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« Beware of reacting too fast to the "TOOFAST" item in the GSS | Main | More GSS data on "anti-science" phantom »

"Where is everybody?" The missing "distrust of science" measures

From something I'm working on . . . .

4.1. “Where is everybody?” 

We adopted a critical stance in § 3 on existing measures of generalized science attitudes. We can think of two possible explanations for the absence of something more supportive of the view that general attitudes toward science are responsible for particular DRS [decision-relevant science] controversies. One is that  there just isn’t any substantial variation in the sorts of attitudes we have been describing, at least in the liberal democratic societies that feature public conflict over science issues. 

If a disposition is relatively uniform across the population, it won’t be possible, psychometrically, to form scales to measure it (Tinsley & Weiss 2000).  Items that admittedly do measure it won’t covary—because they won’t vary.  Accordingly, it will be impossible even to find items that one can be confident are measuring the disposition, much less find multiple ones to combine into a scale.

Is it plausible to think there is this degree of uniformity in “science attitudes” of the sort we identified in the second section? Looking around, we see very little evidence of any meaningful ambivalence toward the authority of science as a way of knowing.  Indeed, we suspect that most people in the US would be hard pressed at this point to even imagine what it would look like to live in a manner that didn’t treat science as authoritative over the kinds of matters to which it claims to speak. To be sure, there are grumblings about the performance of the institutions of science, but people—acting in their own capacity and through their democratically accountable agents—continue to support funding those responsible today for producing science. They do that because they think that the information is valuable for solving their problems: as we said, trust in science for decision making and trust of science institutions are linked.

But the question isn’t strictly how plausible it is that there is a uniformly high level of the various science attitudes we described in § 3.  It is instead how much  more plausible this conclusion is than the only other explanation we can think of for the absence of measures that detect meaningful levels of variance: that scholars of public attitudes toward science just haven’t realized that the “science attitude” measures” they are working with are inadequate, or have been too preoccupied answering related questions to identify better ones. 

We think that explanation is improbable.  There are too many smart and highly productive researchers in this field.

Enrico Fermi’s famous Bayesian “proof” against intelligent forms of extraterrestrial life (Gleiser 2016) applies at least as forcefully to the existence of meaningful forms of variance in dispositional trust in science, institutional trust of science, and acceptance of the authority of science: if sources of variance in these dispositions existed, someone would have found them by now.


Gleiser, M. The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything (University Press of New England, 2016).

Tinsley, H.E.A. & Brown, S.D. Handbook of Applied Multivariate Statistics and Mathematical Modeling (Elsevier Science, 2000).


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Reader Comments (6)

I don't know, Dan. I think the issue is between "who's your friend" vs. "who's your best friend". And we know what kind of fights that can provoke. The testing I've seen agrees that science is seen as a friend to all. But, best friend? That's different. After all, you found this in the GSS:

May 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Link drop (a long read, but worth it):

May 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

@Jonathan-- but amazing thing about that is only 50% of the religious rspts agreed with that, If they are on aboard w/ everyting else, that item seems pretty tangential

May 3, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan - but notice that "We trust to much in science and not enough in religious faith" doesn't differentiate between religious faiths. I would imagine, for instance, that many (if not most) American Christians would rather Muslims have more faith in science than Islam (although, as has been shown, not more faith in science to the extent of atheism). Also, as I mentioned once before, "we" is itself very ambiguous. Some very religious people will interpret it as being directed at them, and disagree because they personally do believe in religious faith maximally and science less than that. Others will interpret "we" as being directed at the whole population - but then the above "religious faith" issue kicks in. Others might even interpret "we" as being a passive-aggressively polite way to say "others, but not me".

My point to picking out this GSS item is that it is the only one we discussed that featured a direct comparison. I'm not suggesting that it is a good survey question, but it is better than others because it is a direct forced-conflict comparison between strengths of agreement within the same survey item. After all, this is the conflict that people face - whom should I trust more about evolution?

We know that very religious people believe in their own religion's notion of creation more than they believe in the scientific consensus of evolution. The smallest next step away from this datum is to establish if these same people would prioritize their own religion's notion of any (sufficiently important to that religion) X over the scientific consensus on X. If not, then we can say the effect is domain specific.

May 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Another link drop:

So - fake news, filter bubbles, etc. are overblown. My previous link drop shows some science consensus skeptics are reducing their skepticism. Wood & Porter say there's no backfire effect. Kendall Jenner made that oh-so-cute Pepsi commercial. Why isn't everyone singing "Kumbaya"?

May 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

" The smallest next step away from this datum is to establish if these same people would prioritize their own religion's notion of any (sufficiently important to that religion) X over the scientific consensus on X."

Having argued with quite a few creationists many years ago, I'd expect they would argue that the concept of "consensus" is unscientific appeal to authority ("just another religion") or 'ad populam', and what they demand is solid evidence they can't pick holes in. They'd do it on anything they didn't agree with - whether it's religiously important or not.

The inconsistency is that when it comes to things they agree with or don't care about, they generally will accept the scientific consensus without argument.

May 3, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV
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