Conservative and Liberal Views of Science

Does Trust Depend on Topic?
September 1, 2015

download the brief to read the full publication


view infographic

Conservative distrust of scientists regarding climate change and evolution has been widely expressed in public pronouncements and surveys, contributing to impressions that conservatives are less likely to trust scientists in general. But what about other topics, where some liberals have expressed misgivings too? Nuclear power safety, vaccinations, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are three often-mentioned examples. For this report, five similarly worded survey questions were designed to test the hypothesis that, depending on the issue, liberals are just as likely to reject science as conservatives. The five questions were included along with many unrelated items in telephone surveys of over 1,000 New Hampshire residents.

As expected, liberals were most likely and conservatives least likely to say that they trust scientists for information about climate change or evolution. Contrary to the topic-bias hypothesis, however, liberals also were most likely and conservatives least likely to trust scientists for information about vaccines, nuclear power safety, and GMOs. Liberal–conservative gaps on these questions ranged from 55 points (climate change) to 24 points (nuclear power), but always in the same direction. These results pose a challenge for some common explanations of political polarization in views about science.