About half of Texas voters believe faith is a better guide than scientific evidence on most important questions, according to a recent University of Texas at Austin/Texas Tribune poll.
According to the poll, which surveyed Texans on a wide range of attitudes related to science and public policy, a similar proportion of voters said that "instinct and gut reactions" are just as good as the advice of scientists in most cases.
However, 66 percent of voters said politicians, when faced with a difficult decision, should follow the advice of relevant experts, even if it means going against their ideology.
"We were interested in ascertaining how Texas voters view the role of science and scientists in the public policy process," said Daron Shaw, professor of Government at The University of Texas at Austin, who oversees the survey. "What we found is that the polarization of contemporary politics is manifest in attitudes toward scientific expertise. Many people see biases in the scientific project, especially in contentious public policy areas. I'd be somewhat surprised if people had similar thoughts in the 1940s after the Manhattan Project or in the 1960s after the moon landing."
The statewide poll conducted Oct. 15-20 surveyed 800 registered Texas voters and has a margin of error of +/- 3.46 percentage points
Voters were split on views regarding scientists and academics. Fifty-five percent agreed with the statement that "scientists and academics are not concerned about the moral implications of their research," and 58 percent agreed with the statement "most university professors are liberals who are trying to push an ideological agenda with their research."
Voters were also asked, on a scale of one to 10, how much politicians and public officials should defer to scientists on various issues. Respondents tended to defer more to scientists on issues such as natural disaster preparedness, space exploration and nuclear power and less on issues such as gun control, abortion and birth control.
"These results suggest that in policy areas in which there are sharp and public political divisions, many Texans' reliance on science for guidance appears conditioned by other factors," said James Henson, who also oversees the poll and is director of the Texas Politics Project and a lecturer in the Department of Government. "These results point us toward further research into what factors influence people's willingness to rely on science to make judgments about policy.
"As a preliminary observation, it certainly seemed that those who identified with the Republican Party were, on average, more skeptical than those who identified with the Democratic Party, which, given the pattern of party identification in Texas, helps explain some of the results," said Henson. "But it will take more survey work to unpack what drives this apparent partisan difference."
This is the latest in a series of online polls conducted by the Texas Politics Project and The Texas Tribune. Comprehensive poll results, information about methodology and the survey dataset will be available at the Texas Politics Project website.