Conservatives versus Science: A New Scientific Validation of the Republican War on Science (and Republican Brain) Thesis

Read time: 5 mins

UPDATE: The paper discussed below is downloadable here.

For a while now, I’ve been aware of a powerful new paper that directly tests the central argument of my 2005 book The Republican War on Science—and also validates some key claims made in my new book, The Republican Brain. I’ve had to keep quiet about it until now; but at last, the study is out—though I’m not sure yet about a web link to it. 

The research is by Gordon Gauchat of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and published in the prestigious American Sociological Review. In the study, Gauchat uses a vast body of General Social Survey data to test three competing theses about the relationship between science and the U.S. public:

1) the cultural ascendancy thesis or “deficit model” view, according to which better education and engagement with science lead all boats to rise, and citizens across the board become more trusting of scientists and their expertise;

2) the alienation thesis, according to which modernity brings on distrust and disillusionment with science (call it the “spoiled brat” thesis if you’d like); and

3) the politicization thesis—my thesis—according to which some cultural groups, aka conservatives, have a unique fallout with science for reasons tied up with the nature of modern American conservatism, such as its ideology, the growth of its think tank infrastructure, and so on.

The result? Well, Gauchat’s data show that the politicization thesis handily defeats all contenders. More specifically, he demonstrates that there was only really a decline in public trust in science among conservatives in the period from 1974 to 2010 (and among those with high church attendance, but these two things are obviously tightly interrelated).

And not just that.

Gauchat further validates the argument of The Republican War on Science by showing that the decline in trust in science was not linear. It occurred in association with two key “cultural break” points that, I argue in the book, heightened right wing science politicization: The election of Ronald Reagan, and then the election of George W. Bush.

This one figure from the paper really, really says it all:

As you can see, conservatives go down, down, down in their trust in science over the period in question—which, of course, is also the period that thoroughly divided and polarized America.

And it’s not just these new findings that resound. Much of Gauchat’s data also validate key points from my new book The Republican Brain, which is in many ways my deeper elaboration of the arguments of the Republican War on Science.

First, Gauchat shows something I also highlight: Graduate degrees are now much more numerous among liberals, and the graduate education gap between left and right is widening. This factor–reflecting liberals’ greater Openness to scientific information and new ideas, as well as unending conservative attacks on academia (and recourse to ideological think tanks to take its place)–is a key structural force involved in driving conservatives away from science.

Second: Gauchat also captures, once again, the “smart idiot” effect: Conservatives becoming more factually wrong—or, in this case, more distrusting of science, which to me is basically the same thing—as their level of education advances. Here let me quote in full, because frankly, the finding can only be called highly disturbing:

…conservatives with high school degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and graduate degrees all experienced greater distrust in science over time and these declines are statistically significant. In addition, a comparison of predicted probabilities indicates that conservatives with college degrees decline more quickly than those with only a high school degree. These results are quite profound, because they imply that conservative discontent with science was not attributable to the uneducated but to rising distrust among educated conservatives.

The key question to pose, after reading Gauchat’s paper, is why this occurred. Clearly, The Republican War on Science’s politicization thesis is being strongly validated—a thesis that attributes the problem to the growth of a modern conservative movement, its need to appease its core interest groups and constituencies (corporate America, conservative Christians), its need to have its own alternative expertise and journalism (think tanks, Fox, Limbaugh), and so on.

But frankly, I don’t think this thesis goes far enough. That is the whole point of The Republican Brain, where I assert that we need a nature plus nurture account to understand why conservatives deny science and reality. And all of this stuff Gauchat is talking about is sociology—aka, “nurture.” It’s very real, undeniably so–but is it the whole story?

I doubt it. For instance, in their book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler have shown that as the “New Right” emerged in the U.S. in the wake of the cultural battles of the 1960s and 1970s, it mobilized strong forces of authoritarianism–e.g., psychological rigidity and closed-mindedness. In this era, driven by hot button “culture war” issues, authoritarians moved to the  right, leaving behind the Democratic Party, particularly in the South. These were the so-called “Reagan Democrats.”

