process. To make a claim related to ideation is specious given the abundance of psychological survey material available for such determination.
    That absolutely no questions were asked related to religious affiliation leaves a gaping hole in any conclusions for origins of such beliefs and strength of correlation to other factors.

  3. astrofrog | Oct 5, 2013 at 1:23 pm |

    “Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested.” How very biased. In my experience, ‘conspiracists’ are not anti-science. They simply have a very different view of what constitutes scientific evidence, what the real science says, and in particular, what are the appropriate epistemological considerations to bring to bear on any given piece of scientific evidence. Conspiracy theory merely posits that socioeconomic factors (propensity towards groupthink, authoritarian follower tendencies, and simple corruption) are as operative within the scientific community as within any other human group. These factors amount to noise within the data, and must be accounted for when evaluating the scientific literature (or any other claim from authority). This thorough skepticism naturally leads to rejection of a great many commonly accepted “scientific” propositions.

    • Charlie Primero | Oct 5, 2013 at 3:15 pm |

      You might like this week’s Red Ice interview. Professor Tjeerd Andringa of the University of Groningen describes the neurosis authoritarians suffer from…


      Basically, they suffer fear.

      • astrofrog | Oct 5, 2013 at 3:49 pm |

        Thanks for the link!

      • It seems to me that both authoritarians and conspiracists suffer fear.

        • Charlie Primero | Oct 6, 2013 at 6:55 am |

          In the interview the professor talks about different types of conspiracy theorists. Some conspiracy theorists are indeed fear-based. You should give it a listen.

      • I did not read the article presented here, but I followed your link and read the paper there. It was pretty well argued, and compatible with Spiral Dynamics.

        One thing that struck me in particular is a mistake I have been making most of my life and trying to correct lately. I have sought a “live and let live” existence, while also trying to live freely and creatively, and I have been rather flummoxed by the amount of attacks that came my way for living such an (so I thought) innocuous life. I wasn’t trying to rattle the authoritarian’s cages, I was just trying to ignore them or find work-arounds.

        Little did I know how much I was exacerbating their insanity simply by being.

    • when they use the term “science” they mean Orthodox Science, in much the same way people use the term Christianity, implying Orthodox Christianity.

      • As (former) Metropolitan Jonah and many others have said, “Orthodoxy is America’s best kept secret, and it’s our fault.” I think “orthodox” scientists may have the same problem.

      • astrofrog | Oct 5, 2013 at 11:20 pm |

        They may have meant “orthodox science”, but what was implied was an irrational science denialism arising from some mixture of superstition and hysteria.

    • What are you on about?

      “Conspiracy theory merely posits that socioeconomic factors (propensity towards groupthink, authoritarian follower tendencies, and simple corruption)”

      That’s not a theory (read: hypothesis), haven’t you even heard of Climategate? Well, you don’t really hear about much outside your own country do you. You are american seemingly, given you can’t spell scepticism properly.

      • astrofrog | Oct 8, 2013 at 7:57 am |

        I’m Canadian, bub. Skeptic is the accepted spelling where I’m from. So long as we’re being grammar- and spelling-Nazis, ‘American”, being a proper noun, is properly written with a capital “A”.

        As to what I was on about: I was making a distinction between “a conspiracy theory”, as in, a specific hypothetical narrative meant to explain a specific historical circumstance or series of events, and “conspiracy theory”, as in, the generalized theory of conspiracies. The former is indeed more properly designated a “conspiracy hypothesis”, however, the latter falls within the accepted definition of “theory” (being a unified explanatory framework for human sociopolitical, economic, and historical circumstances, events, and power relationships).

        I would posit that the overweening focus upon conspiracy hypotheses (especially the loonier ones) within the mainstream media, academia, and fringe movements such as organised skepticism, together with the total avoidance of the fundamental precepts of conspiracy theory that lead to these hypotheses in the first place, is largely driven by fear that the cognitive tools of conspiracy theory might be picked up and applied by a significant part of the population. If that happens it is game over for the power structure’s ability to manipulate the culture.

