An unhealthy skepticism

The ideological war between right and left in this nation now appears to have sucked science into its vortex. It’s a development that could make crucial policy debates ever more dizzying, pitting fact against fantasy.

A study published last week in the American Sociological Review shows that trust in science among conservatives has dropped sharply. That in itself isn’t terribly surprising, given how Republican presidential candidates have cast climate scientists as alarmists.

What is surprising, and distressing, is that skepticism of science has grown mostly among well-educated conservatives. That’s at odds with a widely held belief that as education levels increase, so does confidence in science.

The study’s author, sociologist Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told the Los Angeles Times that better-educated conservatives are more familiar with views that question the credibility of scientists. “They have stronger ideological dispositions than people who are less educated,” he told the newspaper.

The change has been precipitous. A Gallup poll this year found just 30 percent of conservatives believe that global warming is a result of greenhouse gas emissions, compared with 50 percent two years earlier. So 70 percent of conservatives disagree with the overwhelming consensus of scientists.

Such disregard of empirical analysis may have more to do with the policy implications of such facts than of the facts themselves. The findings of climate science suggest the need for expensive solutions to curb carbon emissions, and of a growing role for government regulation — anathema to many of today’s conservatives.

But it also shows how far conservative ideology has shifted in recent years. Republicans were prominent boosters of science in the mid-20th century. The Environmental Protection Administration was born under a GOP president, Richard Nixon. Washington Republicans like Dan Evans and William Ruckelshaus have been outspoken, nationally recognized leaders in support of science and its role in conservation and environmental protection.

And a national poll released last week by Achieve, a nonpartisan education reform organization, showed Americans nearly unanimous (97 percent) in the belief that improved science education is important to the United States’ global competitiveness.

That’s reassuring, because a growing anti-science movement poses its own very real policy dangers. It could undermine, for example, public funding for research universities, which serve not only as laboratories of discovery, but as incubators of innovation that create jobs and save lives.

The precise application of science in the public policy arena will always be a fair subject of debate. Achieving policy ends through the rejection of science, however, will never be anything but a fool’s choice.

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