Do Conservatives Have a Monopoly on Antiscientific Thinking?

Liberals, conservatives, and selective skepticism

Posted Feb 07, 2018

On August 7, 2017, the New York Times carried the headline: “Scientists Fear Trump Will Dismiss Blunt Climate Report.”  A month later, an editorial there was titled “President Trump’s War on Science.”  These headlines followed Trump’s appointment of Scott Pruitt as director of the Environmental Protection Agency, despite Pruitt’s lack of scientific credentials, opposition to laws protecting the environment, and open denial of the strong scientific consensus that: “the planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 2.0 degrees Fahrenheit (1.1 degrees Celsius) since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere” (NASA/NOAA Jan. 18, 2017).  Pruitt and Trump are not alone -- fully 85 percent of conservative Republicans deny the evidence that humans have anything to do with climate change (Funk, 2016)

Climate change is not the only topic on which conservative Americans clash with scientific evidence.  Whereas the majority of liberals accept the strong scientific consensus that humans evolved due to natural processes, only 21 percent of conservatives do (Funk & Rainie, 2015).  American Vice-President Mike Pence (a conservative Republican) went so far as to say: “someday scientists will come to see that only the theory of intelligent design provides even a remotely rational explanation for the known universe.”  Questioning global warming is one thing, since most of us have received little or no education on environmental science.  But Pence, who graduated from college, should have had at least some exposure to the two centuries worth of solid scientific evidence for evolution by natural selection. 

How can one explain the conservative rejection of evidence from environmental science and evolutionary biology?  In a recent article in Social Psychological and Personality Science, political psychologists Anthony Washburn and Linda Skitka consider two very different possibilities.  The first they call asymmetrical ideological motivation – the idea that conservatives have traits that lead them to be more dispositionally distrustful of scientific evidence than are liberals.  Washburn and Skitka review evidence that conservatives are more rigid in their thinking and less open to experience, for example (e.g., Jost, Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway, 2003).  But they also consider a second possibility, which they call symmetrical ideological motivation – that people on the left and the right are both motivated to reject evidence inconsistent with their ideologies.  Consider for example, that liberals, despite generally accepting the theory of evolution, are selectively skeptical of evidence suggesting biological differences between men and women (von Hippel & Buss, 2017).  

To test these two alternative ideas, Washburn and Skitka presented 1,347 research participants with scientific evidence on 6 different politically controversial issues: climate change, gun control, health-care reform, immigration, nuclear power, and same-sex marriage.  The findings were presented in such a way that a quick glance would favor one side of the issue, but a more careful consideration would support the other. 

Table 1, original figure by Douglas T. Kenrick
Source: Table 1, original figure by Douglas T. Kenrick

Consider the hypothetical findings in Table 1, which compares the number of cities that had enacted stricter gun controls to those that did not.  On a quick glance, if one just looked at the absolute numbers of cities that had increases in homicides, it might appear that gun control laws were ineffective.  But if you took a more careful look, you would see that the percentage of cities getting better was higher for those that had enacted gun control laws (25%, versus only 17% for the cities without new gun control laws).  If you were a participant, this would be explained to you, and then you would be asked whether you agreed with the conclusions of the research, or were skeptical of them.

The results indicated that both liberals and conservatives were similarly biased in their processing of the scientific findings.  If a quick glance suggested support for their side, they looked no further, but if the absolute numbers didn’t look right for their position, they thought a little more carefully, and looked at the ratios.  And if they were later told that the results supported the other side, both liberals and conservatives were more skeptical of the scientists themselves.

What’s the bottom line: Scientific findings are often complex and hard to follow, but when the evidence does suggest a clear answer, it pays to think carefully, and put our ideological biases to the side.  That is precisely not to say one should trust politicians’ opinions as much as those of scientists.  Scientists sometimes disagree, but they are in the business of being skeptical, and developing better methods when the conclusions are uncertain (scientists no longer disagree about the central assumptions of the theory of natural selection, for example, because the theory has withstood numerous skeptical examinations, and is now based on evidence from numerous sources - from the fossil record (which finds evidence of numerous prior species linking humans and other apes, for example), from comparative anatomy (which indicates more similar bone structures in humans and whales than in whales and fish, for example), and from modern genetics (which has actually revealed biochemical similarities between the genes of apparently related species, such as humans and chimps, for example).  Politicians, unlike scientists, are in the business of exploiting their supporter’s ideological biases, and often have little regard for factual evidence.  As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Related blogs:

Why are their political views so self-interested? Revealing the hidden agenda of the political mind.

Atheistic liberals ARE smarter, but for a funny reason.

Religious piety as a mating strategy.

Why Hillary Clinton won the popular vote: An evolutionary perspective on the two surprises of the 2016 election.

Does Trump’s election disprove the existence of God?  Political psychology meets the psychology of religion.


Von Hippel, W., & Buss, D.M. (2017).  Do ideologically driven scientific agendas impede the understanding and acceptance of evolutionary principles in social psychology?  Pp. 7-25 in J.T. Crawford & L. Jussim (Eds.), The politics of social psychology. New York: Psychology Press.

Funk, C. (Oct. 4, 2016).  The politics of climate. Pew Research Center

Funk, C. & Rainie, l. (July 1, 2015). Evolution and perceptions of scientific consensus. Pew Research Center.

Jost, J. T., Glaser, J., Kruglanski, A. W., & Sulloway, F. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psychological Bulletin, 129, 339–375

Washburn, A.N., & Skitka, L.J. (2017).  Science denial across the political divide: Liberals and conservatives are similarly motivated to deny attitude-inconsistent science. Social Psychological and Personality Science.  Released September 2017 online, not yet published as of February, 2018.

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