Do Conservatives Distrust Science More Than Liberals?

Science versus ScientismGauchat

That, anyway, is the latest question making the rounds in the science wars. The simplistic answer, the one de rigueur on campuses and newsrooms, is “Yes.” Why, we even heard from President Obama this week that Republicans, because of their hostility towards science, are going to cause weather satellites to plummet to the Earth. And then, boy, just see who is attacked by tornadoes!

The “science” on everybody’s mind when you ask them if they are “for” or “against” science is global warming. But that, except for cogitations on the equations of motion and thermodynamics, isn’t a science at all; instead, it is a roiling political matter. Further, everybody knows this. We are told, are we not?, that the science is settled, that the sky is reaching a tipping point, and that the only thing which will stave off this calumny is massive injections of money into the atmosphere.

I belabor this argument to make the obvious point that if you were to ask somebody their innermost feelings (for what counts more than that?) about science, you might have thought you were inquiring about model parameterizations, but you are instead getting answers about the growing suspicion of the motivations of politicians.

Chris Mooney, for example, never understood this distinction. He devoted an entire book, The Republican War on Science, based on this category fallacy. His major mistake was to assume everybody defined contentious words in just the same way he did. He also, like many science watchers, is unable to separate scientism from science. Science tells us how things work. Scientism is the fallacious belief that science has all the answers.

For example, a person is under the sway of scientism when he says because science tells us that the Earth’s sensitivity to global warming is some X, plus or minus some Y, than we should institute a global carbon tax. That should is a moral question, not a scientific one, even assuming X and Y were true (values which for global warming, nobody knows with certainty).

A person belongs to the cult of scientism when he, upon hearing somebody question a scientific result or its moral consequences, reacts with rank indignation, snarky wonderment, or raw hate. James Wanliss’s article “The virtue of questioning ‘science’” is worth reading on this.

Conservatives Distrust Science?

Gordon Gauchat, an academic at the Sheps Center for Health Services Research, University of North Carolina, was taken by Mooney’s hypothesis that Republicans were not as trusting of “science”—I always put this in quotes when that word means both physics, chemistry, etc. or politics—as were Enlightened Democrats. He was so keen on the idea that he created a mugombo-sized statistical model to test the idea. He published his peer-reviewed results in the American Sociological Review in the paper “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.”

Gauchat, as do many academics, put the General Social Survey to use, in this case to track attitudes towards “science.” His main claim:

Results show that group differences in trust in science are largely stable over the period, except for respondents identifying as conservative. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest.

Right away, before reading another word, the suspicion is, if these results are right, it is likely because of the increasing confluence of science with politics and the rise of scientism, especially on the left. If more conservatives are really saying they trust “science” less, it’s likely because of their distrust of the political motivations of the uses science is put. Did Gauchat account for this?

He did not. He opens and closes his paper with quotes from Scientist in Chief, Barack Obama. The opener: “We have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas.” One cannot but agree, of course, but perhaps not in the way Gauchat hoped.

The suspicion the reader will have, seeing that Gauchat bookends his article with words from only one side of the political spectrum, is that he is biased. Why doesn’t he quote, for example, George W. Bush? Well, President Bush appears, but only to allow Gauchat to say that Bush “was widely seen as unfriendly toward the scientific community. As a consequence, many scientific organizations and advocacy groups became concerned that political and ideological interests were threatening the cultural authority of science.” The phrase “cultural authority of science” is redolent of scientism.

Like any good academic, Gauchat offers several theories of why people could be so bold as to question science. Most of these are not of interest to us today, though each allows for a certain amount of harmless fun. Let’s instead examine only Mooney’s (must resist temptation to rhyme…).

Mooney proposes that in the first two decades after World War II, political parties and ideologies were largely neutral and even deferential toward the scientific community. According to this account, the political neutrality of science began to unravel in the 1970s with the emergence of the new right (NR)—a group skeptical of organized science and the intellectual establishment in colleges and universities (see also Hofstadter 1970). The NR is often closely aligned with the religious right and promotes limited government, strong national defense, and protection of traditional values against what they view as encroachments of a permissive and often chaotic modern society

Besides the caricature of the right (none is offered of the left; Gauchat appears not to understand he is offering a one-sided story), note the use of “deferential”, a word which would only occur to those in thrall to scientism. Anyway, “Mooney identifies two cultural shifts in public trust in science in the United States. The first occurred with Reagan’s presidential election in 1980. The second shift occurred with the election of President George W. Bush in 2000, which Mooney marks as the start of the conservative ‘war on science.'”

The Model

But enough of this. What do the data say? Pay attention: Here is the question that was asked in the GSS (all markings original):

“I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them [the Scientific Community]?” Respondents were then given the choice to respond “a great deal,” “only some,” or “hardly any” (they could also choose “don’t know” or “refuse”).

Before reading further, go back and read the title of Gauchat’s article; also note what the press is saying about it. Back? Did you see it? Are you as shocked as I?

Yes, dear reader, the question is about the people running scientific institutions: the question is not about science itself. In other words—in true words—the GSS question wants to know people’s opinion of scientists not science. And not just scientists, but those in positions of leadership, which automatically entails politics of some kind.

