The declining authority of science? (Science of Science Communication course, Session 3)

This semester I’m teaching a course entitled the Science of Science Communication. I have posted general information on the course and will be posting the reading list at regular intervals. I will also post syntheses of the readings and the (provisional, as always) impressions I have formed based on them and on class discussion. This is this third such synthesis. I eagerly invite others to offer their own views, particularly if they are at variance with my own, and to call attention to additional sources that can inform understanding of the particular topic in question and of the scientific study of science communication in general.

In Session 3, we finished off “science literacy and public attitudes” by looking at “public attitudes” toward science.  The theory for investigating the literature here is that one if one wants to understand the mechanisms by which scientific knowledge is transmitted in various settings, it likely is pretty important to consider how much value people attach to being informed of what science knows.

1.  So what are we talking about here? I’m going to refer to the “authority of science” to mean assent to its distinctive understanding of “knowing” as valid and as superior to competing understandings (e.g., a religious one that treats as known matters revealed by the word of God, etc.). The relevant literature on “attitudes toward science” tries to assess the extent of the authority of science, including variation in it among different groups and over time.

Indeed, a dominant theme in this literature is the declining or contested status of the authority of science. “Many scholars and policy makers fear that public trust in organized science has declined or remains inadequate,” summarizes Gauchat, a leading researcher in this field. What accounts for that?

2. Well, what are they talking about? But before examining the explanations for the growing resistance to the authority of science, it’s useful to interrogate the premise: why exactly would anyone worry that the authority of science is seriously in doubt in American society?

Pew did an amazingly thorough and informative survey in 2009 and concluded “Americans like science.” They “believe overwhelmingly that science has benefited society and has helped make life easier for most people.”

This sentiment, moreover, is pretty widespread. “Partisans largely agree on the beneficial effects of science,” the Pew Report continues, “with 88% of Republicans, 84% of independents and 83% of Democrats saying the impact is mostly positive. There are differences—though not large—tied to race, education, and income.”

“[L]arge percentages,” too, “think that government investments in basic scientific research (73%) and engineering and technology (74%) pay off in the long run.” Again, this is not something that generates meaningful political divisions.

Data collected over three decades’ time by the NSF suggests that this 2009 picture from Pew is a but a frame in a thirty-year moving picture that shows — well, a stationary object. Americans love science for all the wonderful things it does for them, want government to keep funding it, and have for decades.

Amusingly, the Pew Report seems to feel compelled to pay respect to the “declining authority” perception, even in the course of casting immense doubt on it.  The subtitle of the Report is “Scientific Achievements Less Prominent Than a Decade Ago.” The basis of this representation turns out to be a question that asked subjects to select the “Nation’s greatest achievement” from a specified list.  Whereas 47% picked “Science/medicine/technology” in 1999, only 27% did in 2009.  Most of the difference, though, was reflected in the 12 percentage point increase in “Civil rights/Equal rights,” and nearly all the rest in “Nothing/Don’t Know,” the only option chosen more often than Science/medicine/technology.”

A better subtitle, then, would have been “After Election of America’s First African-American President, Recognition of Gains in Civil Rights Eats Away at American’s Awe of Science.”

3.  Uncritically examined assumptions tend to multiply…. I keep mentioning the bipartisan or nonpartisan aspect of the public’s warm feeling toward science because my guess is that the premise that the authority of science is in “decline” is an inference from the sad spectacle of political polarization on climate change. If so, then this would be a case where the uncritical acceptance of one assumption–that conflict over climate change reflects a decline in the authority of science– has bred uncritical acceptance of another–that the authority of science is declining.

I could sort of understand why someone might hypothesize that people who are skeptical about climate change don’t accept science’s way of knowing, but not why anyone would persist in this view after examining any reasonable amount of evidence.

The people who are skeptical about climate change, just like those who believe in it, believe by an overwhelming margin that “scientists contribute to the well-being of society.”  The reason that there is public division on climate change is not that one side rejects scientific consensus but that the two disagree about what the “consensus” on climate change is, a conclusion supported by numerous studies including the Pew Report.

A related mistake is to treat the partisan divide on climate as evidence that “Republicans” are “anti-science.”  Not only do the vast majority of such individuals who identify as Republican view science and its impact on society positively. They also, as the Pew Report notes, hold views on nuclear power more in keeping with those of scientists (who are themselves overwhelmingly Democratic) than the vast majority of ordinary members of the public who call themselves “Democrats.”

Another probable basis for the ill-supported premise that science’s authority is low or in decline etc. is the high proportion of the U.S. population—close to 50%–who say they believe in divine creation.  In fact, the vast majority of those who say they don’t believe in evolution also have highly positive views about the value of science.

I suppose one could treat the failure to “accept” evolution (or to “believe” in climate change)  as “rejection” of the authority of science by definition. But that would be a boring thing to do, and also invite error.

