Why Are Scientists So Often Liberal in Political Outlook?

By Chris Mooney | February 18, 2011 9:17 am

There’s a fascinating discussion thread at Quora on this question–check it out.

First of all, I am not disputing the premise: This Pew survey, for instance, found that

More than half of the scientists surveyed (55%) say they are Democrats, compared with 35% of the public. Fully 52% of the scientists call themselves liberals; among the public, just 20% describe themselves as liberal.

So, scientists are, in aggregate, more liberal than the rest of America…but why?

I am not going to be satisfied with a “really smart people are liberals” kind of answer. I know too many smart conservatives. Other arguments that I’ve seen in the thread that sound more plausible:

1. Republicans have taken a lot of anti-science positions lately (climate, evolution, etc) and scientists are just responding to that.
2. Academia is a very liberal environment, and that’s where scientists cut their teeth.
3. Smart and talented conservatives don’t hang around for a Ph.D., they want to get out of the ivory tower (which they perceive hostile anyway) and into the business world.

What do others think?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics and Science

Comments (67)

  1. I think being a scientist opens one to the idea that certitude is a bad position. Yet certitude is the heart of conservatism. It could be a simple as that.

    I could go into a lot of examples, but I think this reductionist explanation probably hits at the heart of the matter.

  2. Somite

    “I am not going to be satisfied with a “really smart people are liberals” kind of answer. I know too many smart conservatives. ”


    I am not not going to be satisfied with a “really smart people accept evolution” kind of answer. I know too many smart creationists.

    Yes. conservatism is the creationism of social science. There is no evidence that supports that it is a viable or even tenable proposition.

    And don’t get me started on how many smart religious people we know…

  3. There ARE smart creationists. There’s a difference between dumb and wrong.

    Also, @doctoratlantis, it’s not fair to say that certitude is the heart of conservatism. Certainly conservatism places more weight on the value of tradition than liberalism, but saying that certitude is the heart of it is a cariacature.

    Re: Chris’ original post, I think that all three reasons contribute. Certainly #1 is part of the reason that I’ve rejected the Republican party myself, despite being a Republican back in the 1990’s. (Also, a Republican in Berkeley is different from one elsewhere….) (Other parts of the reason include Republicans taking positions in favor of torture, in favor of an oppressive surveillance state (while still talking about “freedom”), in opposition to government transparency, etc.)

    #3 is an important one. The causality goes both ways. It’s not just that scientists are on balance rejecting conservatism — it’s also that conservatives on balance reject academia in favor of things more business oriented.

  4. First, I think doctoratlantis’ point about certitude is a very good one. Science trains people to respect their own ignorance and to work tirelessly to eliminate it. Many conservatives reject that notion, over-apply learning from one field to another (e.g. successful businessman buys a pro sports team and fails miserably at building a winning franchise), and generally over simplify many challenges.

    Second, in a slightly broader sense, I think liberals are more inclined to see, well, the broader picture. I mean “broader picture” in spatial, temporal, and categorical terms. If oil gets really expensive, the US can “simply” turn some of our vast coal reserves into liquid fuel — that’s old and very well understood technology. But at what cost to the environment from additional mining and the increased mine-to-wheels CO2 emissions per mile? And how much worse will those emissions make our climate change mess if we (and China) liquefy coal in large quantities for a few decades? Similarly, if we decide to rely ever more on tar sands, we add the issue of increased water consumption.

    It’s comforting, but simplistic and often counterproductive, in many of these areas to say, “we’ll just do X”, ala “drill, baby, drill” and unrestrained hydrofracking, without taking into account all those nasty knock-on effects that carry real world costs. Conservatives, as a whole, are more inclined than liberals to lapse into tunnel vision and block out all those “inconvenient” details.

  5. TTT

    Creationism : conservatism :: abortion : liberalism. It’s VERY rare to find someone who is so strongly devoted to one philosophy that they prominently self-describe as such who will break from that philosophy’s stance on that issue.

    So since someone who is conservative enough to self-describe as such is very likely to believe that all of biology, geology, and astronomy are lies and conspiracies, it is not surprising that few people of that belief system choose to devote so many of their years of optimal productivity and potential to such hard and tedious work that pays so little.

  6. David Grinspoon

    What happens to this survey data when you remove the bias from the simple fact that scientists are a much more highly educated sample than the general public?

    How does it compare to the “liberal/conservative” ratio of PhDs vs. non-PhDs in any field?

  7. Chris Mooney

    @2 really disagree. a person can be wrong about science (creationist/ID) and still intelligent. these are different things.

  8. Cathy

    Going to go with an altruism bent – scientists often do the work they do for the greater good of humanity. They want to help people, all people, in their own field or their own way. The conservative ideology is that people should help themselves first, and aiding the needy is just encouraging laziness and discouraging self-sufficiency. If you consider your life’s work to be helping the less fortunate, whether that means the less genetically fortunate (bioscience researchers) or the less culturally fortunate (anthropologists, etc )- you’re probably not going to consider yourself a conservative.