So we have a sloppy beginning and poor writing, particularly in those who have summarized this article. Can Gauchat save himself through the use of multivariable statistical models?

He cannot. His (main) model, which he calls incorrectly “Predicting Public Confidence in Science”, is, in statistical terms, a kludge. It has (so-called) “Public Confidence in Science” predicted by: time, sex, non-white indicator, education in years, high school indicator, bachelor indicator, graduate indicator, live in the south indicator, church attendance indicator, family income, age, age-squared (why not?), independent, Republican, moderate, and conservative indicators, post Reagan indicator, Bush indicator, moderate times time, conservative times time, post-Regan times moderate, Bush time moderate, post-Reagan times conservative, Bush times conservative, plus random cohort effects.

I showed them all so that the reader could appreciate how complex this model is. Now, his sample size is 30,802, which practically guarantees, in frequentist statistics, publishable p-values even for false hypotheses. He should have satisfied himself by just plotting the means (which he did) and some indication of range (which he did not) for all three political ideologies (conservative, moderate, and liberal).

He interprets his model: “Underprivileged groups show lower levels of confidence in science: women, non-whites, and individuals with lower family incomes all report lower levels of trust.” So why didn’t the press and he trumpet something like “Women distrust science more than men” or “Blacks increasingly skeptical of science”, “Trust in Science ends: Women, the poor, and minorities hardest hit!”? Why just mention conservatives? All he claimed was that his model provided “strong evidence for a key claim of [Mooney’s] politicization thesis.”

What’s Happening?

The data is one thing, but no academic can stop there. Enter the theorizing:

[O]ne interpretation of these findings is that conservatism in the United States has become a cultural domain that generates its own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of science. For example, on fundamental ontological questions about who we are and how we got here, conservatives are far more likely to doubt scientific theories of origins, including theories of natural selection and the Big Bang

More scientism here. Science has no “cultural authority”. That a neutrino does or does not have mass has no bearing on the lives of the vast, vast majority of human beings. And not one word about how the irreligious are far more likely to doubt theological arguments of origins and how these arguments are are compatible with science (and even how science confirms some of these arguments).

Gauchat cannot see his own scientistic biases, which is not surprising. But what is shocking is his ignorance that the actual GSS question has distinct political overtones. The most natural explanation for any change, if the change is real, is the increasing politicization of some sciences, like global warming. But not all science: ask citizens about quarks or protein folding and the respect they have for those who direct research programs into them and you will surely get very different responses. Gauchat’s failure to account for these differences (and his one-sided examples) is actually more evidence that some science is politicized: namely, his own.

But he’s not finished:

Simply, if conservatives as a group are less educated than they once were, this might account for the decline in trust in the scientific community.

This argument, since Mill, has been a favorite of the left. It’s falsity does not, of course, detract from its appeal (but it does hint its opposite is true). If you don’t like the stupidity hypothesis, there’s always intelligent irrationality:

This implies that educated or high-information conservatives will hold hyper-opinions about science, because they have a more sophisticated grasp about what types of knowledge will conform with or contradict their ideological positions, and they will prefer to believe what supports their ideology (see Vaisey 2009).

The left naturally is never under the sway of ideology. (Insert the fake cough “Marxism” here.) He later says that “conservatives were far more likely to define science as knowledge that should conform to common sense and religious tradition.” Silence again on how liberals define science to mean, for example, free ______ (fill in the blank).

Gauchat concludes that “Most notably,the political discontent that has manifested in the right-wing in the United States has likely already affected the relationship between organized science, private economic interests, and government.” About the only interesting thing he says, and this is against all other appeals, is that his results “suggests that scientific literacy and education are unlikely to have uniform effects on various publics, especially when ideology and identity intervene to create social ontologies in opposition to established cultures of knowledge (e.g., the scientific community, intelligentsia, and mainstream media).”

That’s the first I recall an academic not calling for more education. But he goes and spoils it by saying that the mainstream media (like NB “It was a slip of the tape” C) is an “established culture of knowledge.” And with that word of wisdom, I draw a veil.

Update As is my custom, I email authors of works I criticize to offer them a rebuttal. Gauchat responded almost immediately with this:

Ad hominem circumstantial? Also, it is so funny how people try to debunk the work. This is part of a much larger project, with so much data in support of conservative and moderate distrust in science.

Oh well, I wish I was impressed enough with your critique to respond.


I said, “You’ll pardon me if I suggest that you could not have had time to read the critique. Nor is it good science to dismiss arguments by claiming you were not ‘impressed’ (particularly when you could not have considered them). It is, however, an indication that you have a belief (an ideology?) which you do not wish to question—a claim with which you might be familiar.”

I also said he was a good sport to respond. He immediately shot back an email with one word, “Snore”, to which I retorted, “Spoken like a true ideologue.”

Update Sometime later, Gauchat had a change of heart and wrote back:

I apologize for being dismissive, but do we need to resort to name calling. I do appreciate that you read the paper and thought about it. In science, it is difficult to balance what you present as evidence when you have a lot of different experiments/survey data. I understand your concern about sample size and the individual outcome I used. But, I have a lot of other data to support these claims, as I mentioned in the discussion and conclusion. I am working on publishing these additional findings, hopefully you will convinced.