  4. Dingbert | Oct 5, 2013 at 1:27 pm |

    Interesting about the free-market worldview. The revival of Austrian economics is a great demonstration of the increasing rejection of science by conservatives, but also even by libertarians who typically pride themselves on rationality.

    I don’t understand what is reasonable about an economic school that:

    1) Rejects the use of mathematics and statistical methods
    2) Rejects the scientific method and any experimental methods
    3) Rejects historical analysis
    4) Accepts economic truth a priori–untestable and unable to be falsified
    5) Continues to profess their infallibility, despite over a century of consistently incorrect predictions and repeated empirical evidence of their failure by all other economists–including the classicists and monetarists who are sympathetic to their policies

    I’m not averse to heterodox economics and I understand a potential religious obligation to see science as less adequate than spirituality . . . but science as inferior to ideology? Jeez.

    • Charlie Primero | Oct 5, 2013 at 3:11 pm |

      October is indeed the month for building straw effigies. 🙂

      Nice one.

      • bobbiethejean | Oct 5, 2013 at 3:32 pm |

        I love it when people can’t actually come up with a real counterargument so they just start claiming the opposition is building strawmen. That always amuses me deeply.

        • Charlie Primero | Oct 6, 2013 at 7:03 am |

          Dingbert offers a really good, concise summary of common criticisms of Austrian economics in that post. They aren’t valid, but his rhetoric is effective because it would take pages of typing nobody would read to counter them.

          • bobbiethejean | Oct 6, 2013 at 10:14 am |

            I love it when people can’t actually come up with a real counterargument so they just say TL;DR. That always amuses me deeply.

          • Dingbert | Oct 6, 2013 at 1:14 pm |

            Maybe I can get you started. I’d read, not to counter, but to comprehend. After all, it’s impossible to disprove the Austrian argument because of its very nature. Even if I set up a straw man, he’d be invincible.
            My understanding is that most Austrians wouldn’t argue the validity of points 1-4, but rather would argue why economics should be done that way. Astrofrog touches on some of this below, I think.
            Point 5 is hard to refute. The early Austrians made several good microeconomic arguments that were eventually integrated into the mainstream. Hayek (who, again, I really do like) also had success in the “Chilean miracle.” However, this was really based on the Chicago school, with some Austrian overlap. And the circumstances of it’s application–a CIA-backed coup installing a neo-fascist dictatorship–overshadow its success. Other than that, there aren’t many success stories.

            I’m outside the mainstream, too, in another direction–post-Keynesian with Gandhian tendencies. I dread groupthink, though: I’ve been to several Cato Institute conferences (actually applied to work for them) and I’m surrounded by econ friends and family from GMU (the Austrian School school). However, my engineer’s mind instinctually wants to reject non-mathematical and non-scientific analysis of a field so rich with data.
            It’s healthy to have Austrians around for philosophical and psychological critique of mainstream methodology, but the unwillingness to acknowledge and rectify its predictive failures threatens the school’s relevancy and ability to be taken seriously.

            (I had to look up “TL;DR.” This post may qualify.)

    • It’s always been my opinion that the NeoCons rose to power in the 80s using marketing techniques borrowed from the industrial/commercial sector. Marketing is all about selling goods, services and ideas to people who would not normally buy what you are selling. You don’t have to sell tractors to farmers, you just need to convince them that they should buy your particular tractor. Having a usual and regular consumer base supporting your business is a good thing and keeps you afloat; bringing in new customers helps you earn more money and enables you to expand your enterprise. If your business is a political party, however, having a regular voter base is essential but also not adequate enough to keep your agenda in motion.

      The Neo-Conservatives took a look at “the market” and saw a large group of disenfranchised voters who distrusted the government and therefore either didn’t vote or “wasted” their votes on 3rd party candidates. They asked themselves, “how can we convince them to buy what we’re selling?,” and saw they could actually sell the darker parts of their product to these voters; parts that they normally attempted to hide from the public for being too ugly or socially unacceptable.

