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Science Denial Is Bipartisan

source Science Denial Is Bipartisan ,  Elizabeth Suhay April 8, 2015 |, US New and World Report

Last month, news broke that officials in Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection had been told to avoid the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” The change in policy came soon after Republican Rick Scott, known to be a climate skeptic, was elected governor.

Is this yet further evidence that “science denialism” is widespread among Republicans?

Surprisingly, no. Recent research demonstrates that while Republicans may not trust scientists as much as Democrats, they actually usually defer to scientists, with climate change and evolution being important exceptions. In other words, while climate change skepticism is indeed alive and well among Republicans, it is not emblematic of Republicans’ attitudes toward science generally.

Furthermore, while we are living through a period of significant party polarization, partisanship is not enough by itself to explain science bias in the public. Social scientists who study how we talk about and understand science have found that other factors such as liberal/conservative ideology, economic values and religion matter just as much, if not more than, partisanship per se.

Scholars increasingly are recognizing that scientific research, the communication of scientific findings and the public’s understanding of science do not play out in a moral vacuum. A wide range of human values influence these three intertwined processes.

Frankly, that shouldn’t be surprising. Science can tell us which human goals are within reach and how those goals are best achieved. Science is inherently controversial because nobody wants to hear that their options are limited or that their preferred method of collective action (e.g., government versus private industry) won’t work. So individuals with strong convictions regarding both means and ends have a personal interest in what’s accepted as scientific “fact.”

Over the last year, my colleague James Druckman and I collected and edited an extensive body of new research by some of the nation’s most distinguished researchers on “the politics of science.” Published by the American Academy of Political and Social Science, many of the findings will come as unexpected. So at the risk of challenging what has become conventional wisdom – but with the hope of toning down some of our divisive political rhetoric – let me share a few of the most intriguing findings.

First, despite recent hand-wringing in the national media, the public as a whole tends to hold scientists in high regard and trusts their judgment on most scientific topics. Only a handful of scientific issues tends to be politicized. That said, where one finds politicization as in the case of climate change, public disagreement can be fierce. And when these political rifts are reported in the media, it unfortunately can lead to lower public trust in scientists overall.

Using the lens of conservative vs. liberal, both sides sometimes ignore or deny science, but each side does so with respect to different issues. Liberals are more likely than others to object to scientific evidence related to the safety of nuclear power, fracking and genetically modified organisms. Conservatives object to scientists’ views on climate change, evolution and stem cell research. Taken as a whole, the research suggests that conservatives do exhibit more anti-science bias overall; however, liberals are certainly not off the hook.

Unfortunately, increasing scientific knowledge in and of itself does not always improve matters. On average, those who are most aware of the nuances of science and policy debates are most likely to allow their values to color their scientific understanding. Case in point: Capitol Hill staffers’ global warming beliefs hinge more on their values and political ideology than the general public’s.

These are admittedly depressing findings, but hope remains. Smart science education can make a difference. For example, we know that public school teachers teach evolution more effectively when they have deepened their knowledge of the scientific process through advanced coursework in biology, and when they have reflected on how their religious values and scientific beliefs can co-exist.

There are important lessons in this. Science is not a collection of facts to be memorized but a rational process for drawing conclusions about the empirical world. In this way, it is different from – but can co-exist with – religion, which relies on faith.

Right now, too many people are willing to accept the scientific process only when it leads to conclusions that bolster their political, economic and religious outlooks. This leads to a dangerous distortion of scientific understanding. It inhibits our ability to see the world clearly, to formulate science-based policy to meet important challenges and to reach across the political aisle to implement that policy.

A critical first step in combating this all too human prejudice is simply to recognize its existence and commit to overcoming it. To better understand science, we first may need to better understand ourselves.

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