Experimental Bias?

Today on Slate, Daniel Sarewitz posted an opinion piece entitled “Lab Politics”, in which he cites recent data that only 6% of scientists in the US are Republicans.  55% are Democrats, and 32% self-identify as “independents” (the remainder go into the “don’t know” category).

Leaning to the Left

Sarewitz lays out the premise that it’s dangerous for one ideology to “control” the sciences and that this is leading and will continue to lead to the politicization of American scientific endeavor and research funding.  And to a certain point, I agree – over the past 10 years, I’ve seen what seems like a very public political shift in the way science and technology is reported. Sarewitz writes:

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?

His case has been bolstered because of the “he said/she said” nature of last year’s “Climategate” scandal in which a group of climatologists may or may not have colluded to “fix” their data so that it was more in-line with the “pro-global-warming” agenda.  And while inquiries acquitted the participants of any wrongdoing, they left plenty of ammo for those like Sarewitz that warn when politics gets into the lab, the truth, and by extension society, loses.

All Too True

But Sarewitz misses perhaps the most important point, thinking that this is some academic left-wing conspiracy and tendencies that have been in place for a generation or more.  There, I think he’s got it wrong.  In my experience of being a professional scientist for a couple of decades, I’ve known many many conservative scientists.  I was one of them.   What did we favor?  Balanced budgets, strong defense, limited government.  Many scientists I knew (and know) are active Christians.

So, what’s happened to push everyone to the left?

Well, under President Bush, the Republicans jettisoned that old chestnut of going after a balanced budget, favoring wars that the country could not afford or have the gumption to raise revenues (i.e. taxes) to pay for – so fiscal conservatism went out the window.

Worse than that, the Republican party became an anti-intellectual party.  In fact, “intellectual” became a slur.  Being “elite” didn’t mean you were among the best at something, it meant that you were some sort of un-American Euro-socialist.  But most damning of all, Republican candidates across the country embraced fundamentalist claptrap that was profoundly anti-science.  Vociferously ranting against evolution, climate change, the Big Bang, and stem cell research – data notwithstanding – Republicans have tried to sway school boards to water down facts and misinform our children in science classrooms.  Throw in a healthy dose of xenophobia (most research labs are multi-cultural) and homophobia, and I’m surprised the percentage of scientists self-reporting as Republican was that high.

Intelligent Design

Where does that leave us erstwhile conservative-leaning scientists?  I called myself a “liberaltarian” to a friend once.  That works – and “independent” works, too, I suppose.  Like most Americans, at election-time I try to parse through the hyperbole to reach some conclusion about which candidates will try and “do right” by the country.  But I can tell you that once a candidate spouts anti-science rhetoric, they’re dead to me, because it proves that they’re not thinking but just pandering.

Sarewitz concludes that that professional science organizations need to look into attracting more Republican scientists or face a credibility gap with the public.  Again, he gets it backwards — science doesn’t need more Republicans.  Republicans need to be more scientific.

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26 thoughts on “Experimental Bias?

  1. Great post, and I agree with so much of what you said. As a scientist, Christian and fiscal conservative who advocates for small government, it is getting harder and harder to self-identify as Republican (I even erased “Republican” as a description of myself in this post!). So often that label conjures up the worst anti-science or other negative images. While I do have a strong belief in God, I also believe in evolution – and resolving the two is where faith comes in – if I understood it all, it wouldn’t be faith, would it?

    • Thanks Jaimie! To me, the R’s are getting pretty far away from the kind of conservatism that has been the core of our political leanings. There seems to be a low requirement for “reason” in politics these days — in many way, the ongoing polarization works against it — and I think scientists by nature and practice are “reasonable” people. I think we’ve all seen the outcomes of when scientists become “ideologues” and get too attached to their theories.

  2. Great post, Steve. I agree that the Republican attack on science has driven many scientists from the putative “big tent”. (Full disclosure: I am fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and support any tax methodology that maximizes the growth of the middle class. I am also not unique in the sciences.)

    And in claiming that the withdrawal of scientists from the Republican party is proof of a conspiracy, Sarewitz merely demonstrates why we have withdrawn. Treat scientists as second-class citizens in your party and guess what – they’ll change parties! (Shades of Atlas Shrugged…)

    • John — yep, I think there’s a lot of people that feel the way that we do — and the problem is that neither party seems particularly interested in grabbing hold of what I think is that large part of the center for fear of alienating its “base”.

  3. A thoughtful and interesting post. I would like to add the proposition that, “meanwhile the Democrats have moved to the right”, which certainly makes it all even easier, yes?

    In fact, from my point of view, the substance of the Democrats and Republicans have moved so close together that you can only tell which is which by the style differences and who is attracted to which party. (But the machine in DC operates identically.)

    Speaking of cartoons, please check out, Dr Bagshaw, discoverer of the infinitely-expanding research grant, as I think this cartoon is the perfect summation of “politicized science”.