      They couldn’t come out and say, “guys, we need to deregulate industries so that the lobbyists with the really big checks will keep paying us,” so they saw a great opportunity to spin that section of their agenda to appeal to the John Birch nuts as, “get a load out of this, y’all. A bunch of those establishment intellectuals (you know, the kind that smoke dope and drink lattes) from EUROPE, yes the Europe created by the UN, they’re telling everyone that the climate is getting warmer and stuff so that the establishment can expand all these services and whatnot and increase taxes and write new laws and stuff. It’s obviously just a scam trying to get us to bow down to big brother government. What do ya think about that?! I know you don’t want the government telling you what to do.”

      And, of course, 1 in 5 grandpas* are on the streets with their fanny packs stuffed with pamphlets and waving anti-science flags shortly after. These “conspiracist” people don’t actually hate science as a discipline, they hate the government. They believe they have friends in DC trying to un-fuck everyone and stop the government from ruining all of our lives, and if they can give their votes and support to these politicians, that one day everyone else will see the light and we can finally fix what is wrong with our government. They have been told, and they do believe, that the scientists speaking before all of these political bodies are merely puppets of the government, putting on a play to convince everyone to allow the governments of the world to dig their tentacles deeper into our lives. They believe they are protecting an unknowing public, bless their little hearts. The arguments against climate change are obviously “talking points” handed down from climate destroyers to the particular politicians and counter-activists that they employ. The fact that there is even a debate at all over the validity of a wealth scientific data from a huge spectrum of unrelated sources points to there being an orchestrated effort organized in a top-down fashion. The anti-climate change effort is clearly another marketing strategy. We just have to follow the chain of talking points back to whomever issued them originally, then do a little research to see who they work for, and the puzzle will be easy to complete.

      Then there are the racists and fundamentalist christians that came along with the package of Conspirasists that they bought from marketing advisers. The NeoCons have thought of ways to sell the same “hidden agenda” to these sects as well, but that’s a few more paragraphs of typing and I want to go play video games now.

      *statistic pulled from ass

      • polybiblios | Oct 6, 2013 at 12:39 pm |

        And I think said marketers also appeal to some more subtle forms of racism: some — but not all — in the Tea Party know, in the backs of their minds, that they are intellectually inferior (and are inferior) to many in power. And that really galls them. I mean, here you have these people with such tremendous pride in their own ability to see things clearly; and at the same time, they know they don’t measure up to those telling them they are dead wrong. And they come to view this in racial terms — their heroes are the Jones’s and the Williams’s, basically anyone from their own race, ethnicity, and class that has even an inking of sense. Yet, Mr. Jones doesn’t really know anything about climate change; he didn’t go to grad school and acquire the requisite knowledge. He thinks he can “do his own research” and then prove the experts wrong. But, poor Mr. Jones… he’s neither sharp enough nor knowledgeable enough to take on such a monumental task.

        • I see what you’re saying, but I think it’s less black and white than you think. It is my opinion that a huge majority of Americans have a general sense that something is wrong with our government; but they can’t quite put their finger on it. I think that if you personally asked every single person in America the question, “What do you think about our government?” you will mostly receive the general answer “something is wrong in Washington,” across all age, class and race groups. People who actually want to try to fix the government do the only thing they are led to believe that they can, and support someone else’s cause. There are plenty of people with causes and ideas spouting off out there, Libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, Independents (wtf?), Fascists, Racists, Puppy Lovers, Christians, Muslims, and so on. There’s something for everybody in politics!

          I think that rather than these intellectually “inferior” people feeling threatened by being what you would call dull, instead experience a strange sense of uneasiness from people, places and events in Washington; and are unable to abate the fear with the meaningless talking points and news programs they are offered, which just so happen to contain no useful information or aids needed for their viewers to form an understanding of the nature of the events happening around them. The heroes that the people generally have are pre-made and presented to them, and their qualities have much more to do with social conditioning (intentional or not) than actual hatred for a race of people.

          The Tea Party grew out of a genuine grass-roots movement, no matter how silly it may be. Republican politicians were very quick in co-opting “the movement” in order to advance their aims, but unleashed an under-informed and angry part of the proletariat into the government. 10 pounds of shit that they’re trying to stuff into a 5 pound bag.

    • is autrian economics similar or the same as freedman’s Chicago school and/or Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy? Cause I was under the assumption these laissez-faire economic theories were rooted in mathematics, albeit a sham mathematics.

