The Left-Right Expertise Gap: Considering the Data

By Chris Mooney | June 14, 2011 11:08 am

This is the first of several posts elaborating on my recent American Prospect magazine article entitled “The Reality Gap: Now more than Ever, Republicans and Democrats are separated by expertise–and by facts.”

Perhaps the first thing you have to understand, in determining how America became so “truthy“–i.e., unable to agree on what reality even is on contested issues–is the changing political alignment of academics, scientists, and postgraduates in general over the last several decades.

Here are the data, and they are really striking (although how to interpret them is a different matter). As reported in my Prospect piece:

In one of the most comprehensive surveys of American professors, sociologists Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia and Solon Simmons of George Mason found that 51 percent described themselves as Democrats, and 35.3 percent described themselves as independents–with the bulk of those independents distinctly Democrat-leaning, rather than straddling the center. Just 13.7 percent were Republicans. Academia has long been a liberal bastion, but it hasn’t always been this lopsided. According to Gross, professors have been drifting to the left since the late 1960s, gradually carrying us into today’s very unbalanced expertise environment.

Gross and Simmons’ findings parallel the results of surveys on two overlapping groups: scientists and those with graduate degrees (whether or not they stay in academe)… A 2009 survey of American Association for the Advancement of Science members found they were overwhelmingly more Democratic, and more likely to describe themselves as liberal, than the general public. Fifty-five percent were Democrats, 32 percent were independents, and just 6 percent were Republicans. Then there are all the folks with letters after their names. Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress has shown that Americans with a post-graduate level of education have been trending more and more strongly Democratic in the past three presidential cycles. They supported Al Gore by a margin of 52 percent to 44 percent in 2000, John Kerry by 55 percent to 44 percent in 2004, and Barack Obama by 58 percent to 40 percent in 2008.

The Democratic Party has thus become the chosen party of what you might call “empirical professionals” and Americans with advanced degrees. According to research Gross conducted with Ethan Fosse of Harvard University and Jeremy Freese of Northwestern University, nearly 15 percent of U.S. liberals now hold one, more than double the percentage that did in the 1970s. The percentage of moderates and conservatives with advanced degrees has also increased but lags far behind the saturation levels of expertise among liberals. Indeed, conservatives are about where liberals were back in the 1970s. As a result, the researchers write, “more so than ever before the highly educated comprise a key constituency for American liberalism and the Democratic Party, one that may have surpassed a crucial threshold level in size.”

Please note–I am not arguing that Democrats or liberals are “smarter,” or that conservatives don’t have any expertise. Rather, I’m pointing out that the expertise gap, overall, has grown quite vast–and that this has become closely tied up with party identity.

This is not a good thing–it’s a very divisive thing–but it is nevertheless a truth about America today. And if you want to know why we can’t agree about the facts any longer, and have lost any sense of a shared reality, it’s a crucial ingredient in the explanation. But it is only one ingredient, and I’ll soon discuss others. We have to start on this foundation, though.

For more elaboration, see my Prospect piece, or stand by for further posts.

Comments (26)

  1. GregM

    I am glad you posted this section of the article. I think the article is a generally good synthesis of a broad range of relevant scholarship, and I thank you for it. My complaint however, is that the severity of the divisions may be overstated, especially in this section. Comparing the AAAS survey to the others suggests to me that the AAAS does not appeal to republicans enough to get them to pay dues. No big deal. Yes, the academy has long been a liberal “bastion”, but it also has pockets of conservatism and non partisanship, as Gross and Simmons show. And the voting behavior of people with advanced degrees are not hugely different from the voting behavior of the country as a whole. There is some cause for concern about the larger question of why our politics are so dysfunctional, but I think there is considerable variability and fluidity in the politics of academia and people with advanced degrees that you are glossing over.

  2. Chris Mooney

    pockets of academia…yeah, e.g., economists are more conservative than social psychologists. but what does that mean? i know there is much more nuance and you can go to the studies. but i’m not sure what about this undermines my broader point.

  3. Johnny

    Chris, why do only consider academics to have expertise?

    Please note–I am not arguing that Democrats or liberals are “smarter,” or that conservatives don’t have any expertise. Rather, I’m pointing out that the expertise gap, overall, has grown quite vast–and that this has become closely tied up with party identity.

    Did you ever consider that the conservatives with “expertise” work for industry and not academia?

  4. GregM

    Actually, it is Heath Sciences and Computer engineering that are more conservative than the rest of academia and are not very different than the population at large. I think it does throw some cold water on the notion that people with conservatives/republican mindsets tend to avoid novelty, complexity or ambiguity. But it does not undermine your larger point about there being fundamental disagreements of facts in the public realm. I think you raise many good points but part of the problem that you don’t raise is in the filtering that gets people attention in the public realm. “The Culture War” and the “War on Science” get attention because it focuses on conflict, but it does so by picking out extremes and suggesting that these extremes represent large segments of the population. But a reasoned debate between thoughtful people who occupy moderate positions doesn’t sell advertising. I again recommend the work of Morris Fiorina: http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/6699

    Also, minor point about the Texteria study: The numbers you cite are for voters with post graduate education. This may include some who have taken graduate courses but have not completed an advanced degree, as you describe them. The fact that these voters seem to be shifting toward Demos faster than this pool of voters is growing is evidence that they are moving away from the Repubs. White college graduates are also moving toward the Demos. Texteria suggests it is because these voters believe in the role of government to provide education and infrastructure, while the GOP has been bashing government. It would be nice to get some nuanced survey data on this among the population and large and “expert” population. Thanks for the opportunity to discuss these issues.

