Monday, May 7, 2012

Mysterious moderates

Gordon Gauchat, a former graduate student of mine, has received significant media attention for a recent paper which found that conservatives' trust in science has declined since the 1970s.  One point that puzzles me is that in the 1970s, moderates had less trust in science than either liberals or conservatives.  Even today, moderates and conservatives are about the same.  Does this tell us something about moderates in general?

The data Gordon used, the General Social Survey, has questions about confidence in a number of different institutions.  I picked ten that were asked frequently enough to discern clear patterns.  On most of them, there is a left-right difference:  for example, people who call themselves "extremely liberal" have the most confidence in labor, followed by those who call themselves "liberal," and so on down to "extremely conservative."  Controlling for this, the two "extremes" tend to have less confidence in nearly all institutions (organized labor was the one exception).  What about moderates?

More Favorable:
Organized Labor
the Press

Less Favorable:
Major Companies
the Supreme Court

 No significant difference:
Banks and Financial Institutions
Churches and Religious Organizations

"More favorable" and "less favorable" doesn't necessarily mean that moderates are the most or least favorable group, just that they are more or less favorable than would be expected from their position in the middle.  On labor, for example, moderates are about the same as people who call themselves "slightly liberal," and considerably more favorable than those who call themselves "slightly conservative."  To summarize:  moderates have definite likes and dislikes, but it's hard to see a logic behind the pattern. 

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