One unsettling finding is that “authoritarian dispositions” account for a lot of the relationship between conservatives and attitudes toward science. Moreover, there is evidence that conservatives have become more authoritarian over time. So, things could be more controversial. Hope you keep up with this work.

Also, thanks for informing me about your critique. I will not comment on it though.

To which I replied:

There is no name calling; except, perhaps, in calling Mr Obama “Scientist in Chief”, which I hope you’ll agree does not sting.

Science is difficult, it’s true. Which is why it is crucial to explore all plausible mechanisms which could account for your data. You explored some, but eschewed others: I imagine (hope) this was unintentional. The large sample size is only one way to be led astray; but, as I said in my criticism, you would have be better off just plotting (a modified version of) your Fig. 1. By this picture, it does seem that conservatives increasingly answered the GSS with a lower mean.

It’s the interpretation of the GSS where we run into problems. There is no way to check to see how individuals who answered that question interpreted its meaning, or that the interpretation was constant across time, or whether the interpretation varied with time and by ideology (or any of the other demographic information). At the least, the question is surely about people and not about science per se. Any speculation about what participants thought about science is unwarranted—based just on this data. Differentiating science from politics from scientism can’t be done with this question alone.

I do look forward to your future publications.

Also, thanks for taking time to answer.


Thanks to the many readers who brought this paper to my attention, including Jason Lee


  1. Ken

    RE: “A person belongs to the cult of scientism when he, upon hearing somebody question a scientific result or its moral consequences, reacts with rank indignation, snarky wonderment, or raw hate.”

    THAT describes a sizeable number of “conservatives” (&, disporportionately, “Republicans” & “Tea Partiers”) that react viscerally the teaching of evolution and many of the key science & scientific tools used to reach various conclusions regarding evolution (e.g. carbon dating, mutations in DNA & genes from generation to generation, etc.). In some places they even endeavor, still (long after the famous “Monkey Trial”) to impose “Creationism” and “Intelligent Design” (ID) into school science curricula.

    As the courts have, or at least one court has, ruled Creationism & ID are essentially the same thing…and are NOT “science” at all (based in no small part on the revelation, in court, that ID positions were essentially quoted in substantial part directly from Creationist documents).

    So, yes, it IS fair to say that conservatives — a sizeable & vocal minority of them — DO endeavor to undermine the teaching of “science” in schools even going so far as to try & change laws (sometimes with some success) to further a religious ideology over objective science…and from that it is FAIR to say that many conservatives not only don’t trust, they are outright opposed & confrontational to science to the point they try to impose their brand of ideology/theology as a substitute on children. In some places that very tactic has been dubbed things like “indoctrination” and “propaganda” & so forth.

    IT IS NOT ALL ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING YOU KNOW. Compared to evolution & the ongoing attempts to impose, usually evangelical versions of religious doctrines, on science in schools — which is a direct attack on science by substiting something else entirely (and something else that is unsupported by/contradicted by science) the study & conclusions regarding global warming are a very weak example to try & make the point. Nobody denies there has been actual global warming…the debate really addresses how much and why–with positions generally split between a) its all because of people & CO2, etc. & we have reason to fear, and, b) its mostly natural variation & nothing to worry about.

  2. Briggs


    That does not describe a “sizable number” of conservatives. It describes a minority of them; vocal but small. It is true that creationism is false, but it is also, as Douglas Adams might have said, mostly harmless, especially because, as you noted, the courts have routinely sided against these movements.

    It is well to point creationism out, but now you owe us an examples of leftist mistaken science.

    Also, no need to shout.

  3. Will

    Ken, your example holds for both conservatives and liberals.

    There have been all kinds of things ‘re-taught’ due to liberal undermining of the education system. I would say that education itself being the biggest one; the emphasis on social responsibility has overshadowed the basics…

    I have yet to see a kid in public school get kicked out for flunking a math test, but bring a toy gun to school and -WHAMO- you’re out. In some places, even pantomiming a gun will do it. There was a time when playing Cops and Robbers was a common on the school yard…

  4. Speed

    A. Barton Hinkle writes at …

    You can’t swing a dead cat by the tail these days without hitting a liberal who thinks conservatives don’t believe in science. The liberals exaggerate, but they have a point.
    Before liberals start to feel too smug about all of this, they need to look back at the numerous instances when they, too, have rejected science for the sake of ideology.

    Alar, disappearing farm land, silicone-gel breast implants, genetically modified foods, bisphenol A (BPA).

    All of these cases were driven not by scientific fact, but by liberalism’s preferred narrative: Malevolent corporations endanger health and the environment and must be stopped by robust government intervention.

  5. Matt

    It’s amusing to hear the defense of evolution as though some people’s disbelief in its truth makes much of a difference to…well, anything, regardless of what the courts say.

    It’s certainly not all about global warming, but that’s at least something that has a bearing on whole lot of stuff. We could also talk about the recent hysteria over beef (the riduculously named “pink slime”), or the unwarranted fears about pthalates or nitrites or alar or vaccinations.

    I think that it makes sense to teach evolution in school as part of biology, but if it weren’t, what would the consequence be? I guess some of the usual bedwetters would have to change their sheets yet again. But what if global warming is taught as settled? What if a new generation of parents think that immunizations are dangerous and to be avoided? That sort of non-scientific nonsense ends up killing people.

