Liberals, Conservatives, and Science

By Chris Mooney | February 23, 2011 12:54 pm

So I have now scanned through the large volume of responses to this post, in which I asked why it is that scientists seem, on average, to be significantly more liberal in political outlook than the general U.S. population. And I have to say, something very striking has emerged.

When I listed some possible explanations at the outset of my post–e.g., conservatives have attacked science lately, so scientists have responded by moving in the other direction; or, academia tilts left, so conservatives tend to distrust its progeny–they all had something in common. They were political explanations, in the sense that they postulated clear and discrete actions by one group leading to opposing reactions from the other.

Or to put the point another way: I was suggesting that the two groups had grown distant from one another by virtue of recent developments–but also implying that it didn’t necessarily have to be that way. Indeed, that’s the same thing I argued in The Republican War on Science: The Republican Party was more science friendly (under Nixon and Eisenhower), but then political dynamics caused it to change and the result was Reagan and Bush II.

I certainly didn’t argue in that book–or in my latest post–that the real causal factor was some underlying or core difference between liberals and conservatives, of a sort that would affect how they relate to science.

But when I looked through all the comments to the latest post, that’s what everybody seemed to be arguing. A very large number of folks were postulating deep seated differences between liberals and conservatives that may predispose them for or against scientific thinking.

Thus for instance, it was repeatedly suggested that liberalism is associated with more shades-of-gray thinking and an appreciation of complexity, and this goes naturally with the pursuit of science–whereas absolutist or categorical thinking does not (it goes with conservatism).

Liberals and conservatives were also contrasted along a kind of hierarch vs. egalitarian axis, with science being defined as a more egalitarian, publicly oriented pursuit. And finally, there was a kind of traditionalism vs. openness/progress axis, in which liberals/scientists were depicted as being in search of the different and new (new findings, new experiences) where as conservatives were painted as resistant to change and attracted to routines, stability, and long existing structures.

(Please note that these categorizations and descriptions are not exactly neutral, and I doubt conservatives would go along with them.)

What I find interesting about all this is that there is a growing psychological literature–albeit a controversial one–that concerns whether you can really link political outlooks to psychology, different personality types, etc. John Jost of NYU is one psychologist who has gone in this direction. The theme is also present in George Lakoff’s work (see here), and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has similarly postulated that liberals and conservatives have different moral systems.

In other words, is political ideology really rooted in psychology? I did nothing to suggest as much, but many of the commenters went there anyway.

So this post ends with a different question than the last one: Do readers believe that we need accounts based on psychology and personality in order to explain why scientists seem to be more liberal, or can sheer political explanations (of the sort I initially offered) do the trick?

And for those who do want to go the psychology/personality route–please note the kind of argumentative burden you’re taking on. First, you need to offer a more ultimate theory of causation if this is what you really think is going on. E.g., why do you believe that people differ from one another in such a way that they end up having different political outlooks or responding differently to scientific information? Are you pinning it on upbringing, or what? (Note that there is a genetic argument, by Alford et al, that is also quite controversial.)

And moreover, your explanation has to account for obvious political variation and evolution. Something did change about the U.S. Republican Party over the past 50 years, and it is not clear how psychology explains the transition from the party of Eisenhower to the party of Reagan. Moreover, we sometimes find left-wing anti-science movements and tendencies out there; and on top of that, nobody ever claims to be “anti-science,” on any part of the political spectrum.

So–it is a hard argument to make, it would seem.

Comments (22)

  1. David Grinspoon

    I’m still not convinced this “data” is anything more than an artifact caused by the fact that “scientists” are on the whole more highly educated than “nonscientists”, and you might get a similar bias if you just looked at PhDs vs non-PhDs.

    What happens to the original 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?

  2. Matt

    Honestly, do 90% of the articles from these two have to be political? I don’t come here for politics.

  3. Nullius in Verba

    Hang on. Are you trying to explain why scientists are more often liberal, or are you trying to explain why the Republican party don’t accept certain bits of reported science? Because the two observations are talking about different groups of people, and the causes are not necessarily connected.

  4. Maybe science is inherently centrist, but the political climate of the United States has been skewed to the right so drastically that it only appears that there are more liberals in science.

  5. Michael

    I think there may be a significant psychological factor at play here. It falls along the same lines of my thoughts on the claims (some entirely justified) of liberal bias in the media. That simply being that certain personality types are more attracted to some vocations over others.

    I don’t believe that there are any “vast (x)-wing” conspiracies afoot, but I do believe there is a large amount of “group-think” groups of like minded people attracted similar vocations/activities who share common outlooks, paradigms & biases. So it doesn’t require a great intellectual leap realize that these individual as data points would most probably populate opposite sides of the social/political mean.

