American colleges and universities are facing a strongly partisan loss of trust in science, which, among other consequences, threatens their plans for a safe return to campus business as usual this fall.
About two-thirds of American adults now express “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science, a modest, but meaningful, decline from their 70% level of confidence measured back in 1975. But behind that overall decline lurks huge differences among political partisans. Republicans are much less likely today than in 1975 to have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in science. On the other hand, Democrats express more confidence in science today than they did over four decades ago.
Those results are among the highlights from Gallup’s annual Confidence in Institutions survey, which has assessed Americans’ confidence in a variety of institutions since 1973 but has asked about the institution of science only once before, in 1975.
The survey’s results are based on telephone interviews conducted June 1-July 5, 2021 with a random sample of 1,381 adults, ages 18 and older. The margin of error was +/- 4 points at the 95% confidence level.
In 1975, 72% of Republicans said they trusted science. In the 2021 survey, only 45% of Republicans said the same, a stunning 27% drop. In 1975, 67% of Democrats expressed their confidence in science, but that increased to 79% in 2021. Meanwhile, Independents showed a moderate decline in their confidence in science – from 73% in 1975 to 65% in 2021.
Even with the loss of trust among Republicans, overall confidence in science ranks among the highest of the 17 institutions Gallup tested in its 2021 survey, behind small business (70%) and the military (69%).
Confidence in several institutions had actually increased in 2020 as the nation coped with the coronavirus pandemic. According to Gallup, “these include some of the business and societal sectors most affected by the public health and financial effects of the coronavirus situation, including the medical system, public schools, small business, organized religion and banks.” But in 2021 these same five institutions showed “the greatest decreases in confidence. However, they all are perceived at least slightly better than they were in 2019 before the pandemic. In particular, confidence in the medical system is substantially higher now (44%) than it was two years ago (36%).”
The 34-point party gap in confidence in science is the third largest among the institutions in this year’s poll, exceeded only by a 49-point gap in confidence ratings of the presidency (Republicans: 13% confidence: Democrats: 62%) and 45 points in ratings of the police (Republicans: 76%; Democrats: 31%).
The implications of this schism can be found increasingly in major partisan differences in behavior and susceptibility to conspiracies and crackpot ideas. Republicans are much more likely than Democrats or Independents to be vaccine hesitant or hostile even as convincing evidence accumulates that vaccines afford robust protections against Covid-19. They’re also more inclined to resist or rebel against public health precautions such as mask wearing and social distancing, despite the empirically demonstrated effectiveness of these mitigation efforts.
Republicans are also much more likely than Democrats or Independents to have doubts about the scientific consensus on climate change. And those doubts persist even in the face of an increasing number of catastrophic droughts, devastating floods, fatal temperature extremes and deadly storms, all of which have been linked to global climate change.
As another casualty in the culture wars, a partisan loss of trust in science is an ominous sign for higher education, which employs many of the researchers, scientists, and scholars that Republicans, in particular, are now repudiating or ignoring. Their turn against science is accompanied by their general suspicion that American colleges are hotbeds of liberal bias, even though faculty in the STEM disciplines are less likely to show a liberal or progressive tilt than their colleges in the humanities and social sciences.
The consequences of anti-science attitudes are also now being felt in states where Republican governors and legislatures have taken steps to prevent colleges in their states from imposing requirements to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on campus. They do so typically with the justification that they are protecting personal autonomy and freedom of choice, a rationale that’s highly popular with their most conservative constituents.
- In Arizona, Republican Governor Doug Ducey issued an Executive Order prohibiting the state’s public universities and colleges from mandating that students take the Covid-19 vaccine or submit vaccination documents. Under his order, students also cannot be mandated to be tested or wear masks on campus.
- Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law in May banning vaccine mandates at both public and private colleges and universities in that state.
- In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order that banned public entities from enacting proof of vaccine requirements.
- And colleges in Indiana and Ohio are having to backtrack or tiptoe on their vaccine policies after new laws were passed prohibiting vaccine mandates.
While college leaders attempt to reopen their campuses safely, they are facing a new threat as the Delta variant of the coronavirus surges across the nation, resulting in rates of infection increasing in all 50 states with some states seeing surges of at least 50% last week.
Vaccines are highly effective in preventing serious illness and death from the virus so if institutions could vaccinate a critical mass of their communities, they would be much more likely to reopen safely this fall. Instead, too many college leaders increasingly find their hands tied by elected officials, preventing them from getting shots in as many arms as possible.
It’s a situation rife with risks. And it portends an even more problematic future. A continued rejection of science will undermine not only American colleges, but American society in general.