      • They are similar to the Chicago school, but not the same. Monetarists like Friedman are different still. The classical schools are even more different, but are the most common and home to the most laissez-faire types. But all these are more or less laissez-faire. The only opponents of scientific and mathematical methods in their entirety are the Austrians. For the rest of their disagreements, I recommend finding someone way more wonkish than me.

        I don’t know about Objectivism. I suspect they’d like the Austrians, and would lean more to the anarcho-capitalist faction than the minarchist.

        Most economic arguments are just Classical vs. Keynesian. When other schools make valid points, they’re usually integrated into one of the two (or both) and then they become something like “neoclassical” or “New Keynesian.”

  5. BuzzCoastin | Oct 5, 2013 at 6:03 pm |

    why would anyone in their right mind
    trust science or anything else
    they can’t verify by direct experience

    Science is a starting point for personal discovery
    not a religion to be slavishly followed & “believed” in

    • If I only trusted my direct experience I would’ve killed myself a couple of decades ago.

      But then I’m not in my right mind, so the question wasn’t mine to answer. 😉

      • BuzzCoastin | Oct 5, 2013 at 6:26 pm |

        I’ve been depressed before
        but not because of my direct experiences
        but because of my thoughts about my direct experiences

        when I began to stop judging my experiences
        as either good or bad
        they were simply experiences
        upon which I could build a personal science of living
        thereby giving up good & bad for understanding

        • so, what yer saying is its not good to judge experiences(or anything?) as bad or good?
          Damit! Morality is just plain immoral!

          • BuzzCoastin | Oct 5, 2013 at 7:34 pm |

            there is a need for cultural morality
            within a civilization
            there is a need for a personal morality
            for those in positions of influence

            but the good & bad I’m aiming to eliminate
            is a subjective reading of circumstances
            which can be destabilizing regardless of the judgement
            and to fix my energy upon
            that which produces the most pleasing result
            with the least amount of effort

          • yeah, I get it. just bustin yer chops. I think I agree w/ ya in some respects, being partial to the tao myself. it wasn’t you I was really arguing with so much as the concept of amorality being good and morality being bad

  6. It may be a good idea to put into consideration that conservatives are typically religious, and historically they tend to be homo neophobes.

    Conservatism as a political and social philosophy promotes retaining traditional social institutions.

    Look to the persecutions of Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, Turing, and many more. Anyone that challenged the status quo was called a heretic. This is a practice that is prone to limit intelligence and progress.

    Intelligence is the capacity to receive, decode and transmit information efficiently. Stupidity is blockage of this process at any point. Bigotry, ideologies etc. block the ability to receive; robotic reality-tunnels block the ability to decode or integrate new signals; censorship blocks transmission.
    ~Robert Anton Wilson

    In a sence, Like father like son.

    Picture: Cristiano Banti’s 1857 painting Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition

  7. wfzlsster | Oct 6, 2013 at 7:37 am |

    ‘Scientific Facts’ that are politically motivated or paid for are not facts. When grant money is only doled out to scientists with a specific agenda, such as man made global warming, the results will always be of limited value.

    • true. if you hear any new piece of information acquired by science its more than likely biased because it had to be funded by those w/ money. But some Truth still finds a way to leak through and may eventually be accepted.
      Read The Body Electric for an example.

  8. HowardBrazee | Oct 6, 2013 at 8:24 am |

    When reality conflicts with True Beliefs, reject reality.

  9. ishmael2009 | Oct 6, 2013 at 11:38 am |

    Back in college, we were told that self-selecting surveys were worthless (the example used was Shere Hite’s infamous sex survey).

    Whilst it does seem like trust in science is declining since the 70s, perhaps this is because for most people, that’s when computer modelling came in (Limits to Growth) which give obviously wrong and improbable results as a consequence of weighted assumptions.

    Lewandowsky isn’t doing science. He’s doing ideology and using a low-entry level “open-access journal like Plos to give it a patina of respectability for the press release. No researcher i know would take his “studies” seriously.

  10. Conservative have ALWAYS been anti-reality/science, they put Galileu on house arrest until his death for his beliefs. He was physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, considered ‘Father of Science’ today.

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