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).
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.
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.
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.