Science Denialism Crosses Party Lines

New research finds Republicans are no more likely than Democrats to express skepticism of the scientific consensus on contentious issues.
(Photo: Frank Fiedler/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Frank Fiedler/Shutterstock)

When scientists reach conclusions that challenge our cherished beliefs, do we rethink our positions, or discount the science? In recent years, a number of prominent thinkers have been warning about the dangers of the latter, with conservative climate-change skeptics receiving the bulk of the criticism.

It turns out that emphasis may be misleading. Newly published research presents evidence that science denialism does indeed exist, but refutes the notion it is particularly prevalent among members of a specific political party.

Examining public attitudes toward three controversial issues—evolution, climate change, and stem-cell research—two Nevada political scientists report that “party identification is virtually irrelevant to skeptical attitudes towards science issues.”

“Given the nature of elite-level discourse on evolution and climate change, this is a rather unexpected finding,” the University of Nevada’s Ted Jelen and Linda Lockett write in the journal SAGE Open.

Noting that previous research on this issue “has focused on attitudes towards science at a relatively high level of abstraction,” Jelen and Lockett decided to focus on the aforementioned three issues, all of which involve “contested science.”

Using data from the 2006 General Social Survey, which includes detailed demographic information, including political and religious affiliation, they looked at answers to three specific questions: Do you believe humans evolved from earlier animal species? Should stem-cell research be funded by the government? And, in your opinion, is there is genuine disagreement among scientists regarding “the existence and causes” of climate change?

Their first discovery was the lack of “any constituency of science policy skeptics.” While sizable numbers of people declined to endorse the scientific consensus on one or two of the three issues, “very few respondents exhibit consistently skeptical attitudes.”

What’s more, those skeptical attitudes toward science did not follow any predictable or consistent political lines. “With the sole exception of the relationship between Democratic identification and support for stem-cell research,” they write, “partisanship is not significantly related to any of the issues considered here.”

(Indeed, even on that issue, one could argue that support for government funding is more of an ideological than strictly scientific issue. One can agree with scientists on the value of stem-cell research and feel it should be left to the private sector.)

The researchers did find a strong (and expected) connection between certain religion-related beliefs and behaviors (including affiliation with a Christian evangelical denomination) and skeptical attitudes toward evolution.

“The same (religious) variables are related, albeit somewhat less strongly, to attitudes towards stem-cell research,” they write, “but are not significantly related to a belief that there exists a scientific consensus about climate change.”

Jelen and Lockett conclude that with the exception of evolution, which has been debated in the U.S. since the 1920s, science-related issues “do not lend themselves to simple characterization, or incorporation into more general belief systems or ideologies.”

While that’s an encouraging thought, it does leave open the question of why so many influential legislators continue to vehemently insist climate change is a myth. Clearly their views are not driven by the opinions of rank-and-file party members.

Hmm. Could it be that mollifying donors who have a financial stake in climate-change denialism trumps representing their constituents?