  9. Fully 52% of the scientists call themselves liberals

    There’s a difference in self-identification and ideology. Self-identifying as a liberal, or conservative tells me little about what you believe on the issues of the day because the words mean different things to different people.

  10. James

    I think its more that Scientists, by training, are willing to adapt and correct themselves, and for them this is a part of the rigors of academic research. This ability to change is (unfortunately) seen as flip-flopping in the political arena, when traditionally more conservative types tend to take a hard stand on issues and refuse to budge and ‘flip-flopping’ is a dirty word.

  11. Jon

    Science is a shared enterprise. It’s got a strong flavor of public service to it. You don’t tend to go into it to make a mint, but because you’re genuinely curious and want to add to public knowledge. It doesn’t tend to attract cynics, but people who believe in shared progress, and that a lot of this progress happens under the umbrella of the public sphere. There’s competition and a system of status, but also a sharing of resources, a dedication to public enlightenment, etc. It’s meritocratic. What gets you status is not just whether you conspicuously amass capital–it’s something else.

    It doesn’t sound like the party of Sarah Palin or George W Bush, does it?

  12. Chris Mooney

    @9 i draw the opposite inference. i would guess that *more* scientists are what most americans would call liberal than those who self-identify as liberal.

  13. Dogmom

    One issue: People who are conservative often grow up in areas that are also conservative, which also tend to be places where science–and indeed education in general–are not valued. So, as children they don’t receive the encouragement and learning, and don’t develop the intellectual curiosity needed to foster an interest in scientific topics or pursue higher education in them.

  14. That just proves that self-identification is a poor predictor of a person’s views.

  15. A more important question than why is to focus on the consequences of scientists being overwhelmingly partisan and ideological in their outlook.

    This profoundly shapes their interpretations of politics, their communication strategies, and among non specialists, the perceived risks and seriousness of issues such as climate change.

  16. dansden

    In my experience conservatives genuflect to power, control and authority which is based, for conservatives, in material success, excessive wealth and extreme power that controls others. In the conservative world ‘authority’ (for many, their ‘G-O-D’ is their ‘authority’) is that which grants fulfillment. Conservatives give full allegiance to their ‘authority’ which can grant them what they want (there is no ethic, no relationship, no moral or no community involved in their consideration- just ‘authority’ giving them what they want)- more power!

    When a philosophy or policy has no relation to ‘life’ (the lives of others is considered inconsequential except how those lives provide means to their ‘end’-more power. In conservative philosophy or theology or policy all life is transitory (therefore, inconsequential) so, consequently, what conservatives ‘do’, ‘accomplish’ or ’empower’ is based upon ‘authority’ that grants them fulfillment. Conservatives believe their ‘authority’ is in charge and will handle the inconsequential aspects of life (relationships, environment, history, society, poverty, pollution, etc) while they seek fulfillment granted by their ‘authority’-power, wealth, control.
    ….just some thoughts……

  17. Dennis Hudson

    I was just thinking about this general concept the other day and something occurred to me based on observations. Conservatives, tend to want to keep things simple. Not that they are simple or not smart, but they don’t seem to like complexity and change. So climate deniers, just go for the simple ideas that its a natural event etc. Government wise they want it to be simple, don’t get in peoples way, low taxes, simple regulations etc. Just keep it simple. They don’t want to engage in complex arguments or discussions about events, science, regulatory concepts, etc, etc. I won’t suppose to know why this is but I can say it seems to get more so as you age, the complexities of the world wear on a person over time and many just want to simplify and get on with it, and conservatism plays into this process. Young energetic folks with a thousand ideas on how to do things better are more than happy to engage in and encourage idea sharing and attempts to use resources to understand and improve the world around them (maybe naively? sometimes) Older more experienced people are a bit more realistic and beaten down by the daily grind and just want life to be a bit simpler, more easy to manage. Just some thoughts that seem to ring true from my experiences.

  18. Artie

    I believe that most scientist are liberal because most of the money supporting their work comes from the government via grants and subsidies and their livelihood depends on them lining up at to suckle at the public teat to gobble up as much as they can. I remember lots of things over the years that have been taught as fact regarding medicine and other “scientific” proof and findings that were later discredited and utterly made up “facts”. Man made global warming is another of these “proofs” of those people again scamming the public . It’s all because of a lack of the morals from these people in this area. The more they scam us the more they money they make.

  19. The engineers I know are socially liberal and financially conservative. Another difference with engineers is that their income source is more often commercial while science incomes are often taxpayer derived. And, by the way, we engineers think we are often brighter than the scientists (wink,wink).

  20. Mike

    Conservatives tend to find tradition and long-surviving historical trends/documents to be sources of great wisdom. Religion fits nicely with this conservative trend. Constitutional originalists. The idea is that if a concept survives generations, it must have utility.

    Liberals/Progressives honor history as well, but tend to want to push forward with new solutions to new situations. The phrase standing on the shoulders of giants comes to mind.

