The Politicization of Science is a Novel, Uniquely American Issue. Why?

By Teddy Tawil

If an American is more educated and follows politics closely, are they more or less likely to believe in anthropogenic (human-caused) climate?

Well, it depends. Is that American a liberal or a conservative? More educated and politically informed liberals are more likely than the average liberal to believe in anthropogenic climate change, but surprisingly, more educated and politically informed conservatives are less likely to believe in it than the average conservative.

This was the main finding of a 2018 paper authored by political scientist Michael Tesler of the University of California, Irvine. As he shows, the differences are surprisingly stark:

 The divergent trendlines show that more educated and politically attentive Americans tend to have more polarized views on the issue of climate change. Credit: Tesler, “Elite Domination of Public Doubts About Climate Change (Not Evolution),” 308, 315.

However, it wasn’t always this way. Indeed, the politicization of science is a novel, uniquely American issue.

Novel because the American public used to uniformly trust scientists: one study found that conservatives trusted science the most in the 1970s, but that their trust has gradually declined since then. Now, 43% of Democrats but just 27% of Republicans told pollsters they have a “great deal” of trust in scientists, and 73% of Democrats but only 43% of Republicans want scientists to take an “active role in policy debates.” The phenomenon of greater levels of education further dividing public opinion on climate change is new as well:

Being more educated used to increase belief in anthropogenic climate change across the political spectrum. Credit: Tesler, “Elite Domination of Public Doubts About Climate Change (Not Evolution),” 321.

The issue is also uniquely American, as Tesler found that out of a group of peer countries, in no other nation was the politicization of attitudes towards global warming even half as bad as it is in the U.S.

Greater political interest polarizes attitudes on climate change in the U.S. to an extent seen in no other country. Credit: Tesler, “Elite Domination of Public Doubts About Climate Change (Not Evolution),” 320.

Bitter partisan division over scientific issues has come to the forefront of our national consciousness again in the midst of a global pandemic during which mask wearing and social distancing often feel like but another front in our vicious culture war. Why has the politicization of science become so bad?

The most likely culprit is the media and politicians, who have fostered divisive discourse over issues that could have been unifying.

A comparative analysis conducted by researchers at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University found that the American media is unique in the way it treats climate change. Summarizing the relevant research, they write “there is significantly more space given to skeptical [sic] voices, in all their manifestations, in the USA when compared to the rest of the world” (they also acknowledge that skeptics are given a sizable platform in the UK as well). For example, in two three-month periods in 2007 and 2009-10, the conservative Wall Street Journal ran 12 editorials on climate change, but only one had a dismissive attitude towards the arguments of climate change skeptics. Of the 17 opinion articles they ran on global warming during that time, only one disputed anti-anthropogenic climate change arguments. This was a stark contrast to the liberal New York Times, whose ten editorials and 14 opinion articles on global warming during the period all contested anti-anthropogenic climate change arguments.

Studies of the coronavirus pandemic help fill in the missing link, suggesting that media polarization affects Americans’ attitudes and behaviors on scientific issues. One working paper compared infection rates and deaths among viewers of Fox News’ Hannity, which was initially dismissive of the virus, and Tucker Carlson Tonight, which took it more seriously. It found that “a one standard deviation increase in relative viewership of Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight… [was] associated with approximately 30 percent more COVID-19 cases on March 14, and 21 percent more COVID-19 deaths on March 28.” Another study estimated that Fox News was accountable for a 6-28% decrease in compliance with stay-at-home behavior.

The actions of political leaders can also exert a strong influence, whether unifying or divisive. One study of the pandemic found that Democratic and Republican leaders initially tweeted about coronavirus at different rates and in different ways. Democrats tweeted more frequently and emphasized public health and aid to workers, while Republicans tweeted less and focused on national unity, China, and the pandemic’s effects on business. This discordant messaging could have helped contribute to the partisan divide in attitudes towards the virus that formed during this time. However, when the White House issued federal social distancing guidelines, signaling the gravity of the issue, another study shows that the split between parties began to narrow. Citizens seemed to follow the lead of party leaders on climate change too, as elites taking sides during the 2000s and early 2010s coincided with large partisan shifts in public opinion.

As political leaders took sides on climate change in the 2000s and early 2010s, public opinion became polarized. Credit: Egan and Mullin, “Climate Change: US Public Opinion,” 218.

Some commentators suggest that an American national ethos that glorifies cavalier individualism and demonizes “big government” contributes to the issue as well. This mindset could lend credence to contrarian voices and make Americans skeptical about the government interventions that addressing a pandemic or climate change may necessitate. There is some truth to the idea that Americans are uniquely individualistic: a 2011 Pew survey found that 58% of Americans said that “freedom to pursue life’s goals without interference from the state” is more important than the state guaranteeing “nobody is in need,” eclipsing the 38% of Britons, 36% of Germans and French, and 30% of Spaniards who agreed by a sizable margin. However, the relative recency of polarization on scientific issues suggests that this culture likely exacerbates the divisive discourse fostered by media and political elites rather than serving as its root cause.

Oddly, the politicization of science being a top-down process is actually encouraging, as it means that changing public attitudes could merely require influencing a few media and political thought leaders. This insight intensifies the imperative to elect, empower, and elevate the voices of leaders who will unite us around what matters most: the truth.

Title Image Credit: Joseph Gruber / Alamy Stock Photo