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Poll shows sharp partisan divide over confidence in science

It's absurd, but science is effectively becoming a culture war issue, alongside traditional fights over religion, reproductive rights, and gun violence.

The Washington Post published an unsettling report yesterday on the American right and its perspective on the pandemic. What began as "vaccine hesitancy," the article explained, has "morphed into outright vaccine hostility, as conservatives increasingly attack the White House's coronavirus message, mischaracterize its vaccination campaign and, more and more, vow to skip the shots altogether."

While there are certainly plenty of conservatives who've embraced vaccines -- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), in particular, has expressed strong support for the shots -- it's hard not to notice the evidence that much of the right, after more than a year of skepticism about COVID-related science, is actively opposed to the breakthrough medicine.

The result is an indefensible divide: "blue" states that backed the Democratic presidential ticket in 2020 have the highest rates of vaccinations, while "red" states that backed the Republican ticket have the lowest rates. It is not a coincidence that many of the U.S. communities struggling right now with infections are deeply conservative politically.

There's an explanation for this, but it's a discouraging one. Gallup today released the results of a national survey on public confidence in science:

Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults say they have "a great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in science, compared with 70% when Gallup last measured it more than four decades ago. The modest decline overall obscures more significant changes among political partisans. Republicans today are much less likely than their predecessors in 1975 to have confidence in science. Meanwhile, Democrats today have more confidence than their fellow partisans did in the past.

In 1975, 67% of Democratic voters expressed confidence in science, a number that now stands at 79%. In contrast, in 1975, 72% of Republican voters expressed confidence in science, a number that has collapsed to just 45% now.

There's room for some speculation about how the public defines the term. When Republicans say they lack confidence in science, it's possible they're referring to leading authorities, academia in general, the process of testing scientific ideas, or scientific findings that make them feel uncomfortable.

However they define "science," the fact that so many Republicans disapprove of it has real consequences. Indeed, it comes up with unsettling frequency, with GOP voters rejecting climate science, evolutionary biology, as well as information related to COVID-19 and vaccines.

As absurd as this sounds, it seems science itself is effectively becoming a culture war issue, alongside traditional fights over religion, reproductive rights, and gun violence.

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' (R) campaign team recently started selling "Don't Fauci My Florida" merchandise, it's because the governor and his political operation saw an opportunity to exploit the party's anti-science posture.

Gallup's report added, "Republicans' lack of trust in science opens up the possibility of their being more vulnerable to influence by ideas that lack scientific support, especially if those ideas are advanced by political conservatives they implicitly trust."

If there's an easy way to help turn the tide, and persuade American conservatives to start taking science seriously again, I'm not aware of it.