    I also believe that in the greater scheme it’s a Yin – Yang relationship; two indispensable sides of the same coin. If the imaginers didn’t imagine new things that can be done, the doers would run out of new things to do and stagnate thus limiting the funds and support the imaginers rely on.

  6. It’s also worth iterating that it’s not like conservatives are inherently closed-minded. Many of them are smart people. It’s just that today’s Republican party is highly restrictive and is increasingly forcing out more open-minded people who have an appreciation of nuance. Basically the Republicans have intentionally and unintentionally set up a series of “either-or” tests of thinking on various issues which you need to pass if you want to be one of them (for instance it’s virtually impossible to be a bonafide Republican if you believe in global warming and evolution, even if you may otherwise profess conservative principles). There’s very little room for “and”.

  7. kirk

    Both political parties are wedded to conjectures and hypothesis that are not falsifiable by any means. These fantasies are treated as “theories” which support “ideologies”. By tomorrow afternoon the tables could turn and Republicans could be funding high energy particle research to bombard Iran with hadrons while Dems defend unions as possessing “fundamentalist protections” for democracy based on a new reading of Genesis.

  8. TTT

    nobody ever claims to be “anti-science,” on any part of the political spectrum

    “Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place, and science leads you to killing people.” –Ben Stein

    A similar viewpoint–blaming science for “causing atomic bombs” and the like–is extremely common on religious conservative websites and blogs such as Beliefnet.

  9. Chris Mooney

    Here is an interesting read from 1996 reporting on some other research about liberals, conservatives, and complexity

  10. Bobito

    Much of this may come from roll models. Those in science would tend to have a roll model somewhere in their scholastic experience that mentored them. People tend to pick up many traits from their roll models. And since teachers are generally liberal, someone using a teacher as a roll model will pick up their ideology along with their chosen profession.

  11. Anna

    Just speculating here, but back in ancient times when I was in college and grad school many of the liberal academics were Marxists. Are there any Marxists any more?

    My point is that I think terms like ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are highly contingent. My mother is an Eisenhower Republican. Last year she was shocked to hear a news report that said Republicans were perceived as anti-intellectual. When she was growing up in the 40s and 50s, the Democrats were perceived to be anti-intellectual, and racist to boot.

    So I think if we’re asking why conservatives are less represented than scientists, neither the political nor psychological models alone work to explain it. I think it’s a combination of all of the above, plus an informed (dare I say social-science based) understanding of how culture, politics and psyches interact.

    Hope this makes sense; I’m typing fast because I’m supposed to be doing something else right now . . . :-P

  12. Nullius in Verba
  13. Matt

    Perhaps you should consider the bias of the educational process at the postgraduate level? That the like-minded are encouraged to continue and those that irritate are encouraged to exit.

  14. Gaythia

    Or maybe something like the inverse of #13. More of the conservatives left for better paying jobs in industry and in think tanks, and more of the liberals, after postdoc-ing nearly forever, finally make it into a permanent job at the university.

    Quoting from the link given in #12:

    “We do take note, however, of two
    phenomena germane to our study: on the one hand, the conservative strategy of
    attempting to influence public opinion on a wide variety of matters by starting thinktanks
    – most independent of academe – funded by conservative foundations that would
    build and then leverage ties to the increasingly consolidated mass media in order to get
    their message across (Ricci 1994; Smith 1991; Stefancic and Delgado 1996); and on the
    other hand, the rhetorical strategy that accompanied this institution-building effort of
    calling into question the legitimacy of intellectuals on the other side of the political aisle
    who would contest conservative claims.”

  15. Let me jump in (splash)
    We barely understand the mechanisms of the human brain, but we are beginning to get indications of how it functions at lower levels which translate directly to perceptions, values, and thought process weighting… among other things.

    At this point it is difficult to draw any conclusion with certainty, but we CAN conclude that there is much more we need to know. That there are seemingly 5 variants or categories of ‘thinking’ is indicative that these are based in neuronal design. Indicative, not concretely understood. When you stop to think of it, it makes sense then that certain political thinking would be associated with certain other social group constructs. In fact, you should be surprised if it did not. It was not that long ago that there were black, white, and gray understandings of mental health. As I understand things we now think of things more as part of a continuum of mental health. Any given persons mental health is a blur of points on the continuum, rather than sitting stately like at some given point. So it should be with politics, and this explains why there are no hard and fast rules of who is which sect of what party. Generalizations though, should follow some general pattern of neuronal capacities.

    As I have learned more about the universe around me, my political views have changed.

  16. Jim T

    One experiment: Ask someone why someone else is poor.

    Political left will tend to argue that it’s circumstance.
    Political right will tend to argue that it’s the poor person’s personal failing.
    (apparently, citation needed)

    Assuming this is true, can we stretch it to assume that political left will tend to look outward for answers, right will look inward?

