The Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere

Date of Completion

January 2010


History of Science|Political Science, General|Sociology, Social Structure and Development




In 2009, the National Science Foundation and numerous allied scientific organizations celebrated the "Year of Science"—a nationwide program to promote "public understanding of science." The explicit purpose of the program was to combat a perceived decline in the cultural authority of science in the public sphere. Copious signs were present in popular media: increased antievolution activities, apparent confusion about stem cell research and climate change, and fears about expert "death panels" and H1N1 vaccinations. This dissertation systematically examines science's "legitimacy crisis" in U.S.: (1) whether it is supported by empirical data, (2) its root causes and consequences, and (3) how dispositions toward science shape and are shaped by sociopolitical cleavages in the public sphere. This study is also advantaged by the new biennial science and technology module that was added to the General Social Survey in 2006. This module combines questions that have been asked in previous surveys with new questions that probe different aspects of the cultural authority of science as well as a broad range of demographic, political, and cultural factors. Overall, this study finds a growing association between political orientation and public trust and acceptance of science, specifically, political party and ideology. Those identifying as conservative and moderate have strong reservations about science on a broad range of issues, especially, its relation to the state. However, conservatives' disenchantment with science has grown with time and has peaked in the most recent decade. Additionally, the "politicization of science" in the U.S. appears unique among other economically advanced countries. Finally, numerous interpretations of these results are explored along with their implications for the contemporary U.S. ^