A new study by Gordon Gauchat takes a look at public trust in science and finds that it's unchanged over the past few decades for most groups. The one exception is conservatives, whose trust in science has plummeted:
This is not because conservatives are a bunch of undereducated yahoos. In fact, quite the opposite:
Conservatives with high school degrees, bachelor’s degrees, and graduate degrees all experienced greater distrust in science over time....In addition...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.
In other words, this decline in trust in science has been led by the most educated, most engaged segment of conservatism. Conservative elites have led the anti-science charge and the rank-and-file has followed.
This is presumably part of the wider conservative turn against knowledge-disseminating institutions whose output is perceived as too liberal (academia, the mainstream media, Hollywood) in favor of institutions that produce more reliably conservative narratives (churches, business-oriented think tanks, Fox News). More and more, liberals and conservatives are almost literally living in different worlds with different versions of consensus reality.
An interesting side note to this is the startling lack of trust in science among moderates. After a drop in the 70s, it's stayed pretty steady for the past 30 years, but it's stayed steady at a very low level. Until recently, moderates trusted science significantly less than either liberals or conservatives. Is this because moderates have always viewed science as a politicized enterprise, something they're especially sensitive about? Or because moderates are just generally less engaged with elite institutions? Or because moderates have a higher overall degree of skepticism about everything than either liberals or conservatives? It's a mystery.
More here from Chris Mooney, whose hypothesis Gauchat was testing.