    Liberals, by temperament, want to solve current problems, conservatives don’t want to introduce new ones, or remove undue complicating structures that have introduced them.

    Science as a discipline requires that sort of attitude of constantly pushing forward and making use of the tools provided by those before you. I think there’s a selection bias there. My conservative friends tend to want to use their minds to contribute to an existing successful system. (Bankers, economists, historians, policy wonks). My liberal friends want to find something new. They tend to travel to exotic locals, write as journalists or novelists, and scientists. Science is looking for new answers to old problems.

    I’d guess that you wouldn’t find a similar skewing in more conservative minded disciplines. Historians, academic lawyers, economists, etc.

  21. Eric the Leaf

    The human mind and perhaps intelligence itself is overrated and probably maladaptive. In literature this thesis is advanced persuasively by Kurt Vonnegut, and in human ecology by William Catton.

    Are humans smarter than yeast?

  22. Aaron H

    It is a fascinating question. I see a problem in how Chris sets it out though for the following reason —

    We are contrasting Liberal with Conservative as if there are two clear poles. There are, in fact, two different streams of thought that Americans will think of as “conservative,” even though they have nothing to do with each other and are actually at conflict. Fiscal conservatives seek efficient markets, lower taxes and limited government. Social conservatives have moral views that they seek to impose on society through the coercive power of government (no implication in this definition as to whether those moral views are good or bad).

    I would submit that most scientists would define themselves as the opposite of social conservative, hence the bias and affinity for the Democrat party. Social conservatism is usually a function of xenophobia, limited education and limited world experience. People with a scientific background do not think religion cures “gay,” nor do worldly people have anti-immigrant animus, nor do well-educated people tend to favor censorship, nor do those who value empiricism want to see religion mixed into government decisions.

    The one intervening variable to my description of the source of social conservatism is strong religious conviction. The minority of social conservatives who are well-educated and worldly are overwhelmingly religious Christians and Jews (the others are not socially conservative, but pretend to be as Republicans to get votes). For this minority, I deeply respect their views and the seriousness of the source of their socially conservative beliefs. I should also note that abortion probably falls outside of this general analysis for a number of reasons (although I am personally pro-choice). Scientists are less likely to be strongly religious and include a disproportionate number of atheists.

    I would suspect that many of those same scientists who identify as Dem/Liberal are also fiscally moderate or conservative. Thus, the premise of Chris’ question above may need some revision to account for the two different meanings of “conservative.” I would hypothesize that upon more detailed questioning, a sizeable fraction of these “liberal” scientists would actually fall in the range of moderate libertarians.

  23. I think it’s #3 (“Smart and talented conservatives don’t hang around for a Ph.D., they want to get out of the ivory tower (which they perceive hostile anyway) and into the business world.”), but I want to rephrase it.

    People who get Ph.D.’s aren’t doing it for the money. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a comfortable life, but that’s not the driving factor. That’s going to bias the demographics: the loonitarian/Ayn Rand types won’t want to be academia–they want to make money. Lots of money. (Despite the belief in limousine liberals, etc., liberal views, especially on economics, are far more prevalent at the bottom of the income scale). If you look at modern movement conservatism, on the economic side, it’s all about maximizing profits, and that just is not what 5-7 years of Ph.D. school is about.

  24. Jon

    For conservatives, there’s a kneejerk tendency to think of someone like a scientist–who spends all that time doing what? Amassing knowledge and teaching people?– as a “do-gooder.”

  25. Somite

    Chris. The point is that we wouldn’t hesitate to say that creationists are wrong. Why do we hesitate when considering conservatism?

  26. GeeGnome

    It would be interesting to have additional data on the number of scientists who self-report as atheists or agnostics. In my experience in the life sciences, the percentage of “non-believers” in the field is quite high. Given the un-holy alliance of Christianity and conservative politics, I think even if you were a fiscal conservative, you’d have a hard time getting on board with a party whose members announce their support for creationism on national TV as a badge of honor.

    Perhaps also the type of intellectual that leans towards the sciences vs. the world of finance (assuming that’s where the intelligent conservatives go) are more concerned with making contributions to the betterment of society than to the enrichment of themselves; I think that would align with the political philosophies.

  27. Aaron

    My question is how many of your readers identify themselves as Democrats or liberal?

    I’ve noticed that in general these responses carry glowing reviews of scientists and liberals (a view that I too share), and I am curious of how someone of a different opinion would answer your question. For example, would they say that scientists vote Democrat because Democrats pander to science in the same way that many liberals accuse businesspersons of voting Republican simply because Republicans are pro-business?

    In fact, this leads to a (grossly over-simplified) model: Scientists vote Democrat because Democrats support science because scientists vote democrat . . .

    Which is analogous to: Businesspersons vote Republican because Republicans support business because businesspersons vote Republican . . .

    Perhaps we should post this question on Glenn Beck’s blog.

  28. GeeGnome

    “@2 really disagree. a person can be wrong about science (creationist/ID) and still intelligent. these are different things.”

    Accepted, you can be intelligent but grossly misinformed.

