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« Mistrust or motivated misperception of scientific consensus? Talk today at NAS | Main | Next week's talks »
Tuesday
Feb282017

Only in the Liberal Republic of Science . . . religious individuals trust science more than organized religion!

So I popped open a can of data—General Social Survey 2014 (the latest available)—a couple of days ago in anticipation of the talk I’m doing on Wednesday & I found out something pretty cool.

The thing had to do with responses to the GSS’s “confidence in institutions” module.  The module, which now has been has been part of the Survey for over 40 years, asks respondents to indicate “how much confidence”—“hardly any,” “only some,” or “a great deal”—they have in the “people running” 13 institutions:

a. Banks and Financial Institutions

b. Major Companies

c. Organized Religion

d. Education

e. Executive Branch of the Federal Government

f. Organized Labor

g. Press

h. Medicine

i. TV

j. U.S. Supreme Court

k. Scientific Community

l. Congress

Over the life of the measure, ratings for nearly every one of these institutions has declined “with one exception” (Smith 2013). “The exception is . . . the Scientific Community,” in whom confidence “has varied little and shown no decline.”  So much for Americans’ “growing distrust” of science.

In fact, over that entire period, “the people running” the “Scientific community” have ranked second, initially to those “running” medicine, but in more recent years to the “people running” the “military.” One can see that in this graphic, which I generated with the 1972-2014 dataset:

But what about those supposedly “antiscience” groups like conservatives and religious folks?

Turns out that they have displayed a remarkably high and consistent degree of confidence in those “running” the “Scientific community,” too.  Across the life of the measure, they both have consistently ranked the “Scientific community” as second or (in the case of religious folks for one time interval) third in confidence-worthiness

Indeed, conservatives ranked the “people running” the “Scientific community” higher than the “people running” the “Executive branch” of the federal government during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

 

Citizens who are above average in religiosity have consistently ranked the “people running” the “Scientific community”  ahead of the “people running” the “institution” of “Organized religion.”

So cheer up: there is no shortage of trust in and respect for science in our pluralistic liberal democracy.

Probably the only Americans who today don’t share this high regard for science are the “people" now "running” the “Executive branch.” 

They are the true “enemy of the people”--all of them-- in the Liberal Republic of Science

Reference

Smith, T.W. Trends in Public Attitudes About Confidence in Institutions (NORC, Chicago, IL, 2013).

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Reader Comments (11)

I think that the obvious issue here is that it would be necessary to understand what people mean when they think of "organized religion" or "the Scientific Community".

This is key to understanding how the people who now run the Executive branch came to power. And also, how the only available alternative in the last election had a slightly different flavor of Wall Street backers.

While it may seem to some of the rest of us that Christian fundamentalist Evangelicals are a pretty organized bunch, they view themselves as independent and "nondenominational". IMHO, while inclusive of many individuals from conservative religious groups they actively distrust "organized religion", say Presbyterians, (let alone Unitarians) and the national power structure of what might in fact be their own groups. This can change a bit, because in some cases these groups have gained power, note the reasons for which Jimmy Carter withdrew from the Southern Baptists. This also leads to what can seem to some of us outsiders as odd conundrums, like right wing Catholics who refuse to obey the Pope, when it would seem as if obeying the Pope was a fundamental tenant of their religious views.

Of key importance at the moment, with "the “people" now "running” the “Executive branch.” actually running the Executive branch, is figuring out how, over time, concerted and effective effort has gone into plugging into Christian fundamentalist evangelical and tea party identities and instilling these with conditions favorable for the elites that they then elect into office. Considerable effort has gone into such things as developing "Intelligent Design" as a substitute for the science of evolutionary biology. Which in my mind is a staging grounds for fostering the sort of skepticism that leads to questioning the credibility of (and scientific basis for) climate change. Which then leads to a willingness to dismiss the need for fossil fuel regulation.

