Sarewitz: Don't Make More Republicans Science Friendly, Make More Scientists Republican!

By Chris Mooney | December 10, 2010 11:20 am

That’s what he argues over at Slate. Pretty tough to swallow–but I’ll try to be respectful to Sarewitz, even though he wasn’t to my book The Republican War on Science (“a tiresome polemic masquerading as a defense of scientific purity”; “Mooney’s polemical fervor blinds him…” etc).

There are some points in Sarewitz’s argument that are similar to ones that I often make myself. For instance, politics really is driving the lack of acceptance of climate science on much of the U.S. political right, and it has nothing to do with intelligence or levels of education. Many U.S. Republicans feel that climate science isn’t for them. It’s a matter of identity.

I also concur that U.S. scientists today tilt liberal. That’s just a fact and there’s no point denying it.

But at the end of the day, ideological blinders are ideological blinders, and on some of the most critical science-centered issues of the day (like climate change), one side is wearing them. You simply can’t get around that fact. Reality is reality, and you either accept it or you don’t. Full stop.

Now, I fully concur that if there were more Republican climate scientists out there, they could then convince other Republicans to become more accepting of the science–and would be better and more effective messengers to their fellow party members. But I’m hard pressed to imagine any realistic way to change the politics of scientists en masse.

(Would Sarewitz himself like to become a Republican? In his review of my book in 2005, he says he’s an “unapologetic critic of the Bush administration,” and he previously worked for the late Democratic congressman George Brown–so presumably he isn’t one. Will he be changing parties to lead by example?)

What’s far more important is to have moderate Republican statesmen like Sherwood Boehlert trying to change the direction their party is turning. But there are all too few Boehlerts around now–for grand historical and political reasons that I have explained in detail (short version here), and that go right to the heart of the polarization of US politics today.

In this context, Sarewitz’s suggestion that we need to shift the politics of scientists is a conversation starter, perhaps–but hardly a serious way to cut back the polarization.

Comments (30)

  1. Chris,

    An important reality to acknowledge is that ideological blinders influence both conservatives and liberals, including scientists who lean heavily liberal.

    As I wrote at Slate earlier this year, given their political identity, it’s not surprising that scientists exaggerate the influence of conservative “deniers” on policy gridlock and public opinion and perceive even favorable media coverage as threatening to their goals and identity.

    http://www.slate.com/id/2248236/pagenum/all

    Just like climate change, politics and media coverage are complex, uncertain subjects to make sense of, especially without specialized training and tools from disciplines such as the social sciences to rely on.

    Just as the public turns to ideology as a short-cut to make causal attributions out of the uncertainty of climate change, so too do scientists to reach conclusions about politics. When ideology leads to faulty attributions, it has consequences for strategy and actions.

    Your own writing and commentary which appears to be ramping up the Republican War narrative, plays to this ideological bias among scientists in assigning blame for policy gridlock and leads to communication strategies, language, and actions that contribute to polarization rather than lessening it.

    Among scientists, you are creating the same type of ideological echo chambers and effects that you blame conservatives in promoting to the public or that you blame PZ Myers for promoting among atheists on the topic of science and religion.

  2. ☼ The science chooses the politician, Harry.

  3. PZ

    Don’t bother backing up your assertion Chris. I guess is you say it, it must be so?

    “I also concur that U.S. scientists today tilt liberal. That’s just a fact and there’s no point denying it.”

  4. Many U.S. Republicans feel that climate science isn’t for them. It’s a matter of identity.

    This is no different than saying Republicans feel that physics isn’t for them. Or an oxygen/nitrogen atmosphere.

  5. laserboy

    You know its funny, but climate science is about the only thing I agree with you on. It is where you are actually combative and willing to say “These are the facts and we must live with them.” I often wonder what prevents you from seeing that how you respond to climate science denialists is remarkably similar to how PZ deals with creationists (with the difference being a matter of style rather than substance)….

    As for Matt. If you got any more post modernist you would start doubting your own existence. Everyone having idealogical blinkers does not mean that both world views are equally valid, agree equally with the evidence, and have the same consequences. Agreeing that we disagree does not actually help resolve the problem, instead it prevents resolution. Nor do you actually give any pointers as to what magical approach we might take towards changing people’s attitudes (even in your comment above, you only reproach but don’t suggest). Perhaps you could explain how one might get a conservative republican to vote yes to strong regulation on emissions?

  6. Chris Mooney

    Note @3 is not so far as i can tell actually PZ Myers commenting. It would have been funny if both Matt Nisbet and PZ were criticizing the same post by me, but that’s not the case.

  7. I *used* to be a Republican. Then again, being a Republican in Berkeley before the ascension of George W. Bush is very different from being a Republican in Tennessee when George W. Bush is president. I find it impossible to be a Republican any more, and it’s been a long time since I identified myself as one. The Republican party has come out so strongly as opposed to science that it’s difficult for scientists to remain in it. It’d be like an evolutionary biologist trying to remain a fundamentalist; sooner or later, you gotta find another church, even if there are things about it you don’t like. (And there’s lots not to like about the Democrats; they’re the party of oppressive copyright legislation, for example, although the Republicans are giving them a run for their money on *that*.)

