Who is more anti-science, liberals or conservatives? There are at least two very different ways to think about this question:  1. Whose beliefs are more out of touch with science? and 2. Whose level of (dis)trust in science is more well-justified? This is the first of a series of blog entries that will deal with these and related issues. 

 People interested in psychology generally lean politically left.  This is important because the "other" side always seems out of touch with reality.  You, gentle reader, if you fit this political profile, can probably conjure up numerous examples of conservative science denial -- evolution and global warming probably readily come to (your likely liberal) mind.  However, if you have any doubt that your (liberal) beliefs appear as irrational to the right as the right's do to yours, I simply urge you to consider the title of a book by conservative radio host Michael Savage: "Liberalism is a Mental Disorder."  You can go back to feeling better by picking up a copy of Chris Mooney's "The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science--and Reality." 

Just because people on both sides think the other side is out of touch does not necessary mean both sides are equally out of touch with reality.  If you believe there are demons under the bed and I think you are delusional, one of us is actually right and the other is actually wrong.

So who engages in more science-denial -- liberals or conservatives?

I know you, my (mostly) liberal audience, you are itching to expose all those silly anti-scientific beliefs among conservatives, so let's start there:

Evolution.  Do conservatives deny evolution?  According to Gallup (Newport, 2012) 58% of Republicans think God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, whereas the figure is "only" 41% among Democrats.  That sure looks a lot to me like A LOT of people denying evolution, regardless of party.  You liberal Democrats really do not have much cause for pride with respect to the scientific savvy of many of your political comrades.  But still, Republicans are a bit more in denial.

Global Warming.  Do conservatives deny global warming?  Here the evidence is stronger.  The Pew Research Center (2012) found that 51% of conservative Republicans and only 7% of liberal Democrats claimed there was no evidence of global warming.  Furthermore, only 16% of conservative Republicans said global warming occurred because of human activity, whereas 77% of liberal Democrats believed human activity causes global warming.  There is no serious debate in the scientific community about these issues: global warming is occurring and human activity has exacerbated it, conclusions now accepted even by scientists who were once skeptical (Muller, 2012).  Ok, conservatives are pretty anti-science here.

However, on a slew of other issues, including fracking, the safety of nuclear power, and the alleged advantages of organic foods Republicans' views align more closely with those of the scientific community than do Democrats' views (e.g., Opposing Views, 2013).

Recent research has begun to hone in on how politics leads people astray from science.  The short version is this: Ideology is steeped in morality AND morality/ideology leads to distorted perceptions of scientific facts.

A new series of studies by Liu & Ditto (in press) showed that political ideology and moral beliefs influence people's judgments of facts.  After reading an essay that argued that the death penalty is barbaric and immoral, people estimated lower crime-reducing benefits and greater costs for the death penalty than after reading an essay that argued that the death penalty was morally justified and showed high regard for human life.  They found essentially similar results for several morally charged political issues, including use of torture, promotion of condom use, and stem cell research.

This is worth pausing over.  Whether the death penalty (or stem cell research, torture, condom programs, affirmative action, universal health care, progressive taxation or banning large bottles of sugary drinks) is moral or immoral on purely philosophical grounds is entirely irrelevant to whether it is effective or what its monetary costs are.  The financial costs and benefits of any program are exactly the same regardless of whether one considers them moral or immoral. 

Liu & Ditto also found three other interesting patterns.  There were modest tendencies for distortions to be strongest among people who: 1. held strong moral convictions; 2. considered themselves most informed; and 3. were conservatives.  This last finding was quite modest, so that even if conservatives' views of science are a bit more distorted than liberals, there was ample distortion among liberals.

When Liu & Ditto's (in press) findings are combined with this fact -- liberals heavily dominate psychological science (the ratio of liberals to conservatives is about 10:1 in social psychology -- Inbar & Lammers, 2012) -- a serious question about "science" is raised: How much do ideological/moral beliefs of psychological scientists color and distort their conclusions about what psychological science claims?  How "anti-science" is psychological "science"?  Stay tuned, as my next series of blog entries will include one on just this problem…

References

Inbar, Y. & Lammers, J. (2012).  Political diversity in social and personality psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 496-503.

Liu, B., & Ditto, P. H. (in press).  What dilemma? Moral evaluation shapes factual belief.  Social Psychological and Personality Science.Retrieved on 3/20/13 from: http://spp.sagepub.com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/content/early/2012/08....

Muller, R. A. (2012).  The conversion of a climate-change skeptic.  Retrieved on 3/20/13 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/30/opinion/the-conversion-of-a-climate-ch....

Newport, F. (2012). In U.S., 46% hold Creationist view of human origins.  Retrieved on 3/20/13 from: http://www.gallup.com/poll/155003/hold-creationist-view-human-origins.aspx.

Opposing Views. (2013).  Liberals, conservatives, political bias, and science.  Retrieved on 3/20/13 from: http://www.opposingviews.com/i/politics/why-do-people-believe-scientific....

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. (2012).  More say there is solid evidence of global warming.  Retrieved on 3/20/13 from: http://www.people-press.org/2012/10/15/more-say-there-is-solid-evidence-....

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