    However, if you are faced with the substantial evidence that prove creationist and intelligent design stories to be fictional, and are provided with the mountain of empirical evidence for evolution, yet you still reject evolution *and* accept creationism — you are not rational, and you are not intelligent.

  29. Ted

    I think professionals are trained to think critically. In doing so, they try to gather data and look at all aspects of any issue. Die hard liberals and conservatives tend to adopt a simplistic view of the world. In reality most issues are very complicated with many shades of grey. Recognizing the shades of gray makes one take a more liberal stance. For example, a conservative may want to do away with Medicare and it’s related taxation. Rarely will they talk about the social downside of what to do with uninsured sick people. We end up paying for them either way unless you take the stance that if you don’t have money, you have no right to medical care. Uninsured jam emergency rooms and free clinics. Those costs are passed on to those who pay for services directly or through insurance or donate. When you look at all sides of an issue a clear and compelling solution is often not evident.

  30. The sample set was significantly biological/medical folks relative to chemistry/physics and geosciences. Perhaps I missed it ( I’ll read the entire doc tonight ) but I was unsure if this includes a significant sampling of engineers; Those that implement the sciences. Doing so may better answer the good questions brought up here regarding academia’s influence (or not) as engineers have a greater likelihood of not being in academia (my hunch, not a scientific stat.).

    p.s. BTW, seems like a lot of overgeneralizations in the discussion.

  31. Steve H

    If your filter by which you form your decision to accept or reject the conclusions of a particular research paper overly relies on a worldview crafted by religious leaders or entertainment-masquerading-as-punditry TV and radio programs, then you likely won’t succeed as a young researcher. Since “liberal” has come to mean anything to left of the rightest of the right, then I’d be somewhat concerned that the proportions above are too conservative. (I don’t care to define what conservative references there, though.)

  32. Science is a fact-based method, and as Stephen Colbert observed, facts have a well-known liberal bias. QED.

  33. Gaythia

    I agree with those above who are drawing a distinction between social conservatives and business conservatives. I would also distinguish between liberals, who are open minded free thinkers, and ideological leftists, who can be as rigid as anybody. And who are scientists? Tenured college professors? Adjuncts, Post-Docs and Research assistants whose job situations are much more tenuous? Industrial scientists and engineers? Technological entrepreneurs?

    I think that the most important mindset to be cognizant of here, is that of #18 above. Who is it that government is really subsidizing? Who is government providing services for? Whose government is it anyway?

    The middle class knows it is suffering economically. They can’t always quite put their finger on why. If people who value economic hierarchical authoritarianism can get those who value religious hierarchical authoritarianism to support them in elections, then genuine democratict populism, and liberalism, lose out.

  34. It really shouldn’t be too surprising. Consider that scientists are by nature very inquisitive and always seeking knowledge, i.e., doing research, and looking toward the future. Liberals are by nature very much interested in trying new things, seeking new ideas, and looking toward the future. Conservatives are by nature very much interested in the status quo (if it ain’t broke, why fix it) and keeping the old ways/values/thinking.

    It isn’t that scientists are liberal, but that liberals are more likely to go into the sciences.

  35. Matt B.

    Take a look at what part of the participants identified as unaffiliated or undecided. I’d bet that scientists, being educated, have a low percentage there. I thought of this because of the statistic that only 35% of the populace identified as liberal. That’s so low because there are so many undecided voters. So remove the undecided from the populace and see what percentage of what remains is liberal. This will surely take care of most of the discrepancy.

  36. There are several aspects of the pursuit of science that predispose its practitioners to be more “liberal” in their outlooks. Scientists seek the truth that underlies the observed phenomena in the universe, no matter where it might take them and what previous dogma may have been held. The collection and dissemination of scientific information works best when it has no international boundaries, and it is common that most scientists receive at least part of their training abroad and closely interact with other scientists from other countries. This also promotes the exchange of thoughts and ideas that go beyond the realm of science.

    It is a bit unfair to generalize about the differences between “Republicans” and “Liberals” in the US with respect to their perceived value of science, especially since both types of administrations have strongly supported scientific research activities in the past. However, I do perceive a stronger focusing of funded research in the military and research that could lead to more immediately practical outcomes with Republican governments. One problem with such short term thinking is that it limits future opportunities in new productive directions that while disruptive could be transforming and highly beneficial.

  37. Chris Mooney

    Hi All,
    Thanks for the outpouring of valuable comments. I am going to read through these and do a synthesizing/follow up post that advances the discussion. Stand by

  38. Gaythia

    The Quora discussion is actually pretty tightly defined as limited to scientists in “social psychology”. As I pointed out there:

    Broadly looking at fields of study and employment that might fit under the tent of “social psychology” there might be career differentiation here based on a person’s philosophical orientation. Those interested in business and commercial applications would chose a career in marketing, those interested in spiritual aspects would chose a career in religion, and those interested in scientific, secular study would chose a career in academia.