  8. “Laserboy,”

    No one is suggesting that claims about *climate science* from scientists and conservative doubters are equivalent.

    Instead, the point is that liberal ideology plays a role in how scientists perceive the complex *politics* of climate change and that claims by commentators that appeal to this ideology reinforce the tendency to narrowly attribute blame to Republicans for societal inaction and that these attributions lead to actions that increase polarization rather than reducing it.

    See the Slate article.

    As for an alternative strategy, here is a post describing a detailed, achievable plan based on a recent white paper contributed to the National Academies:

    http://bigthink.com/ideas/24793

  9. Matthew,

    How does one get to write a column in Slate in the first place? Your credentials are not very impressive (I’m sure you would agree, I don’t mean that as an insult).

    How did you get the Slate gig? I’m curious.

  10. John Kotcher

    Perhaps it’s worth noting that the sample of scientists for the survey were drawn from the membership of AAAS. It’d be interesting to know what effect, if any, the political affiliation of scientists has on active membership in AAAS.

    It’s conceivable that more conservative or Republican scientists simply aren’t as engaged in professional associations. That in itself would be a curious and interesting finding from a social science perspective. It’s also plausible that some conservative scientists disagree with some of the politics and position statements that have been issued by AAAS leading them to boycott/decline participation in the organization.

  11. Alan Leibensperger

    Interesting enough, the first definition I found in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary was………….
    the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding…
    Whether regarding politics, religion or anything else, fact cannot stand up to belief. Most conservatives refuse to accept anything that does not support their self-serving dogmatic opini0ns. To be a scientist is to investigate and be open to whatever is discovered. Mme Marie Curie once said “There is nothing in this world to fear, only to be understood.”
    Most scientists, I beleive, seek knowledge for the betterment of humanity. That is something in which most Republicans have no interest. Their primary quest is for power for their own gain. I don’t think there is anything more obvious than that in the current political climate.

  12. Area Man

    What exactly is Sarewitz suggesting we do, have a fraction of scientists summarily declare themselves conservative Republicans? Scientists aren’t more likely to be Democrats and liberals because of sampling error, there are reasons why . Sarewitz doesn’t bother pondering them at all.

    I would suggest the first place to look is into the psychological differences between those who tilt left and tilt right. Conservatives tend to be more dogmatic about their beliefs, intolerant of ambiguity, and less inclined toward integrative complexity. These are traits that don’t go well with being a scientist. This doesn’t mean that a conservative can’t make a good scientist, but the nature of the work will tend to select against them.

    The second place to look is the attitude that Republicans and conservatives have displayed over the last 20 years towards scientist and towards intellectuals in general, and ask yourself why that might make scientists run in the opposite direction. But I think Chris has hammered that one to death already.

  13. Check out some of Bill Ruckelshaus’ statements on the topic. As you guys probably know, he was the 1st EPA Administrator (which began under Nixon), is a well respected Republican, and chimes in on a lot of environmental issues up here in the NW.

  14. There are also many Conservatives that do believe that climate change is both occurring AND is caused by human activity. We need to do more to invite, support, and encourage their participation in these discussions. Here in Seattle, the Earth Ministry (http://earthministry.org) is a great example of a collection of folks that represent many faiths and many political beliefs that passionately support these issues.

  15. “I also concur that U.S. scientists today tilt liberal. That’s just a fact and there’s no point denying it.”

    It is not “just a fact”. It is a consequence of private companies closing their suburban research centers and outsourcing their R&D to universities. Blame Bayh and Dole, not the modern Republicans.

  16. WVhybrid

    I used to be a Republican.. Does that count?

  17. Science is not a political issue! The scientific method is a tool to get at “truth” and repeatedly test our proposals regarding the “truth.” Generally science never reaches 100% consensus on any topic and is not a popularity contest in which popularity of a position has any validity. See: http://www.earthmagazine.org/earth/article/3e3-7da-c-a

    Politicians must implement policies relative to what science proposes for the good of society. There are lots of different theories and proposals coming into the offices of these guys and they end up making the politically expedient decisions, because do not understand that the more a position is held up to rigorous scientific scrutiny, the more likely it reflects reality. We may never convince these guys that some sacrifice may be crucial in the long term health of the nation and the planet.

    I think we (scientists) need to focus more on the bottom line of mutual self interest; basically convince the republicans (and the voters) what is in it for them personally. It’s not pretty, but look at what our current methods of persuasion are getting us.

  18. Alan Leibensperger

    The first definition from the Merriam-Webster online dictionary for science is:
    1. 1the state of knowing : knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding
    As a scientist one must be willing to accept new discoveries even when it conflicts with generally accepted knowledge.
    Most conservatives, I believe, are not willing to see or hear anything that does not support their position, especially when it interferes with their quest gaining and maintaining power, primarily for self-serving gains.
    No matter how much compelling evidence you present, fact cannot stand up to belief,
    Obviously, today, most Republicans more than anything else are concerned with gaining and holde power to further their own gain and self-interest.

