Irradiated by LabRat
Daniel Sarewitz over at Slate has identified a problem, and the problem is that there are very few Republican-identified scientists. Let’s join him in analysis and see if what he thinks is the problem, is the problem.
It is no secret that the ranks of scientists and engineers in the United States include dismal numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans, but few have remarked about another significantly underrepresented group: Republicans.
I can’t say as I regard a direct representation comparison between race and political philosophy as the world’s most promising start, but let’s grant him the point about minority in and of itself.
No, this is not the punch line of a joke. A Pew Research Center Poll from July 2009 showed that only around 6 percent of U.S. scientists are Republicans; 55 percent are Democrats, 32 percent are independent, and the rest “don’t know” their affiliation.
Or as I would put it, 39% either refuse categorically to associate with either party or refuse to involve themselves in politics period, but that’s not the point of the article; the point of the article is that Blue Team has a bunch and Red Team only has a handful. The linked poll, by the way, is interesting reading all on its own, and the questions themselves are very telling in a way this article largely misses.
This immense imbalance has political consequences. When President Obama appears Wednesday on Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters (9 p.m. ET), he will be there not just to encourage youngsters to do their science homework but also to reinforce the idea that Democrats are the party of science and rationality. And why not? Most scientists are already on his side. Imagine if George W. Bush had tried such a stunt—every major newspaper in the country would have run an op-ed piece by some Nobel Prize winner asking how the guy who prohibited stem-cell research and denied climate change could have the gall to appear on a program that extols the power of scientific thinking.
Okay, look, I find the Democrats’ self-lauding claim that they are the party of “science” pretty annoying too, but I seriously cannot get upset that a Democratic president is going to appear on Mythbusters. As little as I think of Obama, any president is a role model to children, and Mythbusters is an excellent show that really does promote critical thinking and the idea that science and engineering are dynamic and exciting and fun. I would have been just as thrilled if Bush had done it, and even if he had and the partisan press had tied itself in knots the people watching- the children among them- would still have gotten the message that the president also thinks that science is awesome.
As members of that partisan press tend to easily forget, only they and a pretty small minority of the public give a shit to the degree that they get themselves in a lather over things like this. Hell, the Pew study he linked in and of itself shows the very large gap between the public at large and scientists in the degree to which they even connect science and politics at all.
Yet, partisan politics aside, why should it matter that there are so few Republican scientists? After all, it’s the scientific facts that matter, and facts aren’t blue or red.
No. They aren’t. Politics is about policy, and science is about fact, which is itself value-neutral. Everyone involved would do well to remember this at all times, particularly the author of this article. Science is conducted by scientists, who are humans with political thoughts and preferred policy ideas based on those, which does have an impact on how science and politics interact.
Well, that’s not quite right. Consider the case of climate change, of which beliefs are astonishingly polarized according to party affiliation and ideology. A March 2010 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of Democrats (and 74 percent of liberals) say the effects of global warming are already occurring, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans. Does that mean that Democrats are more than twice as likely to accept and understand the scientific truth of the matter?
Frankly? It very possibly does, and this goes right back to the way questions are worded and the difference between science, policy, and belief. If you traded the question of “climate change” for a carefully worded question about whether natural selection produces changes in life over time and you got a similarly polarized result along political lines it absolutely WOULD represent a case in which scientific reality was accepted much more by one party than the other.
Or could it be that disagreements over climate change are essentially political—and that science is just carried along for the ride?
Not really. The discussion of the facts and methodologies of climate science among climate scientists barely resembles the public debate. Disagreements about what climate change will ultimately and absolutely result in are scientific, disagreements about what policies we should implement to cope with it are political, and disagreements about whether the climate changes at all are pretty much a “people who have got their facts right versus people who have not”.
This is why I keep harping on how questions are worded and how important this is. If I had been polled, I would have responded to the question in the Pew survey- a choice between “the Earth is getting warmer due to human activity” and “No solid evidence Earth is getting warmer” with the former. Excess CO2 really does have a warming effect, there really is a lot more CO2 in the atmosphere than there would be without human activity, and we are certainly warmer than we would be without it. This is as mundane a set of statements scientifically as “blankets produce insulating effect on humans”. The actual point of relevant climate science is how much extra warming CO2 alone can provide (every scientist agrees it has a point of diminishing returns), what other factors will retard or speed further warming, and whether this will be, in the larger picture of climate over time, a small effect largely absorbed by more important driving variables or a critically large one that does the driving.
