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
e. Executive Branch of the Federal Government
f. Organized Labor
j. U.S. Supreme Court
k. Scientific Community
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.
Smith, T.W. Trends in Public Attitudes About Confidence in Institutions (NORC, Chicago, IL, 2013).