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Why do science issues seem to divide us along party lines?

The ConversationMuch has been made about the predictable partisan split between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on issues of science and public policy. But what about their supporters? Can Americans really be that far apart in terms of science?

That liberals and conservatives have different opinions toward science is taken as a given. Typically, conservatives are painted as anti-science, with some studies suggesting their mistrust of science is increasing. Liberals, on the other hand, are usually assumed to be more receptive to science in general and more supportive of using science to shape policy.

Noting that party affiliation is different than political ideology – not everyone who identifies as liberal is a Democrat and not everyone who identifies as conservative is a Republican – these characterizations certainly seem to be true when we look at major leaders of the political parties. Many Republican politicians have publicly expressed doubts over the scientific consensus on climate change, for instance. At the top of the Republican presidential ticket is Donald Trump, who has called climate change a Chinese hoax and is on the record as supporting any number of other conspiracy theories. Conversely, Hillary Clinton’s line at the Democratic National Convention – “I believe in science” – was met with resounding applause.

Assuming that the stated views of outspoken politicians reflect the personal beliefs of voters within their parties is tempting. After all, voters elect politicians, presumably on the basis of having comparable worldviews. But research suggests that the link between partisanship and views on science may not be so cut and dried. Buried in the data is a much more nuanced relationship that’s well worth examining. As a sociologist who focuses on ways to communicate science issues to the public, I’m interested in how a more clear-eyed view of this connection could be used to help combat anti-science attitudes.

Quantifying the science trust gap

In 2015, researchers asked 2,000 registered voters how deferential they felt politicians should be to science when creating public policy on a variety of issues. On a 10-point scale, participants ranked whether politicians should follow the advice of scientists (10), consider scientific findings in conjunction with other factors (5) or ignore scientific findings completely (1). Issues included climate change, legalizing drug usage, fetal viability, regulating nuclear power and teaching evolution, among other topics.

The participants then responded to questions about their political affiliation and ideological views, religious beliefs and other demographic variables.

Most people supported trusting the recommendations of scientists on policy issues, even politically contentious ones. The average score for all participants across all issues was 6.4, and the lowest-scoring issue (letting same-sex couples adopt children) was 4.9. The results suggest, in other words, that even on divisive issues, Americans think that politicians should take scientific recommendations into consideration when making public policy.

Breaking down responses based on political leanings did reveal some partisan differences. When it comes to deferring to scientific experts on policy issues, conservatives and independents look a lot alike. Averaged across issues, independents said policymakers should weigh science and other factors more or less evenly (5.84), only slightly more than conservatives did (5.58). Liberals, on the other hand, expressed much higher rates of deference to science – across issues, they averaged 7.46.

These findings are interesting because we tend to think of independents as the middle-of-the-road in American politics. If conservatives and independents are on the same page, though, it means that liberals are the outliers, so to speak. In other words, rather than most people putting an emphasis on science while conservatives steadfastly ignore it, the truth is that many people want other factors included in policy discussions. It’s liberals who are further from the pack on this issue, wanting more emphasis on science than their peers.

Do these stem cells strike you as more liberal or conservative? Penn State, CC BY-NC-ND

It’s not their politics, it’s their values

Other research has similarly found that science denial can run the political spectrum. For instance, another study examined attitudes about climate change, evolution and stem cell research and found that partisan identification was not necessarily a good predictor of how someone will feel about these controversial issues. In fact, very few participants were found to be skeptical of science across the board. And reactions to these specific issues were more tightly linked with religious attitudes than with political ones.

Other scholarship echoes these findings. Indeed, research does suggest that a certain segment of the population places more trust in religion than in science for understanding the world. But even among this group, science and religion are seen as conflicting only on certain topics, including the Big Bang and evolution.

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