  39. Mark

    One caveat about the Pew survey is that the “scientists” response was based on a survey of AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Sciences) members. The AAAS journal, Science, is a core journal in the life sciences and covers a lot of ground, but a sample of AAAS members is not necessarily a sample of all “scientists.” Stereotypically, physical scientists tends to lean more conservative.

  40. So, scientists are, in aggregate, more liberal than the rest of America

    Jeff @31 and Mark @41 make important points.

    This survey has some very interesting results, but you have to qualify your argument by looking at the details. Before you jump to any conclusions read the whole Release, not just the top line.

    Here are the demographics of the survey:

    51 Biological and Medical
    14 Chemistry
    8 Physics and Astronomy
    7 Social Sciences and Policy
    6 Engineering
    6 Geosciences
    3 Computer science/Math
    3 Other field

    I do not believe that is identical to the distribution of scientists working in the United States.

    And here is where they work

    9 Government
    63 University or college
    15 Business or industry
    8 Non-profit organization
    5 Other

    Again, my feeling is that many more scientists work in the private sector and their opinions are likely to differ from those who have careers in Academia.

    Furthermore, the poll is of the subset of people who decided to reply to an email or snail mail survey. And all had to be members of the AAAS.

    In other words, I think you need to be very careful in interpreting this survey so broadly as “scientists in aggregate”. This is a very specific subset of the scientific community. An important one, but not the whole.

    That said, I think a better comparison would be between this population and engineers (say members of the IEEE) since the two groups have many of the same skills, level of education, ethnic and gender breakdown, rather than between “scientists” and the general public.

  41. i would guess that *more* scientists are what most americans would call liberal than those who self-identify as liberal.

    Right, but liberal about what? Conservative about what? These terms alone don’t really mean anything. The poll does ask some questions that break down liberal/conservative:

    Scientists overwhelmingly believe in Evolution (97%) and overwhelmingly believe in man-made climate change (84%), but this suggests that they trust fellow scientists and are aware of the details of these theories. Many of the public have never been educated about either beyond what they hear on the news.


    Q. 47a Do you favor or oppose the use of animals in scientific research?
    93% of scientists say yes. 43% of the public say no.

    Are the scientists taking a liberal position here?

    Q. 47b Do you favor or oppose building more nuclear power plants to generate electricity?
    70% of scientists say yes. 42% of the public say no.

    Again, this is not the liberal position. It is the opinion you’d expect from someone who believes in the power of modern technology though.

    Q. 47c Do you favor or oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research?
    93% of scientists say yes. 35% of the public say no.

    OK, this is the more liberal position, although it’s also the position of many Republicans.

    Q.48 Thinking about childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella and polio
    All children should be required to be vaccinated
    82% of scientists say yes versus 69% of the general public.

    What we see here is nearly universal support among scientists for federal policies based on science, regardless of the issues being perceived as liberal or conservative.

  42. TomInAK

    The following will contain a lot of extreme generalities, but here goes . . .

    Classical Liberalism, now re-labeled as Conservatism, places a high value on individual liberty and distrusts the concentration of power in the hands of the government. The classical liberal/conservative believes that society and its members will be best off as a whole if people are left to live their lives as they see fit, with a minimal government in place to protect against foreign enemies, prevent coercion and fraud by members of society against one another, and adjudicate disagreements. The classical liberal essentially believes that “the government which governs least, governs best” and that the power of what government there is should derive from the consent of the governed.

    The Progressive/Modern Liberal seems to have little to no faith in the individual to manage their own affairs. The Progressive ideal of how thing should work appears to me to be a government of the credentialed “best and brightest” with little input from the masses on any matter of importance. There is a great deal of impatience with the messy details of democracy, and it’s not all that uncommon for Progressives to dream wistfully of the ability to bypass it all and just impose their will on society (i.e. Thomas Friedman’s China-admiration).

    It is unsurprising to me that Scientists, an intelligent bunch, often with a great deal of ego, would tend to gravitate somewhat toward the latter. It’s an attractive philosophy to some who may be prone to seeing themselves as “best and brightest” material, and therefore among those who, in a just world, would be in charge.

  43. Jon

    You missed one interesting point, TomInAK. The original Classical Liberals were also big believers in science and the Enlightenment motto of “Sapere Aude” — dare to know.

    Modern American conservatives? Not so much. Republican presidents since the Eisenhower administration have worn their don’t-know-much-abouts on their sleeves. See Anti-Intellectualism in the Modern Presidency: A Republican Populism. (pdf)

  44. TomInAK


    “The original Classical Liberals were also big believers in science and the Enlightenment motto of “Sapere Aude” — dare to know. Modern American conservatives? Not so much.”

    I think that’s mis-perception or stereotyping. As I think someone above pointed out (sorry–in a rush & don’t have time to re-read) spending on science hasn’t varied that much from one political brand of administration to another. The whole “anti-science” thing seems to be based on CL/Conservative rejection of the alleged “consensus” on global warming as a basis for a radical re-structuring of society. Let’s not open the AGW can of worms too far on this thread, but this is not a rejection of science, it’s a rejection of a back-door route to an increased concentration of power in the hands of the government.

