The Great Divide – Why Science Biases Left (and Republicans Distrust Scientists)

Introduction: My Dilemma

As you have no doubt deduced by the sheer fact that I comment on this particular blog, I am relatively conservative in my world view. I do not consider myself strictly Republican, but I find myself more likely to be sympathetic to a conservative proposal to solve a problem than a liberal one. This makes me a private man when it comes to my stated believes amongst friends and colleagues – you see, I’m also a scientist. With very few exceptions, the scientific disciplines have become bastions of liberalism and I think, after attending a recent ethics training course, that I finally understand why this is happening with more and more extremity in the last few decades and why scientists tend to believe that Republicans are just plain stupid when they may know a few examples in their own midst that disprove this stereotype.

Being a conservative and a scientist would seem to have led me to a dilemma. My colleagues, if they knew everything about my beliefs, would no doubt take me less seriously as a scientist or spend their energies trying to “correct” my thinking. There was even a lecture in this ethics series about the importance of the adviser/student relationship in “socializing” the young scientist – a term that means (in the words of the lecturer) “instructing the developing scientist on the social and professional expectations of someone in his field.” Some of this socialization is good. I have an occasional tendency to be very direct in emails – people often read candor as arrogance without face to face communication to correct the written perception and my adviser has spoken to me about little things I can do to modify the language in my email correspondence and thus alter the perceived tone.

That sort of thing is critical to the social learning process. But there is a more nefarious motive sometimes at play. If you express doubt about scientific orthodoxy, professionals in the field are very quick to try to correct you. Many young scientists begin their careers with appropriate skepticism and learn very quickly that their career goes more smoothly if they don’t rock the boat. The most recent public example of the dangers of scientists enforcing intellectual codes on their peers was revealed in the ClimateGate scandal. We learned that big players in the global climate science orthodoxy coerced editors of major climate journals to resign when they refused to bar skeptical papers from publication. Rather than have their orthodoxy questioned, scientists stooped to bullying to socialize and control their field.

So I spend every day feeling shunned by colleagues who are otherwise pleasant, cordial, and intelligent people – people I respect in all other ways. Why is being a scientist…and being conservative…a conflict. The dispassionate scientist should be able to divorce his work form his political beliefs in the pursuit of truth. Both schools of thought should be considered valid if there’s to be a robust debate. Certainly, if your political views have nothing at all to do with your scientific methodologies, they shouldn’t enter into a person’s judgment of your professional competence. Why must my very identity be a guarded secret? Why is science so biased?

Institutional Thinking:

The simplest way to earn the loyalty of a household pet is to be the provider of its’ daily meals. Fifty years ago…before the government was the primary source of funding for scientific advancement, those aspiring to do science (generally limited to a privileged few with the right connections) sought out a personal, almost familial relationship with an established scientist. The entire concept of having an institutional academic adviser stems from this early model of proper preparation for a career in science. In this world, the political affiliations of the scientist were almost irrelevant – and they were shaped by their individual mentor. The hand that fed them was the hand that guided their philosophical development.

Who feeds the scientists now? With few exceptions, the hard sciences tend to be financed by the government through grant-giving agencies like the National Science Foundation, or through the budgets of one of the government scientific agencies (NOAA, NASA, etc). This has pros and cons. On the plus side, government sponsored research has made science a legitimate career path for people of all economic, ethnic and social backgrounds and from both genders. The increased access to the profession has led to an absolute explosion of new ideas, technological and theoretical breakthroughs, economic growth, and unparalleled improvements in quality of life, life expectancy and human safety. As well, government interest in scientific development has led to advances that directly benefit our national security. The Manhattan Project ended WWII (as well as paving the way for nuclear power, space exploration, computer technology etc.). Advances in technology made the Apollo missions possible and simultaneously led to the invention of freeze-dried food storage, velcro and new thermal insulation. I would even go so far as to say that government funded science has been more of a positive than a negative in the grand scheme of things. I wouldn’t be a meteorologist without government support.

At the same time, I think we would be remiss if we didn’t make the logical connection between the dominant support mechanism for scientific researchers in their early career development and the changing dominant political attitude of scientists. In 1950, the proportion of scientists at America’s colleges and universities (admittedly a much smaller number of people) were split 50/50 between the two major parties. Today, less than 10% of all faculty who are registered for a political party vote Republican. I always suspected that this might have something to do with where their money comes from. But I learned today that it’s a bit more complex. It goes to a core belief shared by most scientists. I’ll summarize it in one phrase – government funded research is more trustworthy than research funded by a profit-making entity (private corporation).

Corporate Fraud in Science(Why Scientists Vote Democrat)

Scientists are not wrong to be skeptical of private-sector-funded research. There is a well-documented history of big business funding research with a non-objective (profit-motivated) goal in mind. Famously, big pharmaceuticals have spent billions of dollars funding scientific studies geared to proving that their new and exciting drug is a big improvement over the old drug from the same family. When Pfieser upgrades from Prilosec to Prevacid, a strong case is made by an army of scientists that the new drug (invented so that Pfieser can keep the patent fresh and charge a little more for basically the same drug) is better than the old drug. Little effort is expended trying to disprove these claims. The drug company makes a zillion new dollars, and the patients suffer when it turns out that Prevacid increases your risk of losing bone density and getting COPD.