With considerable bias as an analytical chemist, a field for which the Environmental Protection Agency arrived as a giant jobs program, I think that we need to look at how the current administration apparently feels free to defund the EPA. The rich and powerful have always been able to escape the consequences of their actions. Having made a polluted mess out of the Pittsburgh area with their steel mills and related operations, Carnegie, Mellon and Frick simply moved away. Only when things got extreme, as outlined by Devra Davis, in When Smoke Ran Like Water, did people rise up from their day to day needs and fight for the basic right to breathe. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1241331/pdf/ehp0111-a00058.pdf

A similar effort is taking place today. In the face of disruptive change, "the “people" now "running” the “Executive branch.” have been able to set up scapegoats for current and anticipated future conditions that deflect attention, and blame from themselves, and thus strengthen their grips on the reins of power. People's current jobs may in fact be changed by EPA regulations, global trade and immigration. But overall, the need to move away from fossil fuels, and the advent of information technologies and automation pose the most need for changes in the way employment, and thus individual's lives, are structured. And the alternative that the opposing candidate offered, in the past election, that an overall increase in employment and GNP meant that everything was just fine, did not resonate. People in general are not better off. The beneficiaries of our current economy are relatively few in number. Both political parties were only offering versions of the establishment power structure different in implementation but not net Wall Street results. Goldman Sachs seems to be fine either way.

IMHO, where the understanding of cultural cognative concepts can really come into play in rescuing the "Liberal Republic of Science", is in getting back to the root support for science as a field of study, and in enabling conditions that allow discussions of varying modes of possible implementation of science based technologies in a less fear based and emotionally charged atmosphere. Implementations of science can support human values, not just corporate goals.

February 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Good stuff. Mind-boggling, IMO.

You say:

=={ Over the life of the measure, ratings for nearly every one of these institutions has declined... }==

I am also surprised by how little, in general, the decline is across all categories, not just w/r/t the "scientific community."

It seems that organized religion shows a relatively large decline...which seems to make sense to me. And the press shows a relatively large decline. I wonder there how the respondants interpret that item...does it mean for some what is often referred to as the "MSM?" Perhaps, but even there, eyeballing the charts it looks like the drop is pretty similar in "liberals" and "conservatives," respectively.

February 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Gaythia -

=={ I think that we need to look at how the current administration apparently feels free to defund the EPA.... Only when things got extreme, as outlined by Devra Davis, in When Smoke Ran Like Water, did people rise up from their day to day needs and fight for the basic right to breathe. }==

Perhaps there is an inevitable pendulum. The disinterest in the corporate community for the welfare of the larger community, or even for its own long-term interests relative to short-term gains, is a constant. Thus, only when their transgressions against the larger community are unavoidable and obvious, is there sufficient public will to push back against their propaganda that the benefits of capitalism are necessarily in a zero sum game struggle with the negative environmental (or economic) impact of their capitalist activities. As the obviousness and directness of the impact is lessened, so is the will to enact regulations.

I note a news item from today:

Trump to direct rollback of Obama-era water rule Tuesday

=={ Which in my mind is a staging grounds for fostering the sort of skepticism that leads to questioning the credibility of (and scientific basis for) climate change. }==

My view is that truly substantive policies that target the risks posed by ACO2 emissions will only come about when the impact of ACO2 emissions clearly and significantly impact people in their day-to-day lives. Abstractions such as that there may be irreversible high damage function effects at some point in the future because of a fraction of a degree growth in SATs on a decadal basis cannot effectively defeat "We'll give you more, well-paying jobs if we lift environmental regulations." Of course, environmental messages will tend to do better when the economy is rolling and worse when the economy is less healthy, also.

In some ways it is a bleak scenario. On the short-term witnessing the effects of the pendulum swing back to increased power for the corporate community to essentially ignore any negative impact to the economicwelfare of the larger community and the environment will be hard to watch. On the other hand, if you look at the longer-term trajectory, the will to incorporate the welfare of the general community and the environment is on a positive track, IMO. Two problems there, however. The first is that the scale of negative impact, at least environmentally, may grow at an exponentially greater rate than the scale of our ability to compensate when the pendulum swings back again. The second is that the period of the pendulum last probably two or three decades or perhaps more. That means that I, at least (don't know about you), may not be around to see it swing back again.

February 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Also on a positive note...at least in a certain sense ...if you're interested in researching the effects of cognitive cognition

I suspect that given his druthers, Dan would prefer that the political manifestation of the polarization that results from cultural cognition were lessening rather than increasing...but at least he will know that he won't have any shortage of evidence to investigate.

February 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Probably the only Americans who today don’t share this high regard for science are the “people" now "running” the “Executive branch.”"

I expect that if you asked them, they'd say they shared the high respect for science in general that conservatives do. What they're less respectful of is a couple of specific sciences, and a specific subset of scientists, who they would claim are playing politics in the guise of science.