  45. David

    Brilliant quote from @Somite “conservatism is the creationism of social science. There is no evidence that supports that it is a viable or even tenable proposition”

    You should consider putting that on t-shirts and bumper stickers. You might make a small fortune.

  46. TTT

    The [conservative] essentially believes that “the government which governs least, governs best” and that the power of what government there is should derive from the consent of the governed.

    Which is why the conservative movement embraced the Department of Homeland Security, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, the War on Drugs, domestic wiretapping with no warrant or court review, one anti-gay law after another, government intrusion into science curricula, “faith-based initiatives,” and the last 4 Republican presidents who have all relentlessly grown the size and expenditure of government.

    The Progressive ideal of how thing should work appears to me to be a government of the credentialed “best and brightest” with little input from the masses on any matter of importance

    That’s not progressive–that’s just government.

    If there is any concept in the history of American ideas that most severely deserves retirement, it is the notion that conservatism stands for smaller government, reduced spending, and a greater respect for the common man. Exactly like communism, it sounds pleasant enough in theory but the practice is quite different. Put conservatives in charge of government and you just get socialism: church-and-bedroom, military-corporate socialism. They spend tons of money and extend massive control over issues they personally care about. And, hey, fine–I’m a liberal and that’s what I believe government should do. Just let’s have no pretense otherwise.

    the alleged “consensus” on global warming
    Yeah, that’d no doubt be why Jon referenced a primer on anti-intellectualism. There is an incontrovertible consensus on the existence and mechanism of AGW–it is approximately as strong as the consensus that your heart is located in your chest. If you’re worried about a “restructuring of society” then you’re worried about policy–which has nothing to do with the consensus on the science, so fear of the former should not be used to deny the latter.

  47. Nullius in Verba

    There are a number of other hypotheses to consider.

    4. Hostile attitudes to conservatism lead them to leave, or to hide their views.
    5. Science naturally leads to a moderation of extreme positions, but the left are more resistant to this.
    6. People genuinely change their views to match the majority in their social environment, to try to reduce conflict.
    7. The social sciences and humanities contain a core of ideological extremists on the far left, the effect of which diffuses through the culture.
    8. Pro-left arguments and interpretations are more accessible and better known within academia.
    9. Known right-wingers are less likely to get promotion, praise, advancement on committees and as administrators, or to be chosen to work with in technical collaborations.
    10. A perception that academia is biased left puts right-wingers off applying. Or encourages left-wingers to apply.
    11. Science has political advantages for the left that do not apply to the right.
    12. The surveys are too small, suffer selection bias, ask leading questions, or are otherwise poorly done.
    13. Academia is funded by the state, out of taxes. Conservatives would feel hypocritical to act against their low-tax principles. Or they change their principles to reduce cognitive dissonance.
    14. The left feel that doing science for industry and big corporations would be selling out their principles, or would be necessarily corrupted.
    15. Left-wingers find it harder to get jobs outside academia.
    16. Some subjects appeal to left-wingers and others to right-wingers, and the left-wing subjects are more prevalent. (Or easier.)
    17. Students with conservative views are discriminated against in the education system and therefore don’t score so highly in the academic-directed subjects.
    18. The education system is better in cities than rural areas, and there is a left-right split between urban/rural.
    19. Left-wing parents are more likely to push their offspring towards a professional scientific career.
    20. There is some other factor that is the real cause of the difference, that either causes or has a common cause with political view.

    That’s a pretty random list, but there are enough possibilities to conclude that it isn’t obvious. My answer is: “I don’t know.” I have no idea – I haven’t looked into it deeply.

    It’s a bit like the questions of why there are so few women in academia, or in prisons. It’s easy to come up with simplistic, ideologically convenient explanations based on one’s stereotypes and prejudices, but a lot harder to answer the question with data.

    It sounds like a hard question, but an important one. Well done for asking it.

  48. Shorter TomInAK

    Conservatives believe in everything good and just and noble, while Liberals believe in everything vile and decadent and sinister.

    Suffice it to say that no self-described liberal will agree with either of your definitions, which just goes to illustrate my point that comparing self-described liberals to self-described conservatives in general is an almost pointless excercise.

    Still, like TTT, I’d like to know how you reconcile your definition of modern conservatism with:

    Their wholehearted support for warrentless wiretapping
    Attempts to suspend habeas corpus
    Attempts to criminalize contraception as well as abortion
    The Constitutional amendments in 28 states that outright ban gay marriage including 19 in very conservative states that also ban civil unions
    Opposition to allowing gays to serve in the military
    Opposition to the “Ground-Zero mosque”
    Advocacy of torture and other extra-legal techniques in law enforcement
    Laws that require welfare recipients to take drug tests before receiving aid
    Attempts to force doctors, teachers and even landlords to act as unpaid immigration officers
    And laws that demand people “show their papers” or face arrest when pulled over by authorities

  49. JohnGenetic

    Many – if not most – scientist work in the private sector.

