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11/4/14 - "The Racial Gap in Confidence in Science" by Eric Plutzer

The Racial Gap in Confidence in Science

by Eric Plutzer, Ph.D. 

Eric Plutzer, Professor of Political Science., received an ARC research grant in Fall 2012 for his project entitled "Race, Intersectionality, and Alienation from the Scientific Establishment".

Race and Alienation from Science

Compared to whites, African Americans have a long history of alienation from science and scientific institutions.  This history manifests itself not only in the stark under-representation of Blacks in scientific professions, but also quite consistently in attitudes and opinions.

Consider data from the General Social Survey, a longstanding NSF-funded sample survey fielded by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.  Combining data from 2006 to 2010, European Americans were nearly one and a half times more likely than Blacks to say that they had “a great deal of confidence” in the people running America’s scientific institutions.  At the other end of the spectrum, African Americans were roughly twice as likely to say that they had “hardly any confidence.

The same study reveals that Blacks were also twice as likely to strongly agree that, “science makes our way of life change too fast,” more than twice as likely to say that “the harmful results of scientific research been greater than its benefits,” and half as likely to agree that “scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government.”

Now one simple explanation for this is that African Americans display distrust of many powerful institutions.  But this would be incorrect.  This is easily seen in the table below.  The racial gap in confidence in science (13 percentage points)  dwarfs the two-point gap concerning medicine, the zero-point gap concerning banks and major companies.  It is clear that European and African Americans think differently about science.  But why?

Table 1. Percent expressing a “great deal” of confidence in major US institutions, 2006-2010, by self-identified race


“p” denotes the probability that differences are due to chance sampling error, with p-values at 0.05 or below being statistically significant.

Explaining the racial gap in confidence

In a paper recently published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society,[1] I explore five different explanations.  Some were drawn from scholarship in the “Public Understanding of Science” – an important subfield among scholars of science and society.  Others were based on current understanding of race and educational attainment in the United States and, in particular, the inadequate resources and limited effectiveness of schools serving predominately minority populations.  Still others assess the impact of cultural studies of race in the United States – focusing on the African American church, and the legacy of scientific racism in the United States.

Education.  For many years, a rather simplisitic model dominated the study of attitudes toward science.  According to this idea, individuals with better scientific education, would thereby have more scientific knowledge, and those who knew the most about science would have the greatest trust in scientific institutions and the greatest levesl of confidence in science as a means of solving important social problems.

Yet the weaknesses of this argument become apparent when considered in the context of race in the US.  My research shows that the “return on education” – the amount of traditional learning and retention that results from completing a particular course – is somewhat lower for blacks and whites, and African Americans take slightly fewer science classes than European Americans.  According to the traditional view – sometimes called the “deficit model” – all we need to do is create better learning environments and the racial gap would disappear.

Yes, we should improve the opportunities for all students to learn and  become excited by science.  But we should not expect that this will close the racial gap in confidence.  This is because it assumes that “to know it, is to love it.”  It ignores the possibility that as individuals – especially individuals from marginalized groups – learn more about an institution they may actually become less confident!

Indeed, the data show that whites with the greatest scientific knowledge are the most confident in science – but the same is not true of African Americans.  Uncritically extending a model developed for the majority culture does not help explain the racial gap in confidence.

Religion. In western history, advocates of scientific reason have often  been in conflict with religious traditionalists.  Yet this generalization belies the great diversity among faith traditions.  The Galileo controversy notwithstanding, religion/science tensions have generally been minimal among Catholics, and even less so among the so-called “Mainline” Protestant denominations.  In the last century, the greatest tensions have been evident between science and faith traditions that view the Bible as authoritative and inerrant.

Among all Whites, fewer than 30% believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.  Among Whites who are members of conservative faith traditions (Southern Baptists, and non-denominational evangelical churches, for example), that number rises above 55%.   In contrast, most African Americans are affiliated with conservative faith traditions and – not surprisingly – over 55% take a literalist view of scripture.

This partially explains the racial gap.  My analyses show that if Blacks and Whites had similar educational and religious affiliations, the original racial gap of 13 points would be halved.

Scientific racism and Tuskeegee. Finally, the paper explores the possibility that a legacy of scientific racism may loom large in African Americans’ cultural understanding of science.  Unfortunately, the 2006-2010 General Social Surveys do not contain either direct measures of relevant cultural knowledge or even plausible proxy measures.

However, a 1999 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that 37% of African American respondents correctly identified that Tuskegee experiment as “a much-criticized government study of syphilis treatment involving African American men” (49% among those with some college education).

This may come as a surprise to university-based scholars, but at only 37% recognition, the Tuskegee experiment is not a pervasive element in African American culture (a conclusion at odds with those of McCallum and his colleagues, who analyzed a small convenience sample).

Nevertheless, these numbers could be more than sufficient to account for the unexplained seven point gap in confidence.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to empirically assess this possibility with available data as we are not aware of any study that asks both about confidence in science and knowledge of Tuskegee or other icons in the abuse of science as applied to Blacks.


Overall, the analyses reported the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society represent an initial foray into understanding racial differences in confidence in science in the United States.  The models cannot be applied uncritically to other settings, but nevertheless may be suggestive of how alienation from science may develop in any society that has distinctive cultural minorities.

In addition, these models can be further specified by identifying more proximal causes.  For example, the analyses do not specify whether cultural communities that are skeptical of science are sustained by interpersonal talk that helps make sense of the scientific world, whether such talk can promote the spread of rumors, whether skepticism is influenced by exposure to particular media messages, or whether these attitudes are formed early in life through the internalization of political symbols (Sears et al. 1980).  These represent fertile areas for future inquiry.

[1] Plutzer, Eric. 2013.  “The Racial Gap in Confidence in Science: Explanations and Implications.” Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 33: 146-57.