Science, Conservatives, and Cultural Continuity

By Chris Mooney | February 24, 2011 8:32 am

In response to my post yesterday, a reader and Facebook friend pointed me to at least one clear example of a conservative intellectual arguing that a desire to preserve “cultural continuity” does predispose those on his side of the spectrum negatively towards some aspects of science. Here’s Yuval Levin, author of the book Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy:

Q: Your new book is all about science and ideology. How would you describe the differences in how the left and the right look at science?

Levin: The book is about what we can learn about our politics from the science debate. Science is a useful clarifying lense to look at our politics because it brings to the surface things that are often implicit and under the surface. And some of them really point to deep differences between the right and the left, especially in terms of how we look at the future. The right tends to think of the future in terms of generations and maintaining continuity, and the left tends to think of the future in terms of innovations.

Q: Jerry Coyne said in our interview that the right is more hostile than the left to scientific thinking because the right is more religious. Would you consider that an oversimplification?

Levin: I think so, but it’s not simply wrong. There’s another level beneath it. I don’t think it’s being religious that explains why the right thinks a certain way about science. I think it’s an attitude the right has toward cultural continuity. That makes a big difference. It’s also why the right tends to be more open toward religion. On those issues where the right has a problem with science, it usually arises when science poses some kind of threat to what conservatives see as the imperative of cultural continuity, whether it’s at the juncture of generations or around society’s ability to present a picture of its own past, an argument about morals and values.

So it’s easy to see why a hard-line scientific worldview that doesn’t allow other kinds of questions to be asked and answered would strike the right as a problem. I don’t think religion is necessarily the reason for this.

So this is pretty interesting. We have at least one conservative intellectual going along with the view that it is the dynamism of science, its constant generation of new innovation and possibilities, that sits better with the left than the right–because the left is out there reveling in the shock of the new, while the right (these are generalizations, of course) looks aghast at what will happen to old systems and ways of doing things. Moreover, we have a close connection being drawn between the desire to preserve “cultural continuity” and the power of religiosity on the right.

But of course, this does not work very well to explain all those secular, technophile libertarians who think we ought to be living on Mars by now.

[Incidentally, Levin also says something pretty unbelievable in this interview: With regard to the Bush administration and climate science, he remarks, “I never saw anything that struck me as a deliberate effort to keep information from the public.” Did he read the newspapers?]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservatives and Science

Comments (18)

  1. Jon

    Chris, just to make sure, you saw David Frum’s takedown of Levin, right?

    http://www.frumforum.com/is-conservatism-dead-no-its-resting

    It’s all about the populism. This is where the smart modern conservatives know they’re wide open for attack. As a Weekly Standard writer put it recently on the new book of essays on Irving Kristol:

    Kristol would not brook being lectured to by thinkers feigning a concern for conservatism and shedding crocodile tears over its fall from a dignified version limited to quoting maxims from Edmund Burke. This group of salon intellectuals, still active today, would, in the name of “saving” conservatism, exclude from it people of faith because they are too religious, entrepreneurs because they wish to make too much money, and middle Americans because they are too patriotic. While Kristol acknowledged the dangers of populism, he also saw that it can be a “corrective to the defects .  .  . often arising from the intellectual influence .  .  . of our democratic elites.” Calling attention to a new fact of modern political life, he noted that the “people were conservative and the educated elites that governed them were ideological elites, always busy provoking disorder and discontent in the name of some utopian goal.”

    Scientists– are they really “utopian”, secretly “provoking disorder and discontent”, or are they just the opposite of utopian–simply realistic?

  2. William Furr

    Technophile libertarians aren’t conservatives. They’re just as eager to “revel in the shock of the new” as liberals. More so in the case of social sciences that attack the sacred cows of the left such gender violence and welfare outcomes.

    I don’t think it’s fair to lump libertarians in with the right. They have as much in common (and as many differences) with liberals as they do with conservatives. They single spectrum left right dichotomy falls apart when you look at libertarians. This is to say ideological libertarians and not libertarians of convenience like the Kochs who are libertarian simply to enhance their wealth.

  3. 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?

    I reject the basis of your question. You still haven’t demonstrated that scientists are more liberal in any defineable sense of the term. I’m sure that from the perspective of the current debate on climate change, scientists fall on the “liberal” side. But that’s a specific issue, in which scientists are taking the side of the scientific community against the political one.

    Worse yet, the arguments in these debates are typically self-serving and what evidence is put forth anecdotal. What are we supposed to learn from this?

    I’m sure Sheril can tell you that the views on women in academia are still very conservative and at times quite hostile. It wasn’t that long ago that Larry Summers, while president at Harvard University, was arguing that there were more men in science because they were inherently more capable than women. Summers even cited “evidence” backing up his argument as you are doing now.

