Academic journal article Sociological Focus

A Test of Three Theories of Anti-Science Attitudes

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

A Test of Three Theories of Anti-Science Attitudes

Article excerpt

Science has become a key social institution in the contemporary United States. Recent high profile debates regarding the scientific validity of intelligent design in Pennsylvania and Kansas signal the need for social scientific understanding of people's attitudes toward science in the contemporary United States. Using the 1993 General Social Survey (GSS), this study compares three different explanations of anti-science (i.e., negative attitudes toward science). The first theory suggests that a lack of scientific knowledge engenders anti-science attitudes. The second perspective points toward strong religious faith or evangelical beliefs as the primary impetus of anti-science attitudes. A third approach suggests anti-science attitudes are a result of the social context of individuals. All three explanatory factors contribute to our understanding of anti-science.

Science permeates all aspects of everyday life in modern societies. Despite the omnipresence of science in modern societies, social theorists have not seen science as a major social institution worthy of the same attention as, for example, the family, religion, the economy, or education. However, science plays a number of key institutional roles in modern societies that are both cognitive and material. First, science represents the epistemological authority of modern societies and provides individuals with a cosmology (i.e., a theory of the universe) based on scientific facts and research. Equally important, science is intimately joined with industry and the economy. This institutional cohesion produces technological advances in the form of gadgets, public transportation systems, and medical treatments that pervade U.S. culture to the point of becoming second nature. Science, then, not only shapes the way we think but also the way we encounter the world.

Given this predominance, public attitudes toward science are vital sociological phenomena in the twenty-first century for two reasons. First, scientific research and technological discoveries depend on public and private resources. Hence, anti-science sentiments may undermine public and private support for science both financially and through a reduction in the number of future scientists willing to offer new ideas and innovations. Second, anti-science, depending on its scope, may weaken public trust in the knowledge that science produces. In advanced industrial countries such as the United States, the public relies on the scientific community, for example, to predict or assess the ecological or social consequences of certain public policies. With these concerns in mind, the present paper attempts to fill a gap in previous research by comparing alternative explanations of anti-science attitudes and exploring the social causes of these attitudes. Previous studies have focused on two explanations of anti-science attitudes in the United States. The first perspective attributes anti-science attitudes to an ignorance of textbook scientific knowledge. The second explanation points to conservative or evangelical religious faith as the primary cause of anti-science attitudes. Alternatively, this study develops a third approach that links the social context of individuals with anti-science. This explanation explores how social integration and individual perceptions of society might affect attitudes toward science.

ANTI-SCIENCE IN THE UNITED STATES

Many scientists and intellectuals have voiced concern over the dangers of "anti-science" or "anti-intellectual" sentiments in the United States and Europe (Hofstadter 1970; Holton 1993; Miller 2004). I use the term "anti-science" to refer to a broad theoretical phenomenon that encompasses a variety of different anti-science attitudes and beliefs. While survey data collected since the 1950s shows the U.S. population is, on the whole, pro-science, the Public Attitudes Toward Science and Technology (PATSAT) survey tells a more complex story. In 2001, 48 percent (about 104 million people over the age of 1 8) of the U. …

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