Conservatives and Science
While there are plenty of areas where I disagree with my side of the aisle, nothing stands out as much as the troubled relationship that conservatives have with science. This includes a refusal to even entertain the possibility of climate change and a casual endorsement of intelligent design that I find reprehensible. But this post isn’t about those two items. This post is about science in the broader context. Why does this dysfunctional relationship exist?
According to a recent article in USA Today:
A recent survey by economics professor Daniel Klein revealed that Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a whopping 30-to-1 ratio in anthropology; 28-to-1 in sociology; nearly 10-to-1 in history; and nearly 7-to-1 in political science.
I was curious to investigate if this had always been the case. My searching took me to a study by Gordon Gauchat in the American Sociological Review titled, “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010”. Gauchat found that in 1974 conservatives had the highest trust in science of any group, including liberals and moderates, and by 2010 they had the lowest amount of trust of any group. That represents a huge shift. The obvious question asks what drove this change. It appears the pressure came both from within conservative circles and from outside.
The New Right, which coalesced in the years after Goldwater’s defeat, pushed conservatism in a new direction. Social issues and nationalism were the two main planks of their platform and this culminated with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Religious conservatives and big business gained power with Reagan taking office and science represented a direct threat to their interests. From Gauchat:
Mooney also stresses two key constituencies of the NR, the religious right and transnational corporations, that each have vested interests in scientific outcomes.
At the same time science was undergoing a change of its own.
Chief among these is the growth of regulatory science, which has been a central theme in STS for the past few decades. In Jasanoff’s (1990) research, regulatory science refers to the institutionalization of science’s legitimization role through the formation of a science advisory community. Her main examples of regulatory science are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), organizations that are considered adversarial to corporate interests. Regulatory science directly connects to policy- management and, therefore, has become entangled in policy debates that are unavoidably ideological.
So we have a scenario where science is allowing itself to be politicized and at the same time we have the rise of political interests that feel threatened by science. This produces a perfect storm of mistrust. To complicate matters further, Gauchat’s research indicates that distrust of science was most profound among two groups. The first was the religious right which isn’t surprising. The second group was less obvious. According to Gauchat, educated conservatives were the most likely to distrust science. He explains:
This implies that educated or high-information conservatives will hold hyper-opinions about science, because they have a more sophisticated grasp about what types of knowledge will conform with or contradict their ideological positions, and they will prefer to believe what supports their ideology.
On the surface this strikes me as a self-damaging process, but that assumes the science was always correct. I am not prepared to go that far, even with my deep respect for the scientific community as a whole. My hesitation comes at least in part from my own experiences with science and academia. One of the challenges I found as an archaeologist was engaging in the speculative part of academia. I always believed in applying Occam’s Razor to my analysis but the criticsm I heard most often was that my conclusions were too simple and that I was thinking too small. Having spoken to some of the admittedly few conservatives in the field of anthropology this is a common complaint. It reminds me of a quote I once heard that some people have a tendency to pass up a good solution in search of a brilliant one.
It is important at this point to differentiate between science as an experimental pursuit grounded in the scientific method and science as an academic pursuit that engages in educated analysis and a certain amount of speculation. It is the latter that often draws the condemnation of some on the Right. What is not in dispute among intelligent conservatives is the reliability of the scientific method. The dispute comes from the interprative part of science and for good reason. It is that part that is most vulnerable to politicization. In recent years there has been some tension within the scientitifc community itself as members of the hard sciences fight with social scientists over the definition of science. According to the same USA Today piece quoted above:
Columnist Charles Lane argues that the foundation shouldn’t fund any social science at all. Why? Because even “though quantitative methods may rule economics, political science and psychology, these disciplines can never achieve the objectivity of the natural sciences. Society is not a laboratory.”
He is largely correct. Though the social sciences are important, informative and interesting, they often fail to meet the five characteristics of rigorous science: clearly defined terminology, quantifiability, highly controlled experimental conditions, reproducibility and predictability/testability. These characteristics are linked by a unifying theme — a true theory, in the scientific sense.
For biology, that is evolution; for chemistry, atomic theory; for physics, the laws of motion.
Not all studies within the hard sciences measure up. The majority of studies do, though. However, while there are notable exceptions, a substantial proportion of studies in the social sciences are not considered scientifically rigorous because the human experience is highly subjective and changeable across culture and time.
I hold degrees in two social science disciplines so believe me when I say that I want to dispute what they are saying here, but I can’t. During the three years I spent as a historical archaeologist, the work we did during that time was mostly anthropology, some history and a little bit of sociology. In short, we were working as social scientists. While there are certain aspects of these fields that are scientifically rigourous, for example the methodology used to excavate an archaeological site and capture contexual details, it is nearly impossible to draw conclusions from those findings that are as indispute as the theories arrived at by the hard sciences. That is not to say that the hard sciences aren’t willing to draw speculative conclusions , but ultimately they seek to arrive at answers that are based on provable data.
There is one last part of the equation concerning the relationship of conservatives and science. That is the hostility conservatives face within academia. The under-representation of conservatives in among science academics is statistically incompatible with the political leanings of our general population. This becomes a chick or egg scenario as it is hard to determine if conservatives left because they felt unwanted or if conservatives stay away because they perceive a lack of acceptance. My own experience in college was that our history department was more conservative (we had one ancient professor that still referred to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression) and the anthropology department was extremely liberal. While my politics were well-known, I found it much smarter to keep my opinions to myself among my anthropology friends. I don’t know if a professor would have felt comfortable doing that.
The conclusion I draw from all of this is that the problems with conservatives and science are complex and both sides are to blame, however the lion’s share rests with certain conservatives. Their open hostility does more harm than good and it only deepends the mistrust on both sides. Can this relationship be repaired? Gauchat’s study suggests no. Because I have relied on him so heavily for this post, I will leave him with the final word:
Accordingly, the analysis provides negligible evidence for the cultural ascendency thesis, which suggests that trust in science will increase over time. Nor do results support the alienation thesis that predicts a uniform decline in public trust in science. In general, results are consistent with claims of the politicization thesis and show that conservatives experienced long-term group-specific declines rather than an abrupt cultural break.