    Sadly, I’ve seen a variation of this debate played out several times now. Are liberals/men/whites/christians/atheists/Europeans better than conservatives/women/blacks/muslims/believers/Asians at science? The answers to these questions invariably told you more about the people speaking than any inherent reality.

    Before you go to far down this road, you might check what the arguments were like on those issues and try to avoid the same pitfalls.

  4. TTT

    Irving Kristol’s best writing was back when he could really open up in his treatises on “negroes” and “Orientals.” Look back at his writings before the days of, how shall we say, cleaning up, and you’ll see he’s one of that type of conservative.

    What really bugs me is the intrusion of philosophy and politics into the concepts of collecting and examining scientific evidence. Kristol’s so-called “populism” is actually elitism. Its actors proclaim themselves to be so innately wonderful and superior that they ought to possess knowledge that they never worked to achieve, such that any discussion of any topic becomes a tie the moment they show up.

  5. Jon

    I would be curious to see quantitative information on how many scientists are liberal, and what are the trend lines over the past several decades. It would also help to see crosstabs in terms of what disciplines within the sciences are most liberal, and how that compares with academia in general–also, what percentage of scientists are liberal outside of academia.

  6. Jon

    TTT: Irving Kristol’s views come down to a devaluation of transparency (very unscientific, not to mention undemocratic), and provoking populist trouble to counter what he sees as threats from modern liberalism. Here’s a famous quote of his:

    There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy.

  7. Jon

    TTT: Its actors proclaim themselves to be so innately wonderful and superior that they ought to possess knowledge that they never worked to achieve, such that any discussion of any topic becomes a tie the moment they show up.

    I like how you put that. This kind of attitude is also not very scientific. Great quote from Nathan Glazer who went to City College with Irving Kristol:

    One of the characteristics of [our] group was a notion of its universal competence…culture, politics, whatever was happening we shot our mouths off on…It was a model created by the arrogance that if you’re a Marxist you can understand anything and it was a model that even as we gave up our Marxism we nevertheless stuck with.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nathan_Glazer#Early_life

    Most scientists are modest enough not to consider themselves “universally competent” like Glazer describes here… (I said *most*…)

  8. I don’t buy it.

    “But of course, this does not work very well to explain all those secular, technophile libertarians who think we ought to be living on Mars by now.”

    Yes, but it goes further than that. The attraction of the right to the highest-risk strategies regarding global change (notably greenhouse gases) is hard to construe as defending cultural continuity.

    An analysis like this requires an outdated model of the right. The position of most of the scientific community is fundamentally deeply conservative: the world as we know it is threatened and we need to take vigorous action to preserve it. The position of the right, as best as I can understand it which admittedly is not well, seems to be that the world as we know it is less important than the financial system as we know it. That system is predicated on growth, i.e., progress, i.e., accelerating change.

    That the words “conservation” and “conservative” are cognate is no accident. My view is that the right which we see today can’t really be called “conservative” without doing violence to the language.

    (That there is a Luddite streak in conservationism is obvious but that sort of conservationism is today part of what we call the left.)

    The right long since ceased being attached to continuity: what they appear to seek is a headlong dive into the abyss. It may for some be faith-based, but it’s culturally revolutionary and profoundly disruptive.

  9. TTT

    The position of most of the scientific community is fundamentally deeply conservative: the world as we know it is threatened and we need to take vigorous action to preserve it.

    A major argument against any environmental protection (and frequently invoked by conservatives) is that the system was always going to decay anyway: all species go extinct, the climate will always change, habitats always get wiped out, etc. Environmentalists stand athwart history yelling ‘stop!’.

  10. Jon

    Michael Tobis: An analysis like this requires an outdated model of the right.

    This is really important. The right has changed. This is not Edmund Burke’s right. It’s not Eisenhower’s right. It’s not even Bill Buckley’s right.

    The right’s populism had its origins in anti-communism, but originally it was just in the rhetoric. But over time it has seeped into actual policy, as generations of policymakers raised on conservative populism go into policy making (but have never learned the thinking that originally went into that populism). As David Frum (a conservative himself) has written: “When you argue stupid, you campaign stupid. When you campaign stupid, you win stupid. And when you win stupid, you govern stupid.”

  11. Nullius in Verba

    “I would be curious to see quantitative information on how many scientists are liberal, and what are the trend lines over the past several decades. It would also help to see crosstabs in terms of what disciplines within the sciences are most liberal”

    I linked to this one earlier.
    http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~ngross/lounsbery_9-25.pdf

  12. @Jinchi comment#3: I can provide you some stats on that, specifically in the area of philosophy: http://commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/Lackey-What-are-the-modern-classics.pdf#

    Look at number 3 on that list. Rawls forms the heart of much of liberal thought on society.