    Frankly, the typical pro-evolution hysteric ends up looking dumber than the typical creationist.

  6. Carmen D'oxide

    Few, if any, of those who vilify the “vocal conservatives” consider that their response is one of frustration at having their rights trampled upon, of having government erode their freedoms, of being forced to surrender their property under penalty for purposes they think are wrong. Why shouldn’t they complain? The problem with lefties is they are unwilling to accept the behavior in others that they themselves indulge in. Maybe it’s blindness; maybe it’s venal. It certainly is hypocritical.

  7. Wayne

    I agree that the change is due to adherents of “liberal”/”left” philosophies jumping on the scientism bandwagon. Sixty years ago, they might’ve chosen to be mainline protestant, or perhaps Roman Catholics who disagreed with most everything their church taught. But that’s never really made sense in more than a country-club-like approach to life which has been fading since the Eisenhower era.

    So how does a scientism-ist get their morals? From what science shows makes successful species? Not really, since that shows us genocidal struggle at scales ranging from the microscopic to planet-wide human wars. It shows us alpha males who rape, pillage, enslave, and torture those below them in the hierarchy — human and non-human alpha males. Do we thus justify genocide, rape, pillage, theft, enslavement, and torture because that’s what science shows successful species do?

    Not really. Instead, followers of scientism decide what they want to believe based on reasoning that is somehow divorced from their beloved science. Increasingly, they depend on earnest, well-educated, intelligent, and passionate philosophers to determine their… well, their dogmas. Dress them up in colorful robes and and call it a conclave, if you dare be honest about it.

    Scientism has increasingly been used as a club against those who have remained religious, who thus be by definition “conservative”. It’s no wonder that they would less and less trust this political, religious, increasingly activist philosophy which is assaulting them.

  8. Eric Anderson

    Whoa, Ken. Somethings seems to have struck a nerve there. Your rewriting of recent history is pretty remarkable. Your understanding of the legal issues, including those presided over by the eminent and oh-so-clueless Judge Jones, is somewhat lacking. That aside, I always laugh when I hear someone deriding the rationality of anyone who could possibly, gasp, have the temerity to question any aspect of “evolution” (invariably, never carefully defined by the indignant accuser).

    Yes, one would have to be crazy to even consider the possibility that a highly-scalable, massively-parallel system architecture based on a 4-bit digital code with super-dense, multi-layered, multi-directional, 3-dimensional storage, utilizing retrieval and translation mechanisms incorporating file allocation tables and bit parity algorithms, all operating under top-down software protocol heirarchies could possibly be the result of planning and forethought.

    No, it is obvious to all enlightened folks that such a system could only have come about through a long series of accidental particle collisions. Yeah, that’s the ticket . . .

    No, we mustn’t even consider the possibility that such a system could be the result of purposeful activity. Indeed, the very idea is so dangerous that we musn’t allow the topic to even be broached in our public educational establishments. We must get the institutions of “science” and the courts to issue declarations by fiat that such thinking is dangerous anti-science . . .

    I think you’ve just volunteered “Exhibit A” in confirming Briggs’ point about scientism, as opposed to science.

  9. Ken

    Global Warming & claims that the “science is settled” involves some dismissal of uncertainties, etc. — that reflects bad science. In the long run in such a situation, the facts must inevitably be acknowledged.

    On matters such as evolution we observe certain variants* of religious dogma intruding into the teaching of science to the point faith-based-dogma displaces (or would if they could get away with it) the teaching of science.

    Those are very significant distinctions & differences: Bad science vs. indoctrinating children to confuse faith & mindless acceptance of certain dogma with what should be objective application of the “scientific method” to whereever it leads…and that includes challenging hypotheses, conventional wisdom, even things accepted as fact.

    If/when religious dogma intrudes, the capacity to challenge is obstructed in teaching where a conflict with dogma occurs. The topic may be evolution, which has little relevance to the vast majority by any measure…but…in an institution built to instruct kids to think & reason the introduction of a faith-based concept displaces & undermines such lessons & substitutes a certain degree of mindlessness as desirable. That is not education, that is cult-like indoctrination.

    * In any discussion involving evolution & Creationism/ID one must recognize that, in the US, the overwhelmingly dominant driver is evalgelical Christianity’s doctrines…and those conflict with, and do not represent, other “Christian” doctrines, such as Roman Catholocism (spelling?), which can accept evolution as a scientific fact. From a public policy standpoint, there is no clear meaning of “Christian” as its founder’s doctrine has been amended & fragmented so many ways that, from a public policy perspective (e.g. evolution is just fine, or not, within the science curricula), can qualify as distinctly different religions under an overarching label whose meaningful utility is rapidly fading.

  10. Dilution of education in science is the result of many factors, and not all of them can be pinned on “conservatives” or the religious right.

    School budgets cut education resources, with the result that classes can no longer afford experimental sessions and field trips. There are elementary schools in the Los Angeles area whose only science teaching occurs when university volunteers step in to bring science to the classroom (due to NSF grant requirements) without those volunteers, there would be no science taught in those classes.

