New research published in Group Processes & Intergroup Relations provides evidence that political ideology is one of the most important factors when it comes to predicting distrust of climate science among Americans. The findings indicate that ideology even trumps partisan identification, suggesting that people are not simply parroting the views of their preferred political leaders.
“There are two main reasons why I am interested in this topic,” said study author Flavio Azevedo, a senior researcher at the Department of Communication of the Jena University in Germany. “The first has to do with the urgency to understand the roots of the exceptional wave of anti-intellectualism and support for politics overriding scientific advice and recommendation on the basis of ideological commitments.”
“The unwarranted denial of science — irrespective of whether it regards social distancing and preventive infection measures during a pandemic, hesitancy towards vaccination, or supporting candidates impeding climate change legislation — is profoundly detrimental to public health, the environment, and the economy as recent events have shown in the United States but also in other countries such as the Netherlands and the United Kingdom,” Azevedo continued.
“The second reason relates to my own research interests,” Azevedo said, noting that he has participated in “meta-scientific projects hoping to better understand and improve the way scholars do science.” He also cofounded an organization, FORRT (Framework for Open and Reproducible Research Training), that seeks to integrate the tenets of science into higher education.
“More recently, I became interested in uncovering the political and psychological basis of antiscientific attitudes and in exploring differences and similarities between public vs. expert opinions in scientific trust, risk assessment, and conspiracy beliefs about COVID-19. So I am interested in science both as a topic of research within my research program in political psychology and as a meta-scientist trying to increase the quality of scientific research and the education thereof,” Azevedo said.
For their new study, the researchers used the research firm Dynata to survey 3,619 American adults regarding their attitudes towards science, their political beliefs, and other factors shortly before the 2016 election. In line with previous research, Azevedo and his colleagues found that people who were younger, identified as Republican, endorsed politically conservative ideology, were more religious, and were less educated tended to express more antiscientific attitudes.
But, of the 15 factors included in the analysis, the endorsement of politically conservative ideology emerged as the dominant predictor of antiscientific attitudes by a wide margin. Endorsing politically conservative beliefs was not only associated with the rejection of climate science, it was also associated with a general skepticism about the usefulness of science compared to faith and trusting ordinary people over experts.
“The main takeaway is that political conservatism appears to be the most robust and reliable factor associated with antiscientific attitudes. To contextualize these findings with the extant literature, our findings are at odds with the view that ordinary citizens are ideologically ‘innocent’ or ‘ignorant’; or that social and political behavior can be better — or entirely — explained by partisan identification,” Azevedo told PsyPost.
Those who scored higher on measures of right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, and system justification were also more likely hold antiscientific attitudes. Right-wing authoritarianism describes the tendency to submit to political authority and be hostile towards those who violate traditional values, while social dominance orientation describes the tendency to accept inequality among social groups. System justification is characterized by defending and justifying the societal status quo.
“Another takeaway is that individuals’ psychological dispositions appear to be crucial in explaining antiscientific attitudes in the United States,” Azevedo said.
The researchers used a nationally representative sample and controlled for a number of factors. But the new study — like all research — includes some caveats.
“While we took several precautions to assure the quality of our study, several limitations should be noted. The first is that this research was conducted in the months preceding the 2016 U.S. presidential election (from August 16 to September 16, 2016). Therefore, replications in 2021 and beyond are highly recommended,” Azevedo explained.
“The second limitation is that two of our dependent variables — skepticism about science (vs. faith) and trust in ordinary people (vs. scientific experts) — were measured with only two items each, which raises reasonable concerns about construct validity. Future research would do well to replicate and extend our analyses using better measures of attitudes about science, including complete scales with stronger psychometric properties.”
“I am very grateful to the Fulbright program and my Fulbright advisor, Professor Dr. John T. Jost, who over the last years provided crucial guidance and various opportunities. Our work together has profoundly edified my intellect. I also would like to thank my Ph.D. advisor, André Kaiser, for being the mentor I needed, supportive and reliable,” Azevedo added.
The study, “The ideological basis of antiscientific attitudes: Effects of authoritarianism, conservatism, religiosity, social dominance, and system justification“, was published May 31, 2021.