I find it hard to believe that this trend is not also showing up in Gauchat’s data. If anything, the finding about church attendance kind of gives it away—in the U.S., authoritarians are often biblical fundamentalists.

Whatever the underlying causes, though, the punchline of the story that Gauchat tells—reaffirming the story I have told—is unmistakably grim. We now have a powerful linkage between a powerful political movement in the United States on the one hand, and the denial of science and reality on the other. This not only manifests itself every day in our dysfunctional political debates; it is a gigantic threat to the country’s future and its ability to cope with 21st century problems.

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Another good summary of the thrust of Chris’ assessments. But what can we do?

Arguing the facts does not seem to help; Educating does not seem to help. Voting helps, but only when you get a 60% majority, which is very unlikely.

Liberals, by the very nature of being liberal, have a disadvantage in the long-run. They are less religious, less indoctrinating, and have fewer kids. Doomed?

The Gauchat paper is available free from ASA here:

No.  I think Chris is actually on to a very important phenomenon.  What is it about conservatism that makes people shy away from FACTS?  

From the chart, it appears that just 38% of conservatives trust science.

So, while 62% have issues with research that chafes their moral or fiscal sensibilities, the 38% that trust science are not an insignificant number.

What would be useful is to look at why they trust and the others do not.

Also useful would be to draw in the 38% of conservatives (who make up 15% of the population)  to the conversation. To do that, everyone will have to be respectful and shy away from the name calling and ad hominem attacks that regularly grace the political blogs these days (and many House speeches, I might add!).

Do we want real action, or do we just want to carry  “signs, signs, everywhere signs, mostly saying ‘hurray for our side’?”

That is one of the 7 principles (Stephen Covey’s brainchild).

It is important to understand what is motivating the denier camp. This research is useful.

However, if climate action is to proceed, this kind of research must be used to develop a strategy that will win the game for our descendants. So, there has to be consensus building among a large enough group, say, 60% or more of voting citizens (in our various countries).

In the USA, the conservative-moderate-liberal breakdown is currently 40%-35%-21% (according to the latest annual Gallup poll). (Be aware that this is asking people to self identify.)

If it becomes a liberal versus conservative fight, well, let’s just everyone go home and prepare for the brave new climate. I don’t see any hope in making this an ideological battle. It’s a battle to make the reality of the climate threat painfully evident across ideologies.

I see two choices, at least. One is to get all the moderates on board. That gives you just 56% of the US population. The other is to break off some of the conservatives and most all of the moderates.

There are many different kinds of conservatives - not all are owned by the Koch brothers.

  • There are the ultra-libertarians who look little different from anarchists. The Koch’s father was a founding member of the John Birch Society, for example.
  • There are the libertarians who think the markets and property rights enforced through tort law will make everything all right, like Ron Paul. They want to minimize\\\\strangulate regulation. (Um, yes, I learned coding on a TTY10 tied to an HP2000.)
  • There are fiscal conservatives who want spending to be related to revenues.
  • There are social conservatives who value the social conventions they grew up with.
  • There are fiscal ultra-conservatives who bought into the idea that <sarc>if tax rates are zero, tax revenues will be infinite</sarc>
  • There are so-called constitutionalists, actually strict constructionists, who want to see the federal government stripped of all social programs and market interventions.
  • There are many who are conservative on one issue, moderate on some, and liberal on others.

Some of these are just not going to be won over, because dealing with such a huge market externality seems to contradict their ideology. The tragedy of the commons is not easily dealt with through strict libertarian enforcement of property rights. The so-called constitutionalists will just say it is not government’s problem to solve, but they might be convinced to take private action.To basic fiscal conservatives, it doesn’t matter as long as the deficit is brought under control. To the evangelical brand of social conservatives, well, many may be won by framing the problem as environmental stewardship.

In conclusion, while this is useful research, it is not sufficient to guide action in a way that will achieve positive movement. Let’s move to the next levels and look at building constituencies.

Thank you Chris for this important work, let’s progress to the next steps.

Rich, thanks for the insights. Obviously, the task is daunting but all is not lost. I feel one should have thought about this 20 years ago. In much of Europe, we are 20 years ahead of the US in this respect, and it only seems to get worse looking at the graph and the potential next POTUS. How do you think one can best motivate those conservatives and moderates? Framing is one thing. But I feel unless you get some media on the bandwaggon, and/or something truly bad happens climate-wise, too few are motivated to bother.