  19. hm. i didn’t get the slate piece. i lean to the right myself, and though my registration is republican i don’t know if i’d call myself a republican…though many ‘independents’ protest their lack of party affiliation too much for my taste ;-) as long as the republican party is dominated by social conservatism, and bad-mouths major sources of livelihood for academic scientists in the form of the NSF and NIH then scientists will oppose them. just how it is. i bet you physicists during the cold war were more politically diverse. why do you think that might have been?

  20. laserboy

    OK, so I read the material at Matt’s link, and… I like the ideas, I think they should be implemented… I just don’t think they are enough. I think they are predicated on the idea that, given some education, good ideas always win through, and that in a fair fight the right side always win.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think either are true and that lies and distortions must be directly named for what they are. I think that in the case of climate change, Chris recognizes this and realizes that the dirty tricks of the denialist machine must be answered in a direct manner. It is a pity that he doesn’t seem to realize that this applies to all other areas of science as well.

  21. AAAS really isn’t the primary professional association for anyone, except possibly science policy wonks. Chemists belong to ACS, physicists to APS, etc. Some people in my department used to join AAAS to get the free ‘Science’ subscription, but now our library has an online institutional subscription, hardly anybody bothers. (and if ‘Science’ continues to publish junk like the arsenic-loving-microbe paper, even that incentive will disappear).

    Whether scientists are ‘liberals’ depends on how you define liberal. For example, most scientists are still strongly meritocratic, and not necessarily on the liberal side of some issues. They probably have more registered Democrats than Republicans, although nowhere nearly as strongly as the Pew poll claimed.

  22. Conservatives tend to be more dogmatic about their beliefs, intolerant of ambiguity, and less inclined toward integrative complexity. These are traits that don’t go well with being a scientist.

    I disagree completely. Scientists tend to be highly dogmatic about most established scientific work. We don’t got reexamining evolution or the second law every time someone claims to have discovered a problem with them. ‘Stare decissis’ is the modus operandi unless somebody comes up with strong contrary evidence. It’s essential. If every time someone came up with an odd result, we started questioning our entire picture of the universe, we’d get nothing done.

    We also most certainly don’t tolerate ambiguity. Try publishing a paper on a problem where you can’t come up with a clear answer. And most good scientists are creatively reductionist. The way we deal with complexity is to treat it with a simple model that can be corrected or perturbed.

  23. TTT

    Nisbet, do you honestly believe any of your precious scientific narratives have helped improve public and policymaker understanding of the issue of climate science?

    Because all I see from you above is yet more in your seemingly endless barrage of toldya-so spitballs. There is no remotely valid response to something like Climategate (and its subsequent 25-8-366 media slavering) than to point out that it’s all lies from lying liars. Trying to “rise above” by just restating your original premise that the lying liars have defamed will not work, any more than attempting to reposition a chess piece your opponent has already taken will not work. You have to fight to win.

    Saying that scientists can’t complain about denialism–that doing so “leads to communication that increases polarization instead of lessening it”–is very much of the same flavor of your assertion that scientists shouldn’t have complained about “Expelled” or noted how poorly it did at the box office despite its producers’ claims. It grossly ignores the value–both rhetorical and empirical–of truth.

  24. Matteo

    “I would suggest the first place to look is into the psychological differences between those who tilt left and tilt right. Conservatives tend to be more dogmatic about their beliefs, intolerant of ambiguity, and less inclined toward integrative complexity. These are traits that don’t go well with being a scientist.”

    “Most conservatives, I believe, are not willing to see or hear anything that does not support their position, especially when it interferes with their quest gaining and maintaining power, primarily for self-serving gains. No matter how much compelling evidence you present, fact cannot stand up to belief, Obviously, today, most Republicans more than anything else are concerned with gaining and holde power to further their own gain and self-interest.”

    How subtle. How non-dogmatic. How scientific.

  25. Jim

    Would more Republican climate scientists change the position of Republican politicians on climate change?

    That’s an empirical question and all the ruckus around the article leaves it unanswered.

    I’m going to bet on the null hypothesis. Two reasons: 1) addressing climate change requires collective action, and modern Republican ideology opposes imposing limits on economic freedom. (Other forms of freedom, not so much.) 2) Politicians represent interest groups, and the fossil fuels industry is investing heavily in Republican politicians.

  26. Marion Delgado

    Sarewitz is wrong.

    The GOP position is not “Science bad,” although it usually looks like it.

    It’s “overall reality be damned. Whatever serves our special interests should be promoted as reality. In any area. In any venue.”

    You can’t help by joining that corrupt team. Like the Federalists or the Whigs, if you’re science- or reality-minded, the Republican party has lost its general usefulness and should be replaced.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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