Friday, December 17, 2010

Only 6% of scientists are Republican: Why? And so what?

Interesting and thought-provoking piece by Daniel Sarewitz here in Slate, titled "Lab Politics: most scientists in this country are Democrats.  And that's a problem " (LINK: http://www.slate.com/id/2277104/pagenum/all/).

According to a recent Pew poll, only 6% of U.S. scientists are Republican, while 55% are Democrat and 32% are Independent.  Sarewitz ties this to the polarized nature of public discussion about climate change and considers various possible explanations for the imbalance. 

What's going on here?  What is it about U.S. scientists that makes them so unlikely to be Republican?  Or, for that matter, what makes them so likely to be Democrats?

Although I don't have any firm answers to those questions, the documentation of such a large political imbalance among my peers helps me to better understand why my own work on climate change in the Adirondack-Champlain region generates so many politically-tinged write-in responses when it appears in the media.  Many of the writers seem to be surprisingly angry, and they also tend to link my work - which I've taken great pains to conduct in a balanced, scientifically rigorous manner - to Al Gore, left-wing politics, and big-government agendas.

You can see one example of such a response to a piece that ran in the Press Republican this past summer, over in the panel to the right of the article (http://pressrepublican.com/0100_news/x2016067674/Report-studies-climate-change-in-Champlain-Valley).  I'd estimate that 90% of the email responses to newspaper and radio coverage of the Champlain Climate Report were of this sort.

In light of the Pew findings, maybe it's not so surprising that these respondents seem to sense a political target when they come across someone like me. 

But I wouldn't say that Republicans are necessarily more anti-science than Democrats are, either.  I suspect that most of the New Age alternative-healer-types, civil-disobedient environmental radicals, extreme "natural" health product proponents, and such with whom I've also tangled in the past were Democrats rather than Republicans, but they certainly weren't very interested in hearing scientific information that challenged their beliefs, either. 

In fact, scientists are usually the oddballs of society, catching it from all sides except when some party finds certain scientific info useful in support of their agenda.  And right now, Republican agendas just don't seem to mesh well with climate science, perhaps in part because Democrats are seen to have made an unholy alliance with the scientists.  In that view, scientists can seem like deceitful charlatans from the get-go; "how dare they claim to be impartial seekers of truth?"

This unfortunate situation sometimes makes me wish that "An Inconvenient Truth" had been produced by someone other than Al Gore.  His prominence in the public sphere certainly helped it to draw widespread attention to the issue of climate change... but it also linked the whole subject to a prominent Democrat who was Clinton's VP, ran against GWBush, and so on.  I suppose it may therefore have closed as many minds as it opened, at least in this country.

There was one bit from Sarewitz himself that I disagree with.   I'll quote it here:

"As a first step, leaders of the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue. They will, of course, be loath to do so because it threatens their most cherished myths of a pure science insulated from dirty partisanship. 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."

First, I  disagree that "insulation of pure science from dirty partisanship" is a mere "myth."  Nonpartisanship is a vitally important and absolutely attainable goal, a thing that distinguishes science from most other human behaviors.  It's specifically designed to detect, dissect, and reject self-delusions, cherished but incorrect preconceptions, and biases.  To claim otherwise is to hurl the worst possible insult at those of us who devote our hearts, minds, and professional lives to following that noble ideal. 

Science is our best hope for probing physical reality in a sane, rigorous, repeatable, reliable manner, and to have Sarewitz call it partisan surprises me more than the attacks of politicized climate naysayers.  I didn't expect it from him (I believe he has a geoscience degree), and in my personal experience it's generally just plain false.  I'm extremely careful to keep politics from interfering with my scientific work, and I can confidently say the same for the colleagues I work with, at least.  In my field, to do otherwise is to kiss your reputation and your profession goodbye. As responsible voting citizens, we scientists may of course aim to support a political agenda of our choosing, but our science shouldn't and, as far as I know, it usually doesn't.

I also disagree with Sarewitz' claim that we need more Republican scientists, as if a "Republican thermometer" will somehow measure a different global average temperature.  Please keep politics out of it altogether.  Otherwise, it's not science at all.

