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As America Grows More Polarized, Conservatives Increasingly Reject Science and Rational Thought

The Tea Party has intensified social pressure on conservative-leaning Americans to shun science and academia.

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Public education and even modern science are relatively new developments in human history. So it makes sense that it would have taken the populace a while to catch up to understanding that evolution did happen, and that angels probably aren’t real.

But recent polling data suggests that gradual acceptance of the facts may not be the trend when it comes to the theory of evolution. In the 30 years since Gallup started asking people whether they believe humans evolved, evolved under the guidance of God, or were created fully formed by God, the percentage of people adhering to the creationist view has actually gone up slightly over time, and now stands at 46 percent of the population. This is just the tip of the iceberg of a growing problem of public rejection of science.

At the same time, there’s been a steady rise in people who believe that humanity evolved without any supernatural guidance, and now stands at 15 percent. What this seeming conflict suggests is that the issue is getting more polarized, as people feel they either have to pick Team Evolution or Team Creationism.

It turns out that education isn’t enough to fight ignorance, not when it comes to heavily politicized issues like evolutionary theory.  As Chris Mooney argues in his book The Republican Brain, political identity generally trumps sober-minded assessment of the facts when it comes to convincing people of an argument or idea. The theory of evolution isn’t being rejected on its merits by the people who don't buy it. It really can’t be by someone who is honestly assessing the evidence. 

The Tea Party has only intensified social pressure on conservative-leaning Americans to shun anything perceived as irreligious or academic. Science has always had a political edge to it, but the culture wars ramped up by the Tea Party have taken the problem to a whole new level.

The past decade-plus have turned science from a mostly politically neutral issue into a heavily partisan one, with Republicans becoming the party of anti-science while Democrats increasingly tout their dedication to research and evidence-based policy. According to a study published in  American Sociological Review, since 1974,  conservative trust in science has been in a free-fall, declining 25 percent. In 1974, conservatives were the most pro-science group, higher than liberals and moderates. Now they’re the least pro-science group of all, with liberals showing the most trust in science.

People who frequently attend church were the most likely to lose their trust in science, reinforcing the cultural sense that faith precludes acceptance of religious facts.

Evolution is hardly the only scientific reality to suffer from conservatives' growing sense that their ideology is not compatible with science.  In the short period between 2010 and 2012, the percentage of conservatives who accept global warming declined from half of conservatives to only 30 percent of them. That doesn’t reflect any kind of major shift in the evidence or the arguments around global warming--the scientific consensus that warming is happening and human-made has only solidified in the past couple of decades--so much as the strengthened perception that conservatism and believing in global warming are mutually exclusive. As the political media pays more attention to conservative distrust of science and liberal embrace of it, the image of who believes what will only intensify.

Climate change is strongly associated in the public mind, rightly or wrongly, with anti-capitalism. The theory of evolution faces a similar problem, especially as it’s routinely linked by religious and other thought leaders with a kind of subversive atheism. These kind of identity politics that create doubt about science have immediate negative impacts for all of us, especially with regards to global warming, but as with many things pushed by conservatives, working class and poor people are likely to pay the greatest price. Any liberal who focuses on economic issues should pay close attention, because in many ways, the war on science is a war on the most vulnerable among us.

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