Whether you think they're right to do so or not, it's a very different question.

As you've noted many times before, when you ask someone whether they believe in evolution (say), you're not asking about their understanding of science, you're asking about their religious identity. Their answers are not correlated with their understanding of the science of evolution by natural selection. It'll be the same with climate change.

Liberals say climate change is real because they're liberals, not because they know any climate science. Conservatives say climate scientists are saying climate change is real because they're liberals, not because there's any actual evidence. Conservatives dismiss it because it's become entangled with politics. However, they *don't* dismiss unentangled science based on actual tangible evidence - stuff like GPS navigation or iPhones, or airplanes that don't fall out of the sky. They're as respectful of that as they ever were. I'd expect the current administration to be, as well.

"With considerable bias as an analytical chemist, a field for which the Environmental Protection Agency arrived as a giant jobs program,"

Aha! :-)

"I think that we need to look at how the current administration apparently feels free to defund the EPA."

Because they won the election?

"The rich and powerful have always been able to escape the consequences of their actions."

Apparently not. Or they'd not be bothering to defund the EPA...

But you ought to bear in mind that most of the cost of regulation isn't borne by the rich and powerful, it's borne by their poorer employees and customers. It's the poor who don't get jobs because they can't compete on cost with China because of those regulations. It's the poor who have to pay higher prices for goods in shops because the cost of cleaning up has been added.

As I've said several times before, you can solve the CO2 emissions problem via the free market, simply by ceasing to buy any product made or transported with fossil fuels. The price of renewables would skyrocket - making it a goldmine - and the price of fossil fuels would tank - removing any profit. The rich and powerful would instantly jump on the bandwagon to supply what the market wants. The only problem with the scheme is that the people wanting the change would have to pay for it, and they think that price is a lot higher than it's worth.

It's not the rich and powerful making the decision, it's the poor and powerless.

"their propaganda that the benefits of capitalism are necessarily in a zero sum game struggle with the negative environmental (or economic) impact of their capitalist activities"

The argument is that there are excessive costs to both very high regulation and very low regulation, and that the optimum point of minimum cost is in the middle between them. Increasing regulation above this point increases net costs, and that's what they claim has happened. There's no claim that the game is zero-sum. If it was zero-sum, the net cost would be constant, there would be no minimum, and it wouldn't matter how much regulation you applied.

"My view is that truly substantive policies that target the risks posed by ACO2 emissions will only come about when the impact of ACO2 emissions clearly and significantly impact people in their day-to-day lives."

Yes! Because that would constitute evidence! :-)

Although I'd note that for the past two decades the actual conditions have been set out in the Byrd-Hagel resolution, and thus have always been very clear. That policy might change now, but given that there's no more prospect now of the Byrd-Hagel conditions being met than there was 20 years ago, it's a pretty empty distinction, isn't it?

February 28, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV-- i don't care what they say or think of themselves. Their actions are devaluing the currency of facts in our political discourse.

March 1, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

<I>"i don't care what they say or think of themselves."

You can't fix the problem if you don't understand it.

"Their actions are devaluing the currency of facts in our political discourse."

Politicians, like the vast majority of the public, are shockingly ignorant of science. Even scientists are shockingly ignorant about science outside their own fields of expertise. Beliefs about science are developed and spread culturally - it's about who you trust, who you listen to, what sort of person you see yourself as, values, standards, passing fashions in education, all sorts of stuff. But as you have said yourself, it's not possible for people to actually examine the evidence for every scientific claim themselves, so what they believe is always a question of culture, not 'facts'. Which experts do you choose to trust/believe?

This has always been the case. Trump is no different to Obama in this regard - the only difference is simply in which experts he chooses to believe. For some time one particular group of experts have achieved cultural dominance, so "everyone" believes the same set of experts, and so believe the same culturally-relevant "facts" about science.

The shocking thing about Trump is that he comes from a radically different culture, trusting different experts, and therefore holding different beliefs. All his beliefs are wrong! But most of people's beliefs about science are wrong - Does the sun go round the Earth or vice versa? Are atoms bigger than electrons? Why is the sky blue? How fast do the electrons in a power cable flow? What force holds the clouds up in the sky? Is Oxygen a greenhouse gas? Does nuclear power cause global warming?

