Mistrust of science

Kevin Drum provides us with this chart showing the trust in science by political stance since the 1970s:

I haven’t read the study from which this is derived, but the decline in conservative support for science seems accurate to me.  I would have liked to see data going back to the sixties, because my sense is that the liberal support might have been lower than conservative support back then.  Those were the days of questioning authority, of good intentions mattering more than clear thinking.  But those days are long gone, and liberal support seems pretty stable.

The obvious explanation is that conservatives have gotten stupider over the years (or is appealing to stupider people, but that ain’t it.  Trust in science has dropped more precipitously among educated conservatives than among uneducated ones.  Drum says:

This is presumably part of the wider conservative turn against knowledge-disseminating institutions whose output is perceived as too liberal (academia, the mainstream media, Hollywood) in favor of institutions that produce more reliably conservative narratives (churches, business-oriented think tanks, Fox News). More and more, liberals and conservatives are almost literally living in different worlds with different versions of consensus reality.

This seems plausible. And, as Shermer notes in The Believing Brain, smart people are good at coming up with reasons to support what they already believe.

How do smart people decide not to trust science?  One way is to fasten on perceived scientific misconduct like “Climategate” to prove that science nowadays is just politics and careerism.  Another is to assert that it’s all relative, like Rick Perry’s characterization of evolution as “a theory that’s out there.”

Here is Stanley Fish in the New York Times saying the same thing in a more sophisticated fashion:

People like Dawkins and Pinker do not survey the world in a manner free of assumptions about what it is like and then, from that (impossible) disinterested position, pick out the set of reasons that will be adequate to its description. They begin with the assumption (an act of faith) that the world is an object capable of being described by methods unattached to any imputation of deity, and they then develop procedures (tests, experiments, the compilation of databases, etc.) that yield results, and they call those results reasons for concluding this or that. And they are reasons, but only within the assumptions that both generate them and give them point.

Vary the assumptions (and it is impossible to not have any), begin by assuming a creating and sustaining God, and the force of quite other reasons will seem obvious and inescapable. As John Locke said in his Letter on Toleration, “Every church is orthodox to itself,” and every orthodoxy brings with it reasons, honored authorities, sacred texts and unassailable methods of verification.

It is at bottom a question of original authority: with what conviction — basic orthodoxy — about where truth and illumination are to be found do you begin? Once that question is answered satisfactorily for you (by revelation, education or conversion), you cannot test the answer by bringing it before the bar of some independent arbiter, for your answer now is the arbiter (and measure) of everything that comes before you. Your answer delivers the world to you and delivers with it mechanisms for distinguishing good evidence from bad or beside-the-point evidence and good reasons from reasons that just don’t cut it.

So here is a very smart guy saying that there is no way of choosing among multiple approaches to the truth.  So really Joseph Smith, say,  is as worthy of belief as Einstein and Newton, as Dawkins and Pinker.

The standard answer to this (made repeatedly in the comments to his article) is that science, you know, works.  The earth does in fact move around the sun.  Germs do in fact cause diseases.  If Fish got sick, would he rather be treated by a witch doctor or a medical doctor?

Somehow this gets lost in the Fish’s equivalence argument.  And I suppose conservative elites will use the argument to buttress their suspicions of science.  After all, even the New York Times has its doubts.


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