    In my own experience, virtually all my lab mates went on to work in biotech or pharma companies. That did not cause them all to stop being scientists (most still author scientific articles, patents, etc.)

    So the idea that scientists “suckle at the public teat” as suggested above by Artie does not seem fair to me.

  50. Bobito

    @51: I’ll take a swing at it. Not that I 100% agree with all of them, but I think I can give you the basis for the positions:

    Their wholehearted support for warrentless wiretapping – This is nationalism. As I’m sure you know, information gathered can only be used against terrorists.

    Attempts to suspend habeas corpus – Again, nationalism, the people being held are not Americans.

    Attempts to criminalize contraception as well as abortion – Religion

    The Constitutional amendments in 28 states that outright ban gay marriage including 19 in very conservative states that also ban civil unions – Religion

    Opposition to allowing gays to serve in the military – Religion

    Opposition to the “Ground-Zero mosque” – Nationalism

    Advocacy of torture and other extra-legal techniques in law enforcement – Nationalism. Again, not torturing Americans.

    Laws that require welfare recipients to take drug tests before receiving aid – Religion, using drugs is a sin.

    Attempts to force doctors, teachers and even landlords to act as unpaid immigration officers – Nationalism

    And laws that demand people “show their papers” or face arrest when pulled over by authoritiesv – Nationalism. If you are an American citizen you have nothing to fear.

    So, as you see, these positions are nationalistic and religiously based. And, of course, conservatives tend to be nationalistic and/or religious.

    Hope that helps! 😉

  51. Re @15, I have to take exception to the face value of Matt’s claim that 52% of scientists being self-described liberals means that they are “overwhelmingly partisan and ideological in their outlook.” Either that statement is poorly phrased or Matt seems to be leaping to conclusions about how those scientists’ political identification affects their views. If the numbers of liberal and conservative scientists were exactly balanced, would that mean scientists’ outlooks were less partisan? As it stands, Matt’s statement seems to imply that the science itself is ideologically determined.

  52. As I’m sure you know, information gathered can only be used against terrorists.

    You’re kidding right. This was originally done completely outside the law.

    the people being held are not Americans

    Also false. Jose Padilla is the most well known example.

    Attempts to criminalize contraception as well as abortion – Religion

    This makes no sense. Here was TomInAK’s definition:

    society and its members will be best off as a whole if people are left to live their lives as they see fit.

    Are you saying this is true except when someone offends your religion, or can I toss the whole thing out now?

    Opposition to the “Ground-Zero mosque” – Nationalism

    Now there are no Muslim citizens in America? What about the Murfreesboro mosque in Tennessee?

    Again, not torturing Americans.

    Again Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh.

    Religion, using drugs is a sin.

    So is drinking and dancing, and of course we don’t drug test farmers who get subsidies or Halliburton executives who get government contracts.

    If you are an American citizen you have nothing to fear.

    Unless some cop thinks you look too foreign.

    Again I’m missing the part where conservatives believe in limited government and the freedom of individuals.

  53. Bobito

    @54: I’m not defending those positions. I was pointing out that factions of conservatives have those view.

  54. CG

    The more philosophical reasons listed probably have something to do with the origin of the liberal majority, but I think the overwhelming size of that majority has more to do with some of the social causes #50 raises. If I were a conservative I would not enjoy my work environment in academic science. At my workplace, anti-Republican signs are proudly displayed and shared. Not so many pro-Democrat, but specifically anti-Republican. During the Bush years, a seminar speaker was guaranteed a laugh from their audience by making a (usually lame) joke about Bush or Cheney. After election day in 2004, I saw a speaker start their talk by noting how depressed they were about the election results. Conservative-bashing is considered a safe topic during job interviews. I’m not sure these behaviors are easy panders to ones colleagues or unnecessary personal statements, but either way it’s unprofessional. I can see why conservatives would walk away.

  55. There is most likely more than one cause at work.

    There is evidence to show that people who are physiologically predisposed to liberal thinking are ALSO predisposed to academia and similar pursuits.

    The more education you have, the less you depend on others for an answer, and the more likely you are to suggest and support your own thoughts on any given matter.

    The GOP has lewdly courted the ‘moral majority’ for many years. Such groups are emotionally and socially biased against open debate and democratic ideals. Gods are not democratic, nor do they wish you to discuss the morality of their actions or the actions of their prophets.

    The social aspects of discussing religion or politics or even controversial ideas in given situations leads to biases which tend to polarize people into pockets or associations. That is to say that “I don’t want to talk about it because I can’t explain how I feel about it, so you must be wrong” is common on all sides of any issue among the common peoples. In fact, many folk will simply vote with who they think is most popular. Educated people tend to not do this, and having been stuck into a pocket they did not particularly choose they will attempt to counter this by speaking out or choosing to side with those that would counter this situation.