On almost all of these topics, nobody cares! People are seen to be ignorant of even basic scientific facts, and everyone just shrugs. It's only when they get entangled with identity politics that they become cultural shibboleths. That happens especially when the decisions made on their basis have political or cultural implications - when the policy consequences conflict with particular cultural habits and values. And that's the only time people suddenly get interested in "scientific facts" in political discourse. It's important that people believe in the right set of facts, trust the right experts, so they'll make the culturally correct decisions.

It's human nature. Our reasoning is heuristic - we don't have the processing power to check everything with full rigour, so we use all sorts of fallible shortcuts, subject to biases and fallacies. Everyone does it. You do it. We do it. Scientists in general do it. And that's why the scientific method invented systematic scepticism and the adversarial system of doing science, because while we're all individually flawed, we're flawed in different ways. The combination of our different biases averages out to something much closer to the truth. Intellectual diversity is essential to the scientific enterprise, especially in something as important as the political decision making that affects millions of lives.

Consider Mill's prediction:

There is a class of persons (happily not quite so numerous as formerly) who think it enough if a person assents undoubtingly to what they think true, though he has no knowledge whatever of the grounds of the opinion, and could not make a tenable defence of it against the most superficial objections. Such persons, if they can once get their creed taught from authority, naturally think that no good, and some harm, comes of its being allowed to be questioned. Where their influence prevails, they make it nearly impossible for the received opinion to be rejected wisely and considerately, though it may still be rejected rashly and ignorantly; for to shut out discussion entirely is seldom possible, and when it once gets in, beliefs not grounded on conviction are apt to give way before the slightest semblance of an argument.

Isn't rejecting things "rashly and ignorantly" just what you fear is happening? Have you really thought about what could have made it possible? Could Mill perhaps have a point?

To abate the force of these considerations, an enemy of free discussion may be supposed to say, that there is no necessity for mankind in general to know and understand all that can be said against or for their opinions by philosophers and theologians. That it is not needful for common men to be able to expose all the misstatements or fallacies of an ingenious opponent. That it is enough if there is always somebody capable of answering them, so that nothing likely to mislead uninstructed persons remains unrefuted. That simple minds, having been taught the obvious grounds of the truths inculcated on them, may trust to authority for the rest, and being aware that they have neither knowledge nor talent to resolve every difficulty which can be raised, may repose in the assurance that all those which have been raised have been or can be answered, by those who are specially trained to the task.

Isn't that just what people today are saying about "trusting experts"? What do you think happens when different "experts" grab hold of those levers of authority?

And consider what happens when those formerly culturally dominant experts have spent years pushing a line on shibboleth issues that is a version of the "Republican Brain" thesis? The predominantly-liberal media is full of experts talking about the shameful ignorance and unforgivable error of scientific heretics on a range of culturally-entangled issues, like evolution and climate change. What effect do you think that has on their trust in those experts? I think that's fairly predictable, don't you?

It's not the scientists selling them GPS navigation and iPhones they're mistrustful of - it's the ones on TV telling them they're stupid. The ones telling the public everyone must trust in their authority.

These arguments are not new. People need to refresh their memory of how the argument went the first time round, and how these issues were resolved before. This is one of the foundation stones by which the scientific method was developed, and a major reason for its success.

Trump and his supporters (millions of them) no longer trust the same experts you do. For you to do something about that, you first have to understand why they do so, how this came about, and how this fits into the philosophy of science. The predictable cultural reaction is to oppose it politically: - to shout "Trump supporters are wrong and stupid!" even louder - but as you know that only entrenches the political polarisation even further. Is there something smarter you can do?

March 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Gaythia -

BTW,with respect to this comment:

Of key importance at the moment, with "the “people" now "running” the “Executive branch.” actually running the Executive branch, is figuring out how, over time, concerted and effective effort has gone into plugging into Christian fundamentalist evangelical and tea party identities and instilling these with conditions favorable for the elites that they then elect into office.

and your comment from the thread downstairs:

I like the manner in which he is trying to evaluate left/right political identity, using biblical literalism, authoritarianism, and neoliberal beliefs. In my opinion, this gets closer to a profile that can more accurately model the public identities

I don't know if you've seen the following...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0MwmhWQyKYA&feature=youtu.be

In which Haidt describes some issues related to various associations with left/right political identity, and in particular the crossover between the inhabitants of the Executive branch, its supporters, and authoritarianism (as I recall, the discussion specific to authoritarianism starts at @30+ minutes in).

It's long, but I think worth viewing - and I've found the intersection of Haidt's work with Dan's work is very interesting.