    Political and societal pressures have eliminated dissections, frog labs, rat and mouse behavioral experiments. Fears of chemical exposure and accidents have restricted chemistry labs. Lack of equipment shuts down physics labs. Multiculturalism teaches that the scientific, technological Western civilization conveys no advantages over any other culture. No Child Left Behind and teaching to the EOG tests slows the progress of eduction to the least common denominator.

    Science education is suppressed when students are taught that “there is consensus! the science is settled!” Science is about questioning assumptions and performing experiments to collect data. Stressing “sustainability” and “nonmaterialist science” takes precious class time away from physical constants, synthetic pathways and biological processes.

    While there is no doubt that the reactionary conservatism and creationism imperil trust in science as an institution, it is liberalism, rather, that poses the greatest threat to education of science in our nation’s schools.

  11. Ye Olde Statistician

    Besides, isn’t science just a white, patriarchal exploitation of helpless nature?

  12. Luis Dias

    OMG you quoted WLC about science “confirming” theological bullpoop.

    And to think I ever took you seriously on these matters.

  13. Briggs

    Well reasoned rebuttal, Luis.

  14. Luis Dias

    (About the article in itself, I find myself agreeing with you, mr Briggs).

  15. Luis Dias

    Well reasoned rebuttal, Luis.

    I won’t derail the thread into a conversation about WLC’s shenanigans. His abuse of statistics cherry picked from science to further his own thoughts into complete non-sequiturs and false deductions never ceazed to amaze me, but my horror was to see that a very outspoken critic of people abusing statistics (you) could eat up what that guy says is… unpleasant. To say the least.

  16. Briggs


    How about a guest post about his “non-sequiturs and false deductions”?

  17. Joey

    “Ad hominem circumstantial? Also, it is so funny how people try to debunk the work. This is part of a much larger project, with so much data in support of conservative and moderate distrust in science.”

    He didn’t read this before he sent it, I think – or he was just letting you know what was about to come.

  18. Noblesse Oblige

    A society that dwells on poppycock like this and puts its resources and energy into it, rather than facing its real challenges, is doomed. Who cares whether conservative, liberals or N/A distrust science more than the other. Go ask the Chinese, Indians, Singaporeans et al whether they think America is a first rate country any longer. These competitors are eating our lunch.

  19. JH

    I think Mr. Gauchat has provided a good summary of research findings in the section Science and the Modern World and in bringing up possible interpretations supported by other studies. Of course, this is just what an author is supposed to do.

    As Mr. Gauchat pointed out,

    Overall, research on public trust in science has yet to address sociological issues relating to group change over time and has insufficiently identified how ideological dispositions influence public attitudes irrespective of education.

    Which is what he is doing in this paper.

    Mr. Briggs says: And not one word about how the irreligious are far more likely to doubt theological arguments of origins and how these arguments are are compatible with science.

    So, perhaps, the reason might be that this is not what he is studying and seems not relevant to the topic of public trust in science, and the data at hand cannot support such conclusion. Mr. Gauchat would know the answer.

    As Mr. Briggs pointed out, Mr. Gauchat writes:

    Given the theoretical relationship between education and confidence in science, an additional explanation relates to whether conservatives’ educational composition changed over the period. Simply, if conservatives as a group are less educated than they once were, this might account for the decline in trust in the scientific community.

    But then he concludes:

    Altogether, the data provide little evidence that group-specific differences in public trust in science are attributable to changes in conservatives’ educational composition.

    The paper reports the “enduring differences in trust in science by social class, ethnicity, gender, church attendance, and region,” and concludes that the decline in conservative’s trust in science is statistically significant and that the decline also exists in liberals though not statistically significant (see also the plot shown in this post.) Interestingly, Democrats and Republicans do not differ statistically in their trust in science.

    Mr. Gaucgat has also pointed out,

    Nevertheless, this study has numerous limitations. First, confidence in the scientific community is a single outcome used to assess public trust in science over time. In particular, one issue is how the public interprets the “scientific community” and the “people running these institutions.

    Well, as usual, I don’t see why people are upset by the conclusion. Overall, I think the author has written an honest and fair paper, imo.

  20. Will

    Noblesse Oblige: If you’re waist line has been growing like mine has, then you would know that nobody but me has been eating my lunch. 🙂

  21. Will

    Grrr— “you’re” should have been “your”.

  22. JH

    Mr. Briggs,

    Right away, before reading another word, the suspicion is, if these results are right, it is likely because of the increasing confluence of science with politics and the rise of scientism, especially on the left. If more conservatives are really saying they trust “science” less, it’s likely because of their distrust of the political motivations of the uses science is put. Did Gauchat account for this?

    Perhaps this is a good suspicion, which I failed to have before or after I read the paper. It wouldn’t be a suspicion if one can somehow verify this by evidence. Mr. Gauchat has neither defined/measured scientism nor measured the “confluence of science with politics.” If he did account for this, then wouldn’t he have committed a crime worse than what’s implied by the statement “The data is one thing, but no academic can stop there”? Who knows, you may have just given him more ideas to explore.

    Now, his sample size is 30,802, which practically guarantees, in frequentist statistics, publishable p-values even for false hypotheses.