    Just please don’t move the goalposts by saying that “Well, it’s only philosophers.” Yes, it is only philosophers, but when a study states “At a confidence level of 80%, the survey has an error rate of plus or minus 3%, assuming that we reached a demographically representative group. We have
    no reason to believe that we did not.” about a particular group of scholars who’s job it is to think about these things and which group, if they could only send three books into the future would include A Theory of Justice, you should probably be updating your thoughts on to what the rest of academe thinks about the matter.

  13. But of course, this does not work very well to explain all those secular, technophile libertarians who think we ought to be living on Mars by now.

    in a deep political philosophical sense libertarians are liberals. the affiliation of libertarians with the “right” is a feature of coalitional politics.

  14. Jon

    Look at number 3 on that list.

    But are we supposed to be surprised? Some professions don’t attract conservatives, just like others don’t attract liberals. If you polled a bunch of military generals, I’m sure there’d be a bias in favor of conservative versus liberal books. Liberals tend to be under-represented in the ranks of army generals. No surprise.

    The question is whether the standards of a profession are affected. I don’t question the professional standards of a general just because he’s conservative. If he did something to deserve my questioning, I’d question. But most of this heckling from the sidelines (eg, “climategate”) is really amateur grade. It’s spectacular–as in, it makes news–but it’s still amateur. (But if you’re cynical enough, and your object is to generate populist sentiment, who cares if it’s amateur, right?)

    (And by the way, standards are a *completely* different thing when you compare philosophy to the hard sciences, but that’s a whole other topic.)

  15. CG

    Reply to #13: I generally don’t worry about standards but I think there are a couple of other potential problems. First, having a profession align too closely and publicly with one political party is ultimately not good for that profession. If science becomes a Democrat’s thing science funding will be decided by politics. Second, as with any under-representation there is a danger that the profession is avoided by talented people who don’t see themselves fitting in with the social/political environment of that profession.

  16. Anna

    re the power of religiosity on the right:

    I think the more important point is Levin’s suggestion that conservatives’ interest in cultural continuity centers specifically around morals and values. I think this is key. However, it is a very particular vision, a narrow cluster of morals and values; you usually hear words like “personal responsibility” and “freedom” as shorthand for these conservative values.

    Conservative morals and values only work well with certain brands of religion — religion that does not seriously challenge capitalism or challenge ideas that paint the ultimate good as a combination of individualism and moralism (usually called “personal responsibility”) or encourage the state to distribute goods and services to the poor. (Interestingly, most of the religious conservatives I know don’t object to, say, churches or private organizations helping the poor — it’s when the government is doing it that they object.)

    otoh religious phrases like “social justice” (which usually argues for expanding good and services to the poor from the state) are treated with suspicion and (in Glenn Beck’s case, contempt) by many conservatives.

  17. Colin

    @Razib Khan:

    But of course, this does not work very well to explain all those secular, technophile libertarians who think we ought to be living on Mars by now.

    in a deep political philosophical sense libertarians are liberals. the affiliation of libertarians with the “right” is a feature of coalitional politics.

    Thank you. I’ve always viewed myself as a liberal. I’m strongly in favor of civil liberty and I think that the ACLU does good work, though I disagree with their stance on some things . I strongly support equal opportunity in public employment, public office, and financing. I believe that my personal religious views should not be imposed on anyone even when that makes me feel as though thousands of people are being legally killed in the United States every year. I buy into global warming as science but not the recommendations made by climate scientists and the party that has latched onto the science. I certainly buy into scientific progress as a good thing, rejecting the fears that the anti-vax, anti-GM foods, and anti-pesticide movements have pandered.

    All the while, however, I don’t believe that my social freedoms should be any different than my economic freedoms. I believe in three fundamental freedoms, including Life, Liberty and Property and that without anyone of those three, you suffer from tyranny.

    And… I love my smart phone, but wish I had good cell service on Mars.

  18. Matt B.

    Funny, I tried a few years ago to come up with a political dimension other than liberal vs. conservative and came up with a split between those who want cultures to borrow memes from each other in order to improve themselves, and those who want to preserve cultures by keeping them from ever influencing each other.

    If Levin is right, I failed in my goal.

    Except that it’s really a matter of degree. Conservatives tend to think in black-and-white terms, so, in the extreme, they would fear a change in any single meme of their culture. Liberals see that even with change there is continuity, just as an organism can replace all its cells and still be considered the same individual, as long as it doesn’t change too many at once.

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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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