I disagree with Haidt on some major issues, and I think that he tends to use too many broad brush strokes when he draws his portraits of groups, but I do like his approach to evidence collection and analysis, and consider him an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

March 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@NiV-- Trump's view of facts is the same as Scalia's: just "preferences" in disguise. Anyone who believes this is unfit to hold public office

March 1, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"Trump's view of facts is the same as Scalia's: just "preferences" in disguise. Anyone who believes this is unfit to hold public office"

That's the difference between objective and subjective reality. Objective facts may exist, but we don't have any direct access to them - everything has to come to us through the filter of perception, and be put together into some model of the world by our fallible heuristic reasoning. Even Bayesians have the problem of considering all potential hypotheses, setting priors, and devising some statistical model for calculating likelihoods. Descartes and Popper went on at length about the induction problem.

And then when you've built your model of the world, you still have Hume's is-ought problem to contend with.

My preference for someone in high office would be someone with the humility to know that they are fallible, and that the "facts" they "know" may indeed be a reflection of their preferences - as would be the case for anyone else.

Trump's not doing anything so sophisticated. He's acting like thousands of ignorant men sat in bars declaiming their theories on how the world is, based on stuff they heard from their mates, stuff they saw on TV, stuff they read on the internet. They piece together theories and beliefs from scraps of media tropes. And because they live in their own social bubble, with nobody regularly knocking them down, they come to believe them to be the absolute truth. They might well be wrong very often, but they're honestly held, fearlessly expressed, and make him very popular with all the guys sat in bars who finally having a champion to tell the 'elites' about their view of the world. That's democracy - even the ignorant and incompetent get a say in how we're governed.

However, my point is that *everyone* does the same thing, to one extent or another. The 'elites' come to believe themselves more elite than they actually are because they live in their own cultural bubble, and are just as convinced that their own theories are the absolute truth, their own experts the only authorities to be trusted. They order society according to their grand plan and theories, and dismiss opposition as being from ignorant and stupid people. And a lot of those people have got fed up of it. Feelings have been boiling up for a few years now - Trump spotted it, and got elected by giving the public precisely what they wanted.

The elites, obviously, are horrified. But this is what you get when you ignore and dismiss the people who disagree with you for years on end. They didn't want a debate, they didn't think they should have any say, they didn't want any intellectual diversity if that meant having to include people they didn't agree with in their institutions.

Until you realise how you got into this situation, you're never going to be able to fix it. At the moment, a lot of the protests are just people virtue-signalling their membership of their cultural group - they're in shock and are coming together as a community for comfort and reassurance. It feels good to stand united with your fellows and be taking some sort of action. And they're still living in the past, thinking that if their elite signals its will forcefully enough, that society will roll over and conform again. But that's not going to work.

It's one reason I asked earlier who you was addressing these protests to? If your fellow liberals, it's redundant, because they already believe as you do. If you are addressing it to Trump-supporters, in the belief that scientists protesting against Trump will bring science's reputation and authority to the political fight, I'm telling you that with the way the Trumpians look at it, all you're doing is infecting scientists with the taint of politics. Protest against Trump, and they conclude that academics are (and always were) partisan liberals willing to bend the science to their agenda, and angry that they're being thwarted. They'll see a political protest, and ask the government why they as conservative taxpayers are being asked to fund their political opponents to generate more propaganda to use against them and their culture?

I've even seen proposals being mooted on the conservative side to defund universities until they do something about the gross political bias in many departments, in the same way they introduced diversity measures to get more women and non-whites into universities. I doubt they'll come to anything, but anything's possible.

My point is that every time you take the confrontational approach to Trump's behaviour, you just make the problem (from your perspective) worse. There are things that scientists and academics could usefully do - and your science could make a real contribution here. But nobody's doing them because they're all too busy virtue-signalling their membership of the community of politically-liberal academics. If you really want to persuade Trump not to dismantle the entire edifice and start again, you all unambiguously identifying yourselves as his ideological opponents is probably the wrong approach.

He doesn't trust the established 'experts', who he suspects are partisan political opponents. What does your science say about how to make him trust them again?

March 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@NiV-- The slide wasn't offered to support the "truth of the matter asserted" but rather to illustrate what a social-marketing campaign artifact looked like.
It's interesting to hear the words you imagine me saying when you try to reconstruct a talk from the slides

March 2, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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