It would be boring because it would foreclose investigation of the extremely interesting question of how people who hold one position they know is rejected by science can nevertheless persist in an extremely positive view of science in general — and simply live in a manner that so pervasively assumes science’s way of knowing is the best one (I don’t know for sure but am pretty confident that people who believe in evolution are not likely to refuse to rely on a GPS system because its operation reflects Einstein’s theories on relativity, e.g.).

The error that’s invited by equating rejection of evolution or climate change with “rejection of the authority of science” is the conclusion that the rejection of the authority of science causes those two beliefs.  Definitions, of course, don’t cause anything. So if we make the awkward choice to analytically equate rejection of evolution or of climate change with rejection of the authority of science, we will have to keep reminding ourselves that “rejection of the authority of science” would then be a fallacious answer to the question what really does cause differences in public beliefs about evolution and about climate change?

4.  But then what are the “public attitude” measures measuring? The public attitude scholars, and in particular Gauchat, report lots of interesting data on the influences on attitudes toward science.  The amount of variance they find, moreover, seems too large to be understood as an account for the difference between the 85% of Americans who seem to think science is great and the 15% or so who seem to have a different view. The question thus becomes, what exactly are they measuring and what’s its relationship to peoples’ disposition to be guided by science’s way of knowing on matters of consequences to their decisionmaking?

Literally what these scholars are measuring is variance in a composite scale of attitudinal Likert items that appear in the GSS and the NSF Science Indicators. The items consist of statements (with which respondents indicate their level of disagreement or agreement on a 5- or 7-point scale) like these

  1. Because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for the next generation.
  2. We depend too much on science and not enough on faith.
  3. Scientific research these days doesn’t pay enough attention to the moral values of society.
  4. Science makes our way of life change too fast.

I think these items are measuring something interesting, because Gauchat has found that they correlate in interesting ways with other individual characteristics.  One of these is an attitudinal dispositions that Gauchat calls “institutional alienation,” which measures trust in major institutions of government and civil society. They also correlate highly with science literacy.

But in truth, I’m not really sure what the disposition being measured by this type of “public science attitude” scale is. Because we know that in fact the public reports having high regard for science, a composite “science attitude” scale presumably is picking up something more general than that. I am unaware (maybe a reader of this blog will direct me to relevant literature) that attempts to validate the “science attitude” scale in relation to whether people are willing to rely on science in their lives—for example, in seeking medical treatment from physicians, or making use of safety-related technologies in their work, etc.  I would be surprised if that were so, given how unusual it is the US & other modern, liberal democratic socieites to see behavior that reflects genuine distrust for science’s authority. My guess is that the “public science attitudes” scales are measuring something akin to “anti-materialism” or “spiritualism.” Or maybe this is the elusive “fatalism” that haunts Douglas’s group-grid!

Indeed, I think Gauchat is interested in something more general than the “authority of science,” at least if we understand that to mean acceptance of science’s way of knowing as the best one.  He is looking for and likely finding pockets of American society that are unsatisfied with the meaning (or available meanings) of a life in which science’s authority is happily taken for granted by seemingly all cultural communities, even those for whom religion continues to furnish an important sentimental bond.

For his purpose, though, he probably needs better measures than the ones that figure in the GSS and NSF batteries. I bet he’ll devise them. I suspect when he does, too, he’ll find they explain things that are more general than (& likely wholly unrelated to) partisan political disputes over issues like climate change.

Finally, in a very interesting paper, Gauchat examines variance in a GSS item that asks respondents to indicate how much “confidence” they have “in the people running . . . the Scientific Community”—“a great deal,” “only some,” or “hardly any.”  Gauchat reports finding that the correlation between identifying themselves as politically “conservative” and selecting “great deal” in response to this item has declined in the last 15 years. It’s interesting to note, though, that only about 50% of liberals have over time reported “a great deal” of confidence in “the people running . . . the Scientific Community,” and the individuals historically least likely to have a “great deal of trust” identify themselves as “moderates.”

I have blogged previously on this paper. I think the finding bears a number of possible interpretations. One is that Republicans have become genuinely less “confident” in the “people running the Scientific Community” during the period in which climate change has become more politically salient and divisive. Another is that climate skepticism is exactly what the GSS “confidence” item—or at least variance in it—is really measuring; it seems reasonable that conservatives might understand the (odd!) notion of “people running the Scientific Community” to be an allusion to climate scientists.  Gauchat’s finding thus points the way for additional interesting investigations.

But whatever this item is measuring, it is not plausibly understood as a measure of a general acceptance of the authority of science, at least if that concept is understood as assent to the superiority of science’s way of knowing over alternative ones.

Republicans continue to go to doctors and use microwave ovens—and continue to say, as they have for decades, that they admire scientists and science, no doubt because it furnishes them with benefits both vital and mundane.

They don’t (for the most part) believe in climate change, and if they are religious they probably don’t believe in evolution (same for religious Democrats).

But that’s something that needs another, more more edifying explanation than “decline in the authority of science.”

Reading list

Leave a Comment