    Any given political party will encourage or discourage grass roots ideas and democratic principles. That is to say they will encourage fairness or not, or encourage leadership or not. The GOP tends to be on the ‘we are your leaders, do what we say’ end of the political spectrum. They attract people who want leaders to tell them what to do on all matters rather than a government that says ‘we are all in this together’ kind of stuff.

    Scientists are seldom in their field for the power or influence it gives them. Political machinations are not part of what they do well, nor is it conducive to what it is that they do well. If a political party or ideal tends to be more productive to their chosen fields, they will ally with it. The liberal political ideals are more generous or kind to scientific ideals and endeavors because the more closely match science in general than do the ideals which say “we’re from the government and we’re here to help you” kind.

    The underlying social eddies on which scientific and political ideals float push liberals and scientists into the same areas because of how they think, how their minds work, so it is true that smart and educated people tend to more often want liberal politics AND good science because of who they are and how they think, and not wanting one because of the other. It is those underlying eddies which push them toward liberal politics or science in the first place. It is not surprising that this happens but it should be surprising that it does not happen more often.

  56. Matteo

    Let me take a swing at this. Bear with me here, I know this sounds kind of crazy. But could it, you know, possibly, I mean just possibly be that most of them rely on the State for their funding?

  57. Gaining knowledge empirically is a fundamentally ‘liberal’ trait. Sticking your fingers in your ears and saying you can’t hear anything is a fundamentally conservative trait.

    Also, DDT.

  58. Science and academia are importantly about open-mindedness, a trait which seems to be more common among liberals. It’s partly religion and partly the “they are taking over our country” (where “they” can refer to Obama, socialists, immigrants, baby-killers, atheists, environmental fanatics…take your pick) sentiment that has closed many conservative minds. So I am not too surprised.

  59. Matteo


    Isn’t this whole blog largely a lament about how “they” are taking over the country?

    Yes, indeed, we are about to enter a civilizational dark age because the GOP did well in the last election.

    The blog author penned a book named “The Republican War On Science”, and you don’t think this constitutes a paranoid narrative about “them”?

    I can hardly see that this blog’s partisans are pure of the “they are taking over the country” mindset…

  60. These days, almost all US scientific funding is federal. It is hard to be a small government scientists and still get paid.

  61. John

    I have never met a smart conservative. I have met some clever ones. Then they put their cleverness to work justifying bigotry, hate, and ignorance. The only ground upon which their stupidity can take root.

  62. Marion Delgado

    Simple. This is an ideological society, as much so as the former Soviet Union. Routinely, polls that show the vast majority of the population being, basically, liberal, are ignored, and people have very little power to achieve anything anymore, anyway, so their political stance is meaningless – the democracy has been abolished by privatization, deregulation (you’re voting on what’s left to sway), and massive electoral malfeasance. And only a few people get to even get truly counted, and those include scientists, athletes, entertainers, political leaders, and the capitalists that are the equivalent of high-ranking Party members. The polls showing only a small percentage of Americans are liberal are cherrypicked and staggered.

    For instance, if the American people poll out supporting civil unions, don’t report that more than one day. Instead, have the corporate media do a 100 articles on gay marriage, and quote every word that some Frank Luntz type has written to stir up the “GOP base” many of whom have a little property or authority and can be led to believe that human values and tradition and culture are under siege from academia. Then poll them on gay marriage and say, look, only 40% or so are liberal. And that’s done across the board.

    So it’s both the Big Lie about the actual public opinion, mixed with the fact that anyone with a value to the corporate state can more meaningfully and safely actually be liberal.

  63. Marion Delgado

    There’s a huge disconnect between the working class “conservatives” – and remember they’re a minority of the working class – who see a conflict between the values their parents taught them and their social and economic needs, so the less their economic needs are met, the more temptable they are to settle for a “conservative” half a loaf, and the market fundamentalists and economic royalists at the top.

    I never forget that the bosses don’t care about any number of Blue Laws and traditional values bills and constitutional amendments. They’ll always have access to drugs, abortions, gay live-in lovers, privacy, and frankly, anything else they’ll pledge to outlaw for the proles. In fact, all of those things for them are just commodities, like health care or education, with a dollar sign on them like everything else in existence. All that, say, repealing Roe v. Wade would do would be to raise the market price for abortion somewhat and make it slightly less convenient. All that a constitutional amendment making gay marriage illegal and declaring that marriage is one man and one woman would do is mean that they’d have to create other contracts to replace prenuptual agreements. All that having the public schools teach creationism would do is give their progeny an even greater leg up over the proles. And if you ask where will they get an educated workforce, the answer is, they’ll deal with that once they’ve tapped every country with a more science-friendly culture.

    Meanwhile the tea-party people arent the working class at all – they’re low level bosses and entrepreneurs and dividend-drawers and salespeople and realtors/speculators, and so on. Traditionally a conservative class so where’s the news? Are scientists that much more socialist than average people? That much more unionized? This is purely the classic liberal liberalism. Within science, yes, it’s more like a social democracy than a cutthroat firm – or was – but more and more I think you’ll see scientists who aren’t industry friendly and on the make weeded out. At least in the US.


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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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