The Texas drought got some attention and I would like to see some polling being done there to  analyze for any effects on viewpoints and attitudes towards AGW and science in general.

“In much of Europe, we are 20 years ahead of the US in this respect,”

Western Europe does not have the fossil fuel reserves that the USA, Canada & Australia has. It’s easy to adopt new sources of energy and be critical of others when your country doesn’t stand to lose squillions in revenue from digging the stuff up. It’s like the quandary of being one of the worlds largest sources of asbestos, but at the same time, knowing your product is bad in so many ways.

“The Texas drought got some attention and I would like to see some polling being done there to  analyze for any effects on viewpoints and attitudes towards AGW and science in general.”

Yes, polling there would be interesting. But you would think national polling would encompass those places as well. It’s ironic that in the USA, it is the red states most affected by present and future climate change and these states are also the most vigilant in their opposition to the fact that climate change is actually happening.


Yes, but the most noticeable effects of the climate changes so far are in the northern latitudes. Temperature changes are more pronounced, ice sheet loss is visible, glacier loss is easy to spot, ice roads are open half the season the once were, towns build on tundra are sinking, and on and on.

The effects on the southern climes will be less obvious - droughts and floods … that is, until Miami is submerged.

“Yes, but the most noticeable effects of the climate changes so far are in the northern latitudes.”

Not as many voters around those parts ;)

“The effects on the southern climes will be less obvious”

I don’t know. The whopper of a drouhght in Texas surely got some questioning their faith.


Good to hear.

It doesn’t hurt that they have put up a lot of wind generation and have a solid solar industry as well.

“The effects on the southern climes will be less obvious - droughts and floods … that is, until Miami is submerged.” 

Well, they will certainly be at the forefront of experiencing the “joys” of global warming and a rising sea level if the new IPCC report is bourne out.

I will be long gone before 2070 arrives, but my kids might be able to go on tours of a very different Miami than today and not in a positive way.

“India’s 2001 census indicated that in Mumbai 5,823,510 people (48.9%

of the population) lived in slums (Government of India, 2001). In 2005,

the global slum population was nearly 1 billion, and it is projected

to reach 1.3 to 1.4 billion by 2020, mostly concentrated in cities in

developing countries (UN-HABITAT, 2006). In addition to Mumbai,

Hanson et al. (2011) found that the following cities will have the greatest

population exposure to coastal flooding in 2070: Kolkata, Dhaka,

Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Shanghai, Bangkok, Rangoon, Miami, and

Hai Phòng. Many of these cities are already characterized by significant

population and asset exposure to coastal flooding, and all but Miami

are located in developing countries in Asia. “


I’m sure most of the people in Miami will be just fine and will migrate as need be. But what of the people in those Asian cities? They contain literaly hundreds of millions of people. If deniers think they will simply stay put, or build up, they are kidding themselves. They will migrate. If western countries think they have refugee and immigration problems now………then oooooh shit, wait until those places start to flood regularly. 

in the thought that its really about money and lobbyists.  I feel that most folks will go with what they believe.  I feel that oil companies are just fueling the portion they want.  In the US its the Republicans.  In Saskachewan its socialists (NDP quietly burries and inquiry into Weyburn Carbon Capture leaks).

I wonder if these numbers coincide with a rise in the prevalence of science in our daily lives.  If you think about its not just that its science but many chunks of science butt up against values. Perhaps this is a rub off effect or backlash against that.

“Woman’s rights.  Bah! Who needs them!?!”

“But data shows they are equal to us…”

Look at the world today.  We run around with cell phones, computers, huge amounts of information at our finger tips.  All are products of science.

What was it like in the 1970’s?  You had a house, you had TV, and you had books.  It was much easier for people to control their little worlds, and there was less of the outside (and all those bothersome facts) to get in.

I believe the “Tree Hugger” term comes from the 70’s, and that generation as gone on to measure and prove things that are now entirely too inconvenient.