And the problems aren’t constrained to medical science. Tobacco companies have been known to fund scientific analysis of cancer rates in smokers in an attempt to prove that cigarettes don’t kill people. And if you control your experimental designs in just the right ways, you can prove just about anything and make it sound unassailable. Indeed, there is an UNDENIABLE conflict of interest between a profit-seeking venture (by its’ nature an adversarial, secretive and biased process…fraught with the constant danger that a little tweak to the data could be the difference between a fortune and bankruptcy) and the scientific method (which cannot begin with a goal in mind…only questions to be answered and observations to be understood). Private sector funding in the sciences is always going to be viewed by other scientists, pundits and the public with considerable skepticism – seeking profit is antithetical to the dispassionate pursuit of knowledge…right down to the free communication of data and methods and results to other scientists for replication and, yes, for their chance to discredit you in the further pursuit of truth.

Political Machines and Scientific Bias (Why republicans distrust government science)

There is, however, just as long a record of scientific misconduct in the name of supposedly trustworthy, unbiased scientific research funded by our Federal Government. I mentioned ClimateGate, but Federally funded runaway bias can be found in so many other areas. SETI, for example, is arguably one of the least efficient and least scientific “scientific” missions funded by the US. Many scientists still question the validity of the scientific consensus (all government approved) that DDT was killing the entire food web where applied, that Alar was a gigantic cancer risk, or that your children all have ADHD and/or OCD and/or tourettes syndrome and/or some other behavioral/learning spectral disorder in need of years of psychotherapy or pills to treat.

The same kind of runaway government-biased thinking invades our educational system. When some social science journal publishes a study suggesting that some kids learn better by making conceptual connections from a young age,, government-funded school systems flock to the newest fad and you end up with math curricula that abandon the notion of memorization to familiarize oneself with numbers and fail to teach kids how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. Why is Federally funded scientific research in the same kind of peril as any private sector research? Money is still money, and the hand that feeds you still has expectations about what results you’ll dredge up. Sometimes, if you’re working in apolitical areas, you can do objective research…but don’t kid yourself…if there is a political agenda attached to your area of expertise, your research funding will depend in part on your objectives lining up with that agenda.

In climate science, if your grant proposal does not ASSUME the notion that all recent trends in global temperature are man-made and that global warming is an imminent threat to lives and property, you will not get funded. Period. And let’s not even talk about trying to publish results that run contrary to what the politicians need you to say to win votes in November or to secure more state research foundation funding in the next stimulus package or NSF budget meeting. Fear makes people choose sides…politicians need things to make us afraid…scientists get funding only when fear motivates the people and the politicians can stand next to the scientist and smile as though their efforts are critical to neutralizing the source of that fear. Global warming has bought democrat votes for years…so much so that now Republicans have to claim they believe the threat of man-made global warming is real, even if their proposals to combat it are more measured. The same mechanic is used to fund senseless government spending projects that liberals hate too…Star Wars (fear of nuclear annihilation), Homeland Security (fear of terrorism), etc.

If the hand that feeds you is inherently politically biased, the research will be biased too…as will the researchers. In fact, part of the reason scientists run so liberal is that their government (and the media) now has them convinced that the only risks to the integrity of science come from private corporations. Every global warming skeptic is labeled an oil company shill even though oil companies spend about 2% as much as governments do on global warming research. The institution has a vested interest in keeping the inmates dependent on institutional support. Government now needs the scientists to need the government if the politicians are to reap benefits from all the money spent on scientific research. So young scientists are being raised to believe that getting private funding will harm their careers and leave them unable to publish, that the only funding sources they can trust come from the institution, and that the Republicans want to take away their funding and throw us back into the stone age.

So where does that leave someone who firmly believes that science – even government funded science is an absolute necessity…but that corporations aren’t inherently evil and government funded projects ARE inherently less efficient than private ones? How can I be both an institutional scientist and a conservative? As the scientist running our ethics lecture would have said – a full disclosure of the potential conflicts of interest is required. Of course, she was in no mood to admit that government funding comes with political conflicts that endanger objectivity on the larger scale, but I think that is a must. Just as I believe that corporate funding for scientific research should not produce scientific literature that is unchecked for validity by other scientists, I also believe that government funded research needs to be fair and balanced. This is why ClimateGate was not a minor skirmish for me. I’ve observed, on a smaller scale, the problem of government inertia in my own research. My funding comes to me via the Research Foundation of New York…but for those in my group who get their funding through NOAA, they must contend with the often narrow vision of NWS operational types. They want science that directly (and obviously) benefits the process of producing operational weather forecasts. They need direct evidence that whatever you’re studying will improve the way they forecast the weather and are generally profoundly unimpressed when you try to argue that DOWN THE ROAD, your line of thinking will benefit them. This government inertia presents problems EVERYWHERE. As a result, the current perception that government funding is free (until the big bad evil GOP takes it away) and that private funding is tainted needs to stop. To fund science, we always deal with the devil. The only way to fight this is for the people to demand a balanced Federal scientific agenda. Training scientists to believe that Republicans are stupid for wanting to cut funding for “science” (they don’t want to cut funding for science, guys…they want to cut funding for your scientific agencies because they don’t trust the work you’re doing…because the work you’re doing has frequently been questioned…and because they recognize that, right now, we can’t afford to spend as much as we usually do)…is not healthy. And it won’t help us bridge the gap between scientists and the right wing.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Divide – Why Science Biases Left (and Republicans Distrust Scientists)

  1. This is all true. Today's young scientists are also being carefully taught to believe that they are the only force that saves the world from total irrationality. They have been fed an erroneous historical narrative that claims that traditional societies – especially religious societies – have always been and always will be hostile to their efforts. To put it another way, they are groomed to have a vested interest in smashing the “old way” of doing things.

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  2. I'd further add that right wing suspicion of scientists may also stem from the fact that so many scientists have wandered beyond their particular area of expertise and have started lecturing the populace on the superiority of atheism, leftwing economics, and the like. You may have a very intimate understanding of the inner workings of an atom. This does not, however, necessarily qualify you to speak as an authority on theology.

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