    Technically, if there is indeed no difference between two group means, a larger sample size won’t guarantee a result of statistical significance. (Well, I can, at least, provide you a simulation proof.) A larger sample size will allow us to detect a smaller difference. It’s intuitive because a larger sample size would yield more precise results. However, regardless of the sample size, there is always the possibility of making a wrong conclusion.

    The problem is that even though there is a statistical difference between two group means, it doesn’t mean that the difference is of any importance. And a statistical test tell us neither what the difference might be nor whether the magnitude of the difference is of any importance. Put it differently, there is a difference between $10 and $10.01, but is the difference of 1 cent is of any importance? The answer would depend on the context.

  23. JH

    I should said “statistically significant difference” instead of “statistical difference” in my previous comment.

  24. Will

    JH: At 10,000 data points the required deviation from the mean will be so small as to be worthless (am assuming you’re talking T-tests)

  25. In my view we need to focus on the assumed problem, namely carbon dioxide and, to a lesser extent, methane perhaps. If I refer to trace gases take it to mean these, because I refuse to call them greenhouse gases.

    We have what we have in the Earth’s total system. Somehow, in some way we may never fully understand, a long-term near equilibrium situation has developed. We have some energy being generated in the core, mantle and crust, most likely by fission I think, but I won’t go into that. But it does set up a temperature gradient from the core to the surface which is very stable below the outer kilometre or so of the crust. However, it may vary in long-term natural cycles that have something to do with planetary orbits. Likewise, the intensity of solar radiation getting through the atmosphere to the surface may also vary in natural cycles which may have something to do with planetary influences on the Sun, and on the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit and on cosmic ray intensity and on cloud cover, ENSO cycles etc.

    There is much to be learned about such natural cycles, and we have seen papers by Nicola Scafetta for example which appear to provide compelling evidence of the natural cycles. I believe that in fact such natural cycles are quite sufficient to explain all observed climate change, including what has happened in the last half century or so, right up to the present. The world has just been alarmed because the 1000 year cycle and the 60 year cycle were both rising around 1970 to 1998, just as they did by about the same amount 60 years earlier, and 60 years before that and no doubt further back. We cannot escape the obvious fact that there is a ~1000 year cycle which is due for another maximum within 50 to 200 years. Then there will be 500 years of falling temperatures.

    But the central issue is whether or not trace gases are really having any effect at all on climate.

    In my paper I have explained the physics of heat transfer and demonstrated why trace gases cannot have any effect whatsoever on what we call climate.

    Climate may be thought of as the mean of temperature measurements, usually made in the air between 1.5 and 2 metres above the ground. Thermometers are affected by the thermal energy in that air near the surface. As you can read here thermal energy is distinct from heat. It is transferred by molecular collision processes (conduction and diffusion,) by physical movement (convection) and by radiation. . The energy in radiation is not thermal energy. Thermal energy is first converted to electromagnetic (radiated) energy and then that EM energy has to be converted back to thermal energy in a target. Hence, in a sense thermal energy only appears to be transferred by radiation.

    The Second Law of Thermodynamics (SLoT) tells us that in any (one way, independent) spontaneous process, entropy cannot decrease unless external energy is added. There are no two ways about it. If spontaneous radiation emanates from a cooler object (or atmosphere) its EM energy cannot be converted back to thermal energy in a warmer target, such as Earth’s surface. This point is not debatable. A violation of the SLoT cannot be excused on the grounds that there will be some subsequent independent process (maybe not even radiation) which will transfer more thermal energy back to the atmosphere. If you disagree, you are mistaken.

    However, the radiation from a cooler body can affect the radiative component of the cooling of a warmer body. Although such radiation undergoes what I call “resonant scattering” this does involve the “resonators” in the warmer body and uses up some of its radiating capacity. Because the incident radiation supplies the energy, the warmer body does not need to convert an equivalent amount of its own thermal energy. Hence it cools more slowly.

    But, the resonating process involves all the (potential) different frequencies in the incident radiation. There will be far less effect when there are limited frequencies as is the case for radiation from a trace gas in the atmosphere. Furthermore, the effect depends on the temperature of that gas and is less when it is cooler. It is far less from space (equivalent to about 2.7K) and so there is no slowing of cooling for that portion of radiation which gets through the atmospheric window.

    The remaining radiation (when we look at net figures, not all that backradiation) represents less than a third of all the cooling processes from the surface to the atmosphere. The other non-radiative processes can, and will, simply speed up in order to compensate, because they do so if the temperature gap increases. There are further reasons discussed in Q.3 in the Appendix of my paper.

    So there is no overall effect at all due to trace gases on the rate of cooling of the surface. Thus there can be no effect upon climate.

  26. Jim S

    How many of the above issues wouldn’t even exist if the Government got out of the business of education? We aren’t fighting over “evolution vs. creationism” — we’re fighting over how tax dollars are spent.

    We need separation of government and education for the same reason we have separation of church and state.

  27. GoneWithTheWind

    Almost everything we believe today has at one time in history been believed to be untrue. Almost everything we believe today to be false has on the past been believed to be true. So are we basing our skepticism on what history has shown us? That might be the most rational choice. I prefer skepticism.