Just look at the Oregon Petition…   Well, not really.  Look at the guys behind writing it;

In 1988, Robinson’s wife died suddenly and he took over the home-schooling of their six children, leading to a profitable side business. He assembled a set of 22 CD-ROM disks containing public-domain versions of various books and educational materials such as the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica, Robinson Crusoe and McGuffey’s Readers, which the family now markets as a home-schooling kit. The kits sell for $200 each, and Robinson says the curriculum has been purchased by more than 32,000 families.

1911 science ought to be good enough for anyone.

Since the 70’s we’ve seen a huge increase in number and level of education for people in our society.

What are the percentage that are going into the sciences?

Hmm… Less and less.

“n the thought that its really about money and lobbyists.  I feel that most folks will go with what they believe.  I feel that oil companies are just fueling the portion they want.  In the US its the Republicans.  In Saskachewan its socialists (NDP quietly burries and inquiry into Weyburn Carbon Capture leaks).”

I’m of the opinion, this is true also. If there was no money put into paying off politicians and  lobbyists, then all we would have is the science. It would be interesting to see how opposed to AGW people like Senator Inhofe would be if there was no funding from fossil fuel companies. By funding politicians, it forces the public who are loyal to that particular brand, to back them unquestioningly and even go one step further and vociferously defend them. 



OilMan, Sask. does not have an NDP government. You probably mean Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party buried that report. They are the Conservative replacement, after many Sask. Cons became convicts.

“In 2007, the Saskatchewan NDP government promised to launch a year-long study into the problem. But that pledge went out the window when the NDP lost the election to the Saskatchewan Party just weeks later, say the Kerrs.”

Judy Curry has assembled some links to commentary about Mooney’s “neurobabbling”:

I’d recommend Philip Kitcher’s Vaulting Ambition to anyone who’d like to understand in more detail why Mooney’s argument (the biological one) is problematic:

Kitcher’s book remains one of the best on the topic, 25 years after being published.

Trouble is most of those who deny climate change will vote with the republicans. 46-48% of the American public is sleepwalking themselves and their families into a disaster of incredible proportions.

on this subject matter.

Raygun was the one who made it clear that his ideology and politics were inseparable from his “morality” as noted there, and who was it that thought trees emitted more polution than all the cars on the road?

He was also the one that introduced the idea in their noggins that gov is the problem wholly incapable of providing any meaningful solutions, which no doubt explains why he solved his election difficulties with what came to be known as Iran/Contra-gate, and set us on the following course – the short list which adds up to the same thing witnessed during the Bush years – up becoming down and failure success, and war crimes freedom-promoting.

It’s not so much that educated cons are “stupid”, but rather the fact that they have nothing but denials standing between them and the shame they should be feeling for having embraced and supported so many abysmal failures since Raygun took the helm, culminating in the class warfare and assorted other ills plaguing this nation. Raygun took the lying of Nixon and put a happy face on it which the biggest problem in this country today imo in terms of impediments, because it not only underlies their waning belief in science, but also the ever escalating coarsening of our political discourse that assures we remain divided on the problem solving front.

I see the growing “disbelief” you’ve been analyzing as evidence for little more than them getting tangled in their own web of deciet, requiring a constant doubling down on dishonest dummihood and the denial to themselves that this isn’t the case, which as your graph shows, was a steady drop during the Bush years I had made this case for – when “Gorebal Warming” was the “rage”, and faith that Frist could diagnose Schiavo from a video were the order of the day.  Had Bush ran out the door on 9/11 as swiftly comparatively speaking as he did to fly to DC to sign her salvation, in that battle over medical science v faith

The only successful trickle down scheme the modern right wing has ever produced is with dummihood.  This is not to say that the masterminds/puppetmasters are dummies sharing analogous to the economic animal, but rather that like Pavlov, they know what buttons to push, which is why they assume the role of flat earthers, trickle downers, warmongering, etc, dummies themselves, to fulfill their role first and foremost as protectors of the aristocracy, as they have for centuries

I think the reason why we see the slope during the Bush years is the result of a concerted effort to avoid for as long as possible through political strength, the “socialistic” solutions that global warming are gonna require, which is why Gore was used as a figurehead and has suffered a fate analogous in the public square to the one Galileo did when he threatened the powers that were in his time.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take the cons centuries to apologize and concede that he was/is right like it took the Catholic Church, no?


