Mistaken assumption about the politics of scientists


in Economics, Geek stuff, Politics, Science

An interesting study reveals a disjoint in the United States between how scientists rate their political views and what the general public expects them to be. Whereas 56% of scientists describe themselves as liberal, along with just 2% as conservative and 42% as ‘neither,’ members of the general public surveyed expected 64% of scientists to answer ‘neither,’ 20% to be liberal, and 9% to be conservative. The study also found that scientists are less skeptical of government and more critical of business than members of the population at large.

The blogger commenting on the study predicts that two things would happen if people learned the truth:

  1. “The public would consider scientists to be less authoritative as a neutral source on policy questions, and
  2. Since scientists are respected, the public would become less conservative and more liberal.”

This raises some interesting questions about the relationship between expertise and legitimacy, in relation to the roles of scientists in decision making – the central topic of my M.Phil thesis.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah July 28, 2009 at 7:49 pm

The original research seems interesting, but I’m not convinced this specific issue re. the political leanings of scientists tells us anything new. People tend to falsely universalize their own beliefs & values and thus to incorrectly attribute those beliefs & values to others. Moreover, the blog you are citing for this concern about expertise and legitimacy confuses the issue entirely by assuming that a tendency amongst scientists is evidence that scientists individually or collectively hold an unreasonable / unjustified political bias, rather than acknowledging a) that American conservatives are anti-science (i.e. there is a strong bias against science amongst many Republicans, which predictably would lead many of those who value science to oppose those politicians) and b) that there is a strong education effect in political ideology anyway, whereby the more education someone receives the more likely they are to be liberal / Democratic.

Milan August 2, 2009 at 6:49 pm

‘Science’ is too complex a thing for someone to be simply ‘pro’ or ‘anti.’

Sub-questions include:
1) Public funding for science, how much?
2) Ethical limits on research, what sorts?
3) Science as the best way to understand the world in general?
4) The political relevance of scientific facts

There is debate on all of these both within the scientific community and society at large. In some cases, it does seem plausible that a scientist’s political views could have a problematic impact on their ability to do good science. Of course, there are plenty of cases where that isn’t true.

Tristan August 2, 2009 at 9:34 pm

1) Public funding for science, how much?

The more scientific research is privately funded, the more we can expect it to pursue private rather than public interests. So, how much we want to publicly fund science is just a function of how public we want our society to be (by “public” I mean “doing things in common”).

2) Ethical limits on research, what sorts?

Conflicting values exist. No survey-all moral system exists that can easily codify all these values and weigh them, which is why applied ethics today isn’t utilitarian, but a strange blend of utilitarian, duty-bound ethics (i.e. Kant or Rawls), and habit-bound ethics (i.e. Hume).

3) Science as the best way to understand the world in general?

No “in general” as such exists. Science gives us knowledge which we value for its own sake and also which we can use to pursue other things which we value for either their own sake or for the sake of other things we value. Science is “good” (or “best”) to the extent that it fulfills, brings us, things we value. But, what we value is largely contingent, so no “in general” can come of fulfilling them. A quantitative “in general” could be inferred but it would be both temporally contingent, and, crucially, would be not a qualitative best but a quantitative best. Since it would be quantitative (by addition of fulfillment of value) knowing which is the “best” way to understand the world “in general” (more accurately: “most of the time”) doesn’t say anything certain about what the quantitatively best way to understand the world in any particular case would be. Since it is additive, quantitative, it is not a predictive “best” (i.e. a qualitative one) but just a “best so far”.

4) The political relevance of scientific facts

Same as the private relevance of scientific facts, with a different (public) scope. If I have a company, and some scientific fact comes to light that affects my future planning, that planning will simply be affected. Only difference besides scope is role of private interest in concealing “scientific facts” which, while they would benefit the public interest, are contrary to private interest. Such “private/public” divide in interest does not only exist between say, companies and states – it could also exist (analogously) within a company – where the best interests of the company are at odd with the best interests of a group of directors in it (this could be due to a different time scope – the company in general will continue to exist but some directors may only wish to be around for another few years), who thus might have an interest to conceal or dismiss some “scientific facts”.

Milan August 2, 2009 at 11:58 pm

The point wasn’t to answer these questions. Rather, to demonstrate that ‘pro-science’ and ‘anti-science’ are not clearcut positions.

Overall, I would say that conservatives have more problems than liberals, largely because scientific truths and the advancement of knowledge clash with their values. This is especially true when it comes to religiously derived values, which are both closely guarded and often easily disproved (the world is 6,000 years old, etc).

Tristan August 3, 2009 at 4:27 am

I’m not sure that “conservative” and “liberal” are clearcut positions, overall. I mean, it’s easy to know what’s “conservative” – just all those things we don’t like. But what is “liberal”? Is it just “not conservative”? That’s what I thought, until I found this helpful song by Phil Ochs:

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

I go to civil rights rallies
And I put down the old D.A.R.
I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy
I hope every colored boy becomes a star
But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

I cheered when Humphrey was chosen
My faith in the system restored
I’m glad the commies were thrown out
of the A.F.L. C.I.O. board
I love Puerto Ricans and Negros
as long as they don’t move next door
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

The people of old Mississippi
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can’t understand how their minds work
What’s the matter don’t they watch Les Crain?
But if you ask me to bus my children
I hope the cops take down your name
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

I read New republic and Nation
I’ve learned to take every view
You know, I’ve memorized Lerner and Golden
I feel like I’m almost a Jew
But when it comes to times like Korea
There’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

I vote for the democratic party
They want the U.N. to be strong
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs
I’ll send all the money you ask for
But don’t ask me to come on along
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Milan August 3, 2009 at 10:19 am

I’m not sure that “conservative” and “liberal” are clearcut positions, overall.

True, though I maintain that generally liberal individuals and organizations have better relations between scientists, scientific institutions, and scientific facts than generally conservative individuals and organizations do.

Partly, that is because the essence of conservatism is placing value on the status quo. Science doesn’t really support that objective, since it changes both the character of the world and our understanding of the world.

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