    • Koan — i think you’ve made a good point about the Dems as well. That in practice, neither party seems that invested in taking care of our financial house and that their methods are pretty similar depending upon who has the majority at the current moment. All the while, trying to convince America that these two shades of grey are really black and white. However, I don’t usually hear Dems spouting anti-science diatribes.

  4. I’m sad that Conservative changed from meaning something FISCAL (mostly) to meaning something religious. In a country with a foundation of separation of Church and State, it’s anti-American.

    There’s nothing wrong with being religious. I happen to know 2 physicists who are devout Protestants. I mean *very* churchy people and I don’t mean what I refer to “Xtians” but christians (walking the walk).

    I’m deeply spiritual and I trust science. I never get why / how people can think whatever they call “god” can be omniscient but “at risk” of the rules of nature that as a god-believer seemingly should believe…”He created.” When we don’t understand something and work to figure it out, why wouldn’t “Our Father” be pleased at his beloved children being clever? If it goes back to their Garden of Eden, Dude. The cat’s out of the bag on that one. Now, we have to figure this crap out.

    • madtante — you know, I’ve often thought why would God create a universe like this and give us brains to unravel its mysteries — if the answers were somehow invalid??!??! That sort of God would be deceitful — and I don’t believe that to be the case!

  5. “He is a scientist, Burn him.”
    “He turned me into a newt. . . Well, I got better.”
    Unfortunately, people are always looking for a witch hunt and science is getting it right now. The political shift amongst scientist is only adding to the hysteria. Science itself should be above politics, but politics find themselves weaseling into everything.

    • Budd — I think the problem is that science seems to be caving into the need to “earn” its attention. Think about the arsenic-microbes. That should have never gotten a press conference — and maybe it seems gotten some better peer-review. But it’s almost like “we have to announce something big to justify ourselves”. That does nothing but undermine credibility and add fuel to the fire of all the hyperbole going around — something “real” science should work to control.

  6. Steve, Every day I find myself struggling with defining my ethical responsibilities in civic matters. I am a liberal minded person, leaning toward wisdom when it comes to fiscal matters. I understand that in order that we may care for others and our country, fund our scientist’s efforts, our artist, repair and upkeep of our roads and bridges we must have taxes and then wisdom in our spending of them. Call me what you will on this but I agree that the behaviour of the conservative Republicans does not show this wisdom. They want to scrap 100’s of years of science, science that our creator has given us that we may understand the universe we occupy.
    I also must point out that who is behind the labels change. At one time Republicans were the liberals and Democrats were the conservatives. Over time that has changed and these days it is at times hard to tell the difference. When modern day Republicans began to question science and promote ideology that thumbs it’s nose at hard science, I thought there would be an outcry, when they began to want to change how history lessons teach, I expected more outcry. When they prompted oppression of peoples, I thought surly there would be uprising, there was not. These Republicans are skilled and changing the world to suit their ideals, Democrats seem to be in collusion with them in that they stand by and allow it to happen. I am a Christian, a Gay Catholic one at that. The Catholic church has lost it’s primary mission in seeing God in each other and ourselves and of being service, in science as well, to one another. What has happened instead is that some have used our Christian label to come to mean that it is okay to oppress those who are different from us, that using just certain parts of the text to bring their own style of judgment on others; finally to distort what we know through science, to explain a text that is more story than fact to support an ideology useful to their end.
    I often feel offended that my faith is co-oped in this way. Science is wisdom and this wisdom is sorely lacking today in the ability to face those that would twist words to forge a divide between each other. Be wise in the world, science will help you understand it.

  7. Compelling post, Steve. I gave you a shout-out on my post, I hope you don’t mind. And oh, loved the Toles cartoon. He is hillarious every time.

    I think what I’d be interested in is data which tracks the percentate of Republican scientists over time, maybe starting with Nixon? If Democrats always ruled the “labs” then yeah, maybe they could have a sliver of an argument for conspiracy. But if the number plummeted during Dubya’s term, we know what happened.

    What’s lost in all this is the science. “To advance political agenda”. Well, that’s just silly. Either the methods were sound or they weren’t. What goes on in the stomata of a leaf has nothing to do with politics. These days people know more about Jersey Shore than they do about tree ring data. ;)

    • Thanks Emmi! I never mind the link-out… :)

      I think the sad thing about the politicization of science is that often it’s not about the data, but it’s about who controls the money and gets to decide where it goes. Advocates for (or against) climate measures, natural area preservation, etc all want “the data” on their side to argue what they want. And really, all they want is the data that supports their position and the policy changes that would come from it.

    • “What goes on in the stomata of a leaf has nothing to do with politics.” Well put! And I just love tree ring data! I could spend hours reading about that. (I put The Secret Life of Plants on my amazon wish list that I emailed to Masha)

  8. Wow. This is one GREAT post! And the comments are, too! Nice to hear peoples’ brains at work (for a change). It has made me sad how I don’t want to call myself a Christian or a Republican thanks to the blatant idiots in both groups.
    Independent still feels safe. I do love the term liberaltarian! :)

    • Lauri — one of the true disservices of this whole debacle that people of good faith and tolerance are being shut-out by the “Holier Than Thou” types. I know what I think of when I say someone is a “good Christian” — but I can tell you the folks running the GOP and Tea Party don’t really fit my idea.