If this remains a liberal versus conservative battle royal, our children are doomed.

Secondly, there are plenty of non-socialist, market oriented solutions available. They can be acceptable to a broad swath of conservatives, if effectively framed. (The entrenched economic interests that are threatened by a change in energy sources will fight like h___, but for all their cash, they never will be the majority.

Let’s leave partisanship for other, less critical issues. Every citizen cares about a lot of what aol be lost if we fail to take action. Right to life and social justice are values issues. A healthy climate is not a values issue.

We’d better find a way to join hands across enough fences to (for kind) make the changes and (for cons) preserve the only climate we’ve been entrusted with.

“If this remains a liberal versus conservative battle royal, our children are doomed.”

True, but that view looks at things outside of the scope of reality. The reality is, there are parties and politicians being funded by the fossil fuel sector, who do not want an extra tax on them, they do not want a hinderace to profits and they do not want competition. While they are being funded by the fossil fuel sector, they are hardly going to come to the party and promote competition or policy that affects their largest donors.

“Secondly, there are plenty of non-socialist, market oriented solutions available. They can be acceptable to a broad swath of conservatives, if effectively framed.”

I think you are right there. Conservatives in fossil fuel rich countries are now really for big business, when before, they used to be for all business. If Conservatives really wanted to, they could head the next economical boom through a clean tech boom and claim responsibility for it, by saying they are promoting all business, by getting behind a fledgling cleantech industry, that has already shown it is a player here to stay. They can hardly conserve the planet or conserve the status quo if they keep backing fossil fuel and force change upon themselves.


that’s a great principle, but how do you put it into practice given the impediment/hurdle this adversarial relationship with reality they have presents?

You make the case for solutions for diminshing the output of the ghg, but the socialistic solutions I referred to are primarily those that will be required when the crops fail, water shortages arise, and mass migrations north on this continent occur, etc, not to mention across the world.

While the time of such may not be known, the likelihood of it occurring sooner rather than later grows daily due to the impediments we’ve suffered thusfar from denialism, in the form of inaction you think necessitates whatever your plan for breaking down the ideological barriers is specifically.


Chris Mooney’s research fascinates me because I have long believed that there are differences between the underlying builds of people’s brains that account for the different political beliefs of the owners of those brains.  I can’t wait to read Mooney’s latest book.

Before I do, can anyone tell me whether the book examines “curiosity” as a distinguishing characteristic of the different brain types?

The climate sceptics seem for the most part to lack anything like genuine curiosity about what is causing the changes in the world’s climate that we see.  Those changes are dramatic and ominous, but sceptics don’t seem interested in what is causing them – they are content to attribute it all to “cycles of nature” and leave it at that.  Of course, attributing it to “cycles of nature” is a way of saying that “it’s just happening that’s all”.  This answer can satisfy only those who lack the mental quality that makes people become, for example, scientists.

Emerson said, “In works of genius, our own thoughts return to us with a sort of alienated majesty.”  Mooney’s book strikes me as a work of genius – at least it formulates certain of my own  conclusions with far more clarity than I was ever able to by and for myself – and it reaches these conclusions by scientific methods, and not by my own sort of haphazard intuition. 

I’ve long suspected that what makes my conservative friends think so differently from me is not they they take a wrong turn halfway through some syllogism, but that their brains work differently from mine.

Evidence and arguments that I find absolutely compelling, they dismiss as liberal nitpicking.  The things that hold sway in their mind, I find depressingly shallow and irrelevant.  Long exchanges between us on the subject of our differences produce the inevitable and expected result: each of us is left pitying the intellectual beknightedness of the other.

Of particular value is Mooney’s description of the way to frame arguments that have at least a little chance of changing a conservative’s thinking.  We liberals cannot continue to defend our positions by making arguments that appeal to the liberal brain.  Such arguments have already won the converts that they are going to win.  We must adopt new – but truthful – methods of persuasion.  To do otherwise would be irresponsible – too much is now at stake.