    Stretching further, does looking outwards gel well with the scientific view?

    Hmm, just thinking

  17. Paul

    I find this whole discussion interesting. The only real money for science and scientific research, as it has been since WW II, comes from the military industrial complex to build better weapons. It has produced some side effects that have benefited humanity as a whole, but has destroyed far more than it has saved. Most of the rest of the money is from the benefaction of corporate interests looking to turn research into dollars. Neither one of which I would describe as being liberal causes. If the scientists who work there espouse liberalism, then, what hypocrites they must be. Mirror sales must be at an all time low in their vicinity.

    Given the lack of ethics that should accompany our science, which, in my experience, ethics is a devoid consideration in the research or usage of science, I can not think of a place where liberalism would be more lacking.

    Add to this a quick visit to the MIT campus, of which I am familiar, and you would be hard pressed to find these supposed liberals. They are down the street at that other university that shares TheCoop.

    If true that most scientists are liberals, I fail to see their practice on display in modern science for sure. Of course, these are just my anecdotes not based on any particular study other than personal observation.

  18. In the sixties and seventies there was a big anti-science movement on the left. Think of all those post-modernists who claimed science is nothing but a construction by rich, white males to oppress the rest of the world, Marxist voodoo-economics, anti-psychology and “back to nature” anti-technology hippiedom. So I don’t think there is anything that pre-disposes conservatives to be anti-science.

    To me it seems like science stayed where it was while the political spectrum as a whole moved a whole lot to the right.

  19. Colin

    To me it seems like science stayed where it was while the political spectrum as a whole moved a whole lot to the right.

    You can confirm or refute that by looking at the writings and research topics of the academia from the 50s and 60s and comparing them to the writings today. You’ll see that the viewpoints have not stayed the same. What was a more inclusive set of writing from every political landscape in the 50s and 60s started to lose voices on the right and gain voices on the far left in the 70s, lost a lot more in the 80s, but also some far left voices in the 90s and then lost many more on the right in the Aughts.

    My theory is that the Beltway gobbled up a lot of right leaning thinkers who were left in the Aughts in response to 9/11. There are plenty of think tanks and contractors who would pay for their services, and pay better. Since they weren’t happy in the left leaning university environment, they left. Essentially, it was political and it is bad for science.

    Some here seem to think that conservatism is innately tied to anti-science, religious ideas. That is a large segment of conservatives, but not all. Worse, some here conflate libertarians with conservatives, but since they conflate progressives with liberals, that’s understandable. Progressives are against liberal ideals and conservatives are against libertarian ideals, and vice versa, but that is the nature of a two-party system. Tribes form that have nothing to do with each other ideologically, but everything to do with each other politically.

  20. Everett Young

    I think if you look at the political science literature over the last few decades, the burden of proof has shifted dramatically onto those who would deny a psychology-ideology link. Even without Jost, the evidence has grown into somewhat of a mountain. And Alford, et al.’s findings on genetics are only controversial insofar as people don’t like them. The evidence for a genetics-ideology link is also overpowering, even if we haven’t mapped out exactly how it happens.

    Moreover, the suggestion that the Republican party’s being less anti-science in the early 1970s than it is today is evidence that science is, under the right cultural circumstances, equally compatible with a conservative psychology says little, too, because the Republican and Democratic parties were very different then than they are today, and surely aren’t synonymous with right-left ideology. Even today they are STILL not synonymous with conservatism and liberalism, but they were much farther away then from being so.

    The reason why more scientists are liberal can hardly be divorced from the question of why academics generally are liberal. If the psychological profile that produces curiosity and the desire to learn both makes one liberal and makes one more likely an academic, then its making one a scientist is barely in need of explanation.

    Chris is right that some model must be proposed to explain HOW a cognitively flexible (rigid) psychology produces liberal (conservative) opinion formation. However, Jost and others (including me) have done exactly that. I agree more with some researchers’ ideas than others’, however, I don’t think it can be said any longer that the default assumption, against which we are Quixotically tilting, is that there are no psychological differences between libs and cons. The psychological differences are well documented, and the hypothesis that they are the RESULT of ideology rather than the other way around is by far the less parsimonious, more strained one.

    The need to map out HOW, in greater and greater detail, psychological variables produce systematic left-right differences opinion formation is the task set before political psychology. However, the need to establish that, at least to some extent, it happens, has been surmounted in my opinion.

  21. Chris Mooney

    Well, Everett, that really throws down the gauntlet. I think we are going to have to explore your position more but I may make it a post all to itself. We’ll have to get the point about the parties changing (your second paragraph) out of the way first, so that nobody is confused by it any longer….


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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 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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