      • You have hit the nail on the head….”good Christians” are really most of the people I know personally, except when they get a bit too gung-ho about everyone requiring “rebirth” to be “saved”. Then I take umbrage. But, other than that they are kind, loving people who would help anyone in need etc. etc.

        So nothing wrong with being a “good Christian”. The GOP and TP pretty much show the opposite of a good anything. Especially the ones hollering about the evils of homosexuality whist having lengthy affairs with homosexuals.

  9. Sadly, this really all started in the ’80s, when right-wing Republicans like Newt Gingrich began claiming that university professors were mostly anti-American leftists who were brainwashing students with their political beliefs. Much of their argument was based on anecdotal evidence and on the published works of poor scholars like Ward Churchill: but it was very similar to McCarthyism, in that it silenced, drove out or alienated many academics who had been excellent researchers and teachers. Back then however, it was primarily the humanities that were affected: now it’s science, and again the best American researchers and scholars are being forced out of public colleges and government offices. Many have gone into the private sector, where they’re less subject to attack and less likely to speak publicly on issues like global warming and the sciences in education.

    What saddens me even more about this is that countries like South Korea and Japan are quietly surging ahead in medical research, largely because there are no religious taboos against subjects like stem cell research, and the governments and private sector invest a lot of money in R&D rather than use it to pad the accounts of CEOs. While this country plays politics with science, others pay to progress it. Their citizens will benefit from the results. We on the other hand will have to buy it from them.

    • HG — you’re absolutely correct regarding how this politicization has paralyzed American science and technology progress. California started its own stem-cell agency, but conflicting rules with the NIH make it almost impossible to carry out research supported by the two agencies in the same premises (which can easily happen).

      And yes, I think we can look back to the rise of “The Moral Majority” (it was neither) as the sea change in the GOP that has ostracized fiscally-conservative moderates from the party.

  10. Nice post!

    And that’s coming from an atheist scientist who would self-report as a Democrat. So pretty much the stereotype that Daniel Sarewitz is bemoaning.

    But like most people, my actual views don’t fit neatly into one party.

    I’ve watched the effect of the anti-science stance taken by so many politicians in a more personal realm- I frequent mommyblogs (probably because I sort of write one), and I am dismayed by the distrust of science I find there on issues like vaccination and the use of BPA in baby bottles. I think the populist crap that people like Sarah Palin pull out is doing a serious harm to our country by encouraging people to distrust experts. But that is a rant for another day….

    • The vaccination misinformation campaign has been amazing. The problem is that there’s a part of people that expect that governments, corporations, etc are out to “get” them, so there’s a trigger mechanism that gets pulled with that suspicion. I think it is all compounded by the easy access to such misinformation provided by the internet. I don’t think these crackpot ideas would ever gain much traction without it. It’s a planet-sized gossip mill.

  11. ps Steve just fyi you got multiple shout-outs once again on my blog, the one about fiction ideas. Just thought I’d let you know, you’re somewhat of a celebrity on my blog this week.

  12. Damn straight on the anti-science rhetoric. When I hear that crap I also hear the dungeon chains of the middle ages knocking against each other.
    I respect any intelligent viewpoint. I even disagree, despite my strongly liberal tendencies (which are just left of the norm over here), with some more “liberal” stuff…just depends on if it makes sense or not.

  13. Wonderful post! Unfortunately the politicization of science is nothing new (just think of Galileo!) but you would have thought that we had learned something by now. The problem seems to me to be that no one trusts scientists anymore and the public just decides to believe what they want to believe. I think this comes from two sources 1) how easy it is to produce junk science and get it into the media and 2) that the universities and academics often refuse to engage in an honest debate with people who support opposing conclusions.

    No one seems to go through the peer review process anymore and goes straight to the media or the internet with inaccuraties (hence the vaccination hoax). Once it goes viral, it is almost impossible to contain. The media only goes for the “sound bite” summary and no one asks for the data. Academics often only want to hear what supports their viewpoint and when they come up against science that doesn’t support their world view , the reaction is hostility. The storms that came up around Climategate and “The Skeptical Environmentalist” were a case in point. The point of the book was not that we don’t have environmental problems but that we are using junk science to prop up expensive projects that won’t yield results. When academics go into personal attacks and pressure publishers to not publish opposing work, it causes people to not trust any of them. If there was more honest and fair debate within the community and more tolerance for alternate viewpoints, maybe there would be more respect for scientist and less belief in junk science.

    • Thanks Sandyol — I cringe when I see bad science get publicized. One of the problems is that “regular” science is methodical and incremental — each step is usually not newsworthy. “Real” scientists themselves have hurt the cause by “spinning” their results in the media to make an impact — in that way it becomes hard to dissociate the behavior of pseudo-scientists from the real research being done.

      Couple that with a head in the ground (if not a less-polite place) among some media and the GOP regarding scientific literacy and we’re heading rapidly towards a place where facts are going to be hard to come by — let alone debate the merits of

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