For 20 years, evidence about global warming has been directly and explicitly linked to a set of policy responses demanding international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, and the redistribution of wealth. These are the sort of things that most Democrats welcome, and most Republicans hate. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science.
And in a beautiful demonstration of my own point, the author thinks that questioning the science is a completely rational and natural result of questioning the policy agenda leftists have pushed as a reaction to the science.
Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence—or causation?
Actually, policy wonks advance their political agenda over a period of decades and use the results of climate science to do it, often dramatically reworked and sometimes actively and deliberately misrepresented. Reading the scientific review section of any given year of IPCC reporting versus the policy recommendations is an excellent representation of this process, as the two documents’ only resemblance to each other at points is that they both assert there is a climate that is subject to change.
Here’s a couple more things to think about. Republicans accept denying the central theory of biology and actively pushing its elimination in public education as a valid political position in their platform, while Democrats, while frequently misunderstanding it, accept it as scientific reality. Democrats use the results of climate science to justify a leftist agenda, whereas Republicans are willing to deny the results of climate science rather than discuss them and how they would fit in their own policy agenda. Very few scientists are willing to identify as Republicans. Coincidence- or causation?
The only thing more galling than seeing your discipline warped and used for political ends is being told your discipline is lies and to come back when you have something they want to hear.
During the Bush administration, Democrats discovered that they could score political points by accusing Bush of being anti-science. In the process, they seem to have convinced themselves that they are the keepers of the Enlightenment spirit, and that those who disagree with them on issues like climate change are fundamentally irrational.
From what I’ve seen to my chagrin, those that disagree with them on climate change are often willing to aid this bit of branding by being fundamentally irrational. One of the reasons scientists and those that think themselves scientifically literate are so reflexively willing to dismiss climate skeptics- which covers everything from people skeptical of the catastrophic anthropogenic scenario to the “climate never changes without a meteor” people- is that they do contain an awful lot of blatant cranks, including many who are anti-science cranks in general.
Meanwhile, many Republicans have come to believe that mainstream science is corrupted by ideology and amounts to no more than politics by another name. Attracted to fringe scientists like the small and vocal group of climate skeptics, Republicans appear to be alienated from a mainstream scientific community that by and large doesn’t share their political beliefs. The climate debacle is only the most conspicuous example of these debilitating tendencies, which play out in issues as diverse as nuclear waste disposal, protection of endangered species, and regulation of pharmaceuticals.
Read as: “Republicans ceded their ground with science and scientists as eagerly as Democrats claimed it”.
How would a more politically diverse scientific community improve this situation?
The cart doesn’t go in front of the horse, Sparky. The question you should be asking as “how would a Republican party more willing to dump the intellectually indefensible improve this situation?”.
First, it could foster greater confidence among Republican politicians about the legitimacy of mainstream science.
It’s not the purpose of science to make Republicans politically comfortable. I would in fact suggest that it is precisely this attitude that produced the current situation.
Second, it would cultivate more informed, creative, and challenging debates about the policy implications of scientific knowledge. This could help keep difficult problems like climate change from getting prematurely straitjacketed by ideology. A more politically diverse scientific community would, overall, support a healthier relationship between science and politics.
No argument with this part, but I’d also turn it around to “Republicans welcoming science without passing the bare results through an ideology filter first would create a much healthier conservatism”.
I agree with most of the rest of the article even if I think the author has his premises and priorities rather backwards, so the last bit I’ll fisk is from the very last bit of the article:
In lieu of any real effort to understand and grapple with the politics of science, we can expect calls for more “science literacy” as public confidence begins to wane. But the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists.
No, the issue is both, and includes the legitimacy of intellectual conservatism. A democratic society doesn’t need Republican scientists any more than it needs Whig scientists. You’ll note that the supposed overwhelming majority enjoyed by the Democrats among scientists is 55%- a bare five percent over “just half”, and I personally consider that a testament to the overall diversity of the scientific community given the self-inflicted handicaps to conservatism among academic scientists that I’ve been harping on. What they’re unwilling to identify as is Republican, and not being a Republican isn’t remotely the same thing as being a partisan liberal.
You want the discussion of science and policy to include your team more? Your team needs to stop actively running the fuck away from it first. You want a publicly credible, strong alternative to leftist-driven scientific policy? Be a legitimate alternative.