3 comments:

  1. Great post Curt!!

    A fascinating question: Why do scientists lean so overwhelmingly left?

    And then, why the same lean in public policy regarding climate change?

    Sarewitz' suggestion that we "need" more republican scientists is ridiculous and insulting from the point of view that you described. Maybe he is suggesting that left-leaning scientists somehow produce left-leaning policies (notice i said *policies*, not *science*). Therefore, according to this premise, if there were more Republican scientists then proposed policies would take on a more right-wing slant and the political backlash would diminish.

    Is there a causal relationship between scientists' political preferences and the selection of particular public policies that dominate the political agenda? If so, what is it?

    Scientists, including economists, are relied-upon to evaluate public policy regarding global warming. Which right-leaning policies aren't being studied or aren't being proposed, or are being unfairly rejected as inneffective or not feasible by scientists? Seems to me that cap and trade is the kind of policy that has always been supported by the right in other arenas. But no longer.

    What do you think Curt? Are scientists more interested in studying the effects of public policies with which they are more politically inclined to support? Are there any public policies that republicans could get behind that would actually be effective in reducing carbon emissions? Or are Republicans simply opposed to *anything* the Democrats propose at this point?

    December 17, 2010 12:28 PM
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    Great post Curt!!

    A fascinating question: Why do scientists lean so overwhelmingly left?

    And then, why the same lean in public policy regarding climate change?

    Sarewitz' suggestion that we "need" more republican scientists is ridiculous and insulting from the point of view that you described. Maybe he is suggesting that left-leaning scientists somehow produce left-leaning policies (notice i said *policies*, not *science*). Therefore, according to this premise, if there were more Republican scientists then proposed policies would take on a more right-wing slant and the political backlash would diminish.

    Is there a causal relationship between scientists' political preferences and the selection of particular public policies that dominate the political agenda? If so, what is it?

    Scientists, including economists, are relied-upon to evaluate public policy regarding global warming. Which right-leaning policies aren't being studied or aren't being proposed, or are being unfairly rejected as inneffective or not feasible by scientists? Seems to me that cap and trade is the kind of policy that has always been supported by the right in other arenas. But no longer.

    What do you think Curt? Are scientists more interested in studying the effects of public policies with which they are more politically inclined to support? Are there any public policies that republicans could get behind that would actually be effective in reducing carbon emissions? Or are Republicans simply opposed to *anything* the Democrats propose at this point?

    Smugg Jello

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  2. Thanks for your comment, MFMC (My Favorite Mad Cellist);

    I suppose I should just speak for myself and the folks I know well here - but I simply can't get my head around the idea that our work on lake ecology, climate history, evolutionary biology, DNA anlyses, or whatever is somehow greatly swayed by our personal political leanings. I don't even discuss politics in depth with my fellow scientists very often, and the topic certainly doesn't come up when we're talking (or doing) science.

    Sure, scientists are only human and are likely to mess up now and then, but that's why we have peer review, conferences, and such - the public killing grounds for bad/biased ideas.

    I've dug into several controversial local environmental issues over the years knowing full well that my findings could piss off folks with whom I normally sympathize politically. And that is, in fact, what has happened on occasion. But it never makes me change my results; it merely makes me change my opinion of supposed "friends" if they don't respect the intellectually honest, scientific process that's in play.

    I enjoy the time I spend with pals who are republican, and I also savor the good-natured ribbing we give each other over our political differences. But I don't give a hoot about what political party a scientific colleague belongs to when we're working on a project. We pick our projects according to what is likely to yield exciting and reliable results, not according to what political agenda it falls most in line with. In my view, the farther overt politics can be kept away from scientific endeavors, the better.

    To address one of your last questions, though, I'd think that development of alternative energy sources should be something that folks on both sides of the aisle should be able to rally behind with the end result of reducing emissions. It could make its investors rich, running on capitalistic principles, and would also "save the carbon."

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  3. Thanks for your insightful post, Curt. I am looking forward to following your blog.

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