Public distrust of science

According to a recent paper by Gordon Gauchat, nobody has much confidence in science.

The paper sets itself up to test whether self-identified political conservatives have gotten more distrustful of science over time (it says they have), but as the image above suggests, the bigger story seems to be that trust of science in general is quite low and not getting better. This, despite the increasing pace of scientific discovery. I am not sure exactly how much credit to give this sort of broad survey approach (there I go supporting the article’s thesis), but the result is probably not a surprise.

What I wonder is whether or not this is a good or a bad thing for science. I lean Popperian, and view science largely as a knowledge production system based on rejection. If working properly, and if scientific discovery is increasing, we should see more and more ideas rejected. This is particularly true if you consider the doors of observation opened by technology over the past several decades (sub-atomic physics, genomics, in vivo imaging technologies, massive computational capacities, etc.). So perhaps the increasing distrust of science is simply the evidence that science is proceeding at an accelerating rate. Of course, if we want the products of science incorporated into public policy debates, this could be a problem. And as always, the solution seems to be to better educate people about how science works.
(h/t Kevin Drum, Mother Jones)

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1. Gauchat, G. (2012). “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010″ American Sociological Review 77(2):167–187. DOI: 10.1177/0003122412438225

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About Adam Van Arsdale

I am biological anthropologist with a specialization in paleoanthropology. My research focuses on the pattern of evolutionary change in humans over the past two million years, with an emphasis on the early evolution and dispersal of our genus, Homo. My work spans a number of areas including comparative anatomy, genetics and demography.
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