  28. It amuses me that libs like Ken leap to cite Creationism as the mark of un-science.

    The sad fact is that very few truly understand Darwin’s theories. We are beset by Lamarckians posing as “scientists” in our best (and worst) institutions (of higher learning as well as political, if there is a distinction).

    The science of ecology brays anti-Darwinist claptrap at length, including Clementsianism (the belief that ecosystems “succeed” in deterministic fashion to “climax” conditions, which is unadulterated Freudian slop), “fragile network” theories, raging paranoia about dreaded extinctions, “balance of nature” ecobabble, etc.

    All of which are presented as “best available science” and all of which are throwback theories to pre-Darwinian Dark Ages.

    And all of which are rife with fanatical adherents consumed with religious fervor, including perennial witch hunts for non-believers.

    Darwin spins in his grave like a top.

  29. Outlier

    Why does he pick on conservatives when he shows that moderates are the most evil? 😉

    I don’t trust anything he says, does that make me a conservative or a moderate?
    I think zombies are more interesting that sociologists. What does that make me?

    age-squared… really! Yet another “scientist” (of the soft persuasion) pretends to do statistics when I’m not sure they can even do a dictionary.

  30. Matt

    I think that “conservatives are becoming more authoritarian” is an interesting observation. Mine has been the opposite. No doubt there is confirmation bias on both sides.

    At least he is convinced by his own work! Hopefully, Briggs will notice when the follow up is published.

  31. JH


    You may think of two-sample t-test if you wish. Whether the standard error is small is relative and depends on the variation in the data. If you have very large sample sizes, the sample means would be very close to the true means. Factoring in the small standard errors, a small difference between the two-sample means tends to imply a significant difference between the true means.

    Just as if you have vast amount of information about a person and know him very well, you would be able to detect easily when he deviates from his natural pattern of behavior.

    Still, if there is no difference between two means, a large sample size from each population doesn’t guarantee a result of statistical significance difference. Think of the insignificant difference between Democrat and Republican reported in this paper.

    After reading the comments, especially those on Ken’s opinion, one can easily imagine why Mr. Gauchat doesn’t want to comment on this post. Most academics cannot handle this kind of discussion, can you?

  32. Briggs


    “Most academics cannot handle this kind of discussion, can you?” Right on, sister. Most academics hate to have their arguments refuted, as we have done here (esp. by pointing out that survey participants have different and changing interpretations of what the GSS question is; and that the GSS question has to do with people and not science and that therefore Gauchat’s speculations/explanations are largely irrelevant).

  33. Eric Anderson

    Ken: “The topic may be evolution, which has little relevance to the vast majority by any measure…but…in an institution built to instruct kids to think & reason the introduction of a faith-based concept displaces & undermines such lessons & substitutes a certain degree of mindlessness as desirable. That is not education, that is cult-like indoctrination.”

    Agreed. Which is why we have to be cautious about “faith-based concepts” on either side. Certainly there are some folks who, for religious reasons, reflexively recoil at the idea of evolution, and I don’t have a lot of sympathy for that. Yet there are many, many other people, including people with no particular religious sympathies, who dispute aspects of the evolutionary storyline, not based on some religious text or religious sensibility, but on the scientific evidence. The idea that everyone who questions evolution (let’s note here again that we have not yet defined this exceedingly slippery word, a word which can mean everything from the obvious and well-supported to the outrageous and wildly-speculative) is a religiously motivated ‘science stopper’ does not stand up to scrutiny and is itself a form of scientism.

    I agree that we should not be condoning ‘faith-based concepts’ in biology class. For example, wildly speculative materialist myths like the idea that life arose from inanimate matter through a fortuitous accident, that representative information and software protocols arise from random changes in bit sequences, that all the diversity and complexity of life we see around us is purely the result of unguided natural processes . . . We should be careful not to push this materialist creation myth and should instead stick with the facts.

  34. JH

    My Dear Mr. Briggs,

    No, most academics don’t hate to have their arguments refuted or take any suggestions. You have not pointed out anything that the author has not known himself; see the last section of the paper.

    How the discussion/refutation is done is a different story. I don’t know how many conferences/seminars you’ve attended, but how often have you seen discussions like what you see on many (climate change) blogs in the seminars? I personally have not seen any, perhaps I am just that lucky, but I have attended many talks.

    ( I don’t see how “the GSS question has to do with people and notscienc” is any sort of refutations. Note public trust in science is seen as an extension of science’s cultural achievements in this paper. )

    Mr. Gauchat has tried to back up his arguments based on the evidence at hand. However, you cherry-pick the results and quote partially what he says, for example, you quote:

    Simply, if conservatives as a group are less educated than they once were, this might account for the decline in trust in the scientific community.

    You forget the premise,

    Given the theoretical relationship between education and confidence in science, an additional explanation relates to whether conservatives’ educational composition changed over the period.

    and the conclusion he makes based on the data is:

    Altogether, the data provide little evidence that group-specific differences in public trust in science are attributable to changes in conservatives’ educational composition.

    We know very well that when we are in professional conferences/seminars, what you see in the comment section is not the way we exchange ideas and conduct discussions.

  35. JH

    “We know very well that when we are in professional conferences/seminars, what you see in the comment section is not the way we exchange ideas and conduct discussions.”

    I think I just painted with a slightly broad brush!

  36. Ye Olde Statistician

    Technically, if there is indeed no difference between two group means, a larger sample size won’t guarantee a result of statistical significance.

    If the samples are large enough, there will always be a difference. That is a practical conclusion based on practice in industrial statistics over the past 35 years. For example: in a study of performance of different suppliers of aluminum coil stock, it was found that Vendor C’s coils had more tear-offs in the draw-and-iron machines than Vendor A’s or B’s. “Vendor C sends us bad metal,” was the typical reaction. But a deeper study revealed statistically that C’s coils performed fine when they were run on machines whose dies had been set using a C-coil. They performed badly only when run on machines that had been set up using A or B. Since A and B were the two primary suppliers, nearly all the machines would have been set up using their metal, hence C’s coils usually performed badly. The same turned out to be true of Vendor A and B when run on a machine set up using C! The metallurgists then did a subject-matter investigation and learned that while all three vendors supplied metal that met the specs, no two vendors supplied metal that was alike in properties: tensile strength, yield strength, and elongation. One of the three would differ from the other two on at least one property. Consequently, no one configuration of punch, die, and machine adjustments could accommodate all three.

    IOW there are usually more differences between two populations than the one you think you’re testing. The rule of thumb we used to apply was “Two identical pieces of equipment — aren’t.” We also knew that if we were to test ten performance outcomes against ten possible causal factors using an alpha of 1%, were were virtually guaranteed to find at least one spurious positive. For us, a “statistical difference” was a starting point, not a conclusion. I have seen statistically significant differences show up because we used one definition of a measurement and our supplier used another; because different technicians measured the two samples; because a hidden (lurking) variable had changed between one day and the next; because two different instruments were used; and so forth.

    And if this is true when dealing in hard sciences like metallurgy, chemistry, and the like, how much more so when dealing with a voodoo science like sociology? I had a hard enough time getting scientists and engineers to do statistics properly. I can only imagine what social “scientists” do.

  37. Bob Ludwick

    I don’t know about science in general, but in the case of Climate Science, it is clearly the conservatives, overwhelmingly, who are taking the side of science. The liberals on the other hand have gone to the mats to defend the Prime Axiom of Climate Science against copious empirical data which refutes it.

    The Prime Axiom: The planet is warming rapidly, at an increasing rate, as a result of the injection of CO2 into the atmosphere as a byproduct of mankind’s use of the combustion of hydrocarbons as its primary energy source. The consequences of this warming range from undesirable to catastrophic and can only be ameliorated by establishing a worldwide government with absolute control over all aspects of energy production and consumption.

    The raison d’etre of Climate Science is to collect, analyze, and disseminate data in support of the Prime Axiom, confirming the CO2 problem and thereby justifying its amelioration. Experiments, observations, or opinions that cast doubt on the Prime Axiom are instantly attacked by the ‘climate scientists’; any scientists who question it are attacked personally and professionally. There is widespread opinion at the pointy end of the ‘climate science pyramid’ that questioning the Prime Axiom should be criminalized.

    A field which is based on an unchallengeable axiom rather than data driven theories may be many things; scientific isn’t one of them.

  38. JH

    Ye Olde Statistician,

    Yes, practically, two population means probably will be different, and a larger sample size probability will allow us to detect a smaller difference, but not guaranteed. How large is large enough? Practically, we don’t know, we’ll need to define the value we’d to compare to and have a good idea about the variation in data.

    Yes, if you test a set of means individually, the probability of at least one would result in statistical significance is higher than the significance level used. Yes, a statistical significance is just a start! And using the sample size to discredit the test result is sloppy! `
    Now, go to Analysis section, you’d see that a mixed-level logit model is employed to analyze the categorical responses. All very interesting. For example, looking at figure 2, what’s been compared is the predicted probability, which is quite different from a basic t test.

    Have a great weekend!

  39. Outlier

    The Gauchat paper is here (no paywall):
    It’s worth reading the real thing instead of descriptions in the media since this is a hot-button topic.

    From the conclusion section:
    “that the scientific community inevitably becomes entangled in polarized conflicts (e.g., economic growth versus environmental sustainability). As a result, science is “increasingly seen as being politicized and not disinterested””
    (see the paper for the context and the full text of this quote)

    “Overall, this study points to a growing political polarization of science, even though the source of this polarization remains empirically underdetermined.”

    One climate-skeptical journalist has supplied an interpretation of the results to explain why moderates have not fell in place between liberals and conservatives.
    (Gauchat explains it in footnote 6 that moderates are “low-information individuals, and thus are the most estranged group due to their inability to mitigate social complexity”. ouch.)

    “Lawrence Solomon: Dare to question establishment science”

    In 1974, the starting point for the study, all political groups that he considered — liberals, moderates and conservatives — held science in high esteem, with conservatives the most enamoured of science of the three, followed closely by liberals and then moderates. It was the moderates, not the conservatives, who first became disillusioned with the scientific establishment, and the moderates remain relatively disillusioned today. After the moderates began their disillusionment, conservatives, too, began to question the science that the establishment was purveying. Today the conservatives are more disillusioned than even the moderates, but only by a small margin. These two groups started at about the same place in 1974 and they have today arrived at about the same place.

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