  5. Chris Mooney

    @3 Who said we consider only academics to have expertise? I was looking at a variety of types of expertise including postgraduate training.

    If you look at the postgraduate numbers above, obviously there are lots of them who are Republicans and yes, they are likely to work in industry, among other places. Or be lawyers, doctors, etc.

  6. Jeff

    @Johnny: It appears you’ve collapsed a couple issues in the interpretation. The article is about an analysis of residents of academia, so hence the article talks exclusively about academia. The analysis wasn’t “The Entirety of Learned Experts in America” but, quite specifically, “Learned Experts working in Academia.”

    The reason this is significant is that many recent advances in knowledge, specifically on climate science, come from academia. Within the political arena, this creates an “Us vs. Them” mentality, Politicians vs. Academics. This has been a long-standing divide within our politics and has now reached measurably epic proportions. The entire point being, with a divide of epic proportions in Academia, we can now observe an epic divide in how our political parties are behaving in relation to the sciences.

  7. Mike

    @3 Chris Mooney

    If you’re going to ask questions about my post, please stop blocking my IP so I can answer them. It would be a shame if this place ended up the deleted-comment-zone like RealClimate.

    ———

    You asked:
    Who said we consider only academics to have expertise?

    Answer:
    You did when you cited this study in your post:

    In one of the most comprehensive surveys of American professors…

    Then you tried to use this as evidence to make “expertise” and “academic” synonymous, in an attempt to exclude anyone outside academia as having “expertise”.

    I’m pointing out that the expertise gap, overall, has grown quite vast–and that this has become closely tied up with party identity.

    ——

    @Jeff

    …many recent advances in knowledge, specifically on climate science, come from academia. Within the political arena, this creates an “Us vs. Them” mentality, Politicians vs. Academics.

    I think the real “us vs. them” has both scientists and politicians on both sides of the climate debate. Its not all politicians on one side, and its not all scientists on the other.

    I know you will readily acknowledge that there are many, many politicians on the Alarmist side of Climate Change. Can you acknowledge that there are also many, many scientists on the Denier side, even published climatologists in prestigious universities, like Pielke and Spencer?

  8. Chris Mooney

    Nobody’s IP is blocked. take it easy

    I surveyed academics, scientists, and postgraduates. Not just academics. Just reread what it says above.

  9. 1985

    BTW, I am sure you have noticed how yesterday less than 2 hours after you gave Nullius a warning there was a post on WattsUpWithThat about it….

    And that’s a place that has banned numerous people over the years that they couldn’t shut up otherwise…

  10. GregM

    @6 Jeff, liberalism in academia is somewhat concentrated in the humanities and liberal arts, and less so in Science and engineering. In general the public, both Demos and Repubs, have a favorable view of Science http://people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-1-public-views-of-science-and-scientists/

    Climate change science presents several challenges to the public, and it should be noted that only slightly more than half of Demos accept the scientific consensus on climate change as of October 2010: http://people-press.org/2010/10/27/little-change-in-opinions-about-global-warming/

    That is much greater than the 16% of Repubs, but it is nothing to write home about. What are the general challenges? Many people confuse weather (highly variable) with climate (long term average). There are a lot of weather and climate complexities that can be exploited by deniers. Most people do not understand what the National Academy of Sciences is. The problem is playing out over long time horizons and large areas, which is difficult for many people to either comprehend or get concerned about.

    There has been a tendency for Republicans to be more skeptical of or disinterested in environmental science in particular for a number of ideological reasons. I am not sure it is fair or serves the public discourse to treat Republican skepticism of climate change science as emblematic of a broader republican rejection of science, because there are plenty of Republicans who are favorable toward science, and plenty of Demos who do not accept climate change science.

    I think the phony “culture war” did much to poison public discourse and I think a phony “war on science” could be similarly polarizing and counter productive. Just my opinion, of course.

  11. 1985

    7. Mike Says:
    June 14th, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    I think the real “us vs. them” has both scientists and politicians on both sides of the climate debate. Its not all politicians on one side, and its not all scientists on the other.
    I know you will readily acknowledge that there are many, many politicians on the Alarmist side of Climate Change.

    There isn’t a single politician, Al Gore included, who has gone anywhere close to telling the truth about our sustainability crisis. The “alarmist” politicians are almost without exception greenwashers who either don’t understand the situation or if they do, are too scared to say anything other than the usual absolutely meaningless and often oxymoronic buzzwords like “green growth”, “sustainable development”, etc.. The one who has connected the most dots in public is probably Roscoe Bartlett and he happens to be a Republican.

    Can you acknowledge that there are also many, many scientists on the Denier side, even published climatologists in prestigious universities, like Pielke and Spencer?

    Those number in the single digits. Against thousands of other climatologists all over the world. That conversation has happened countless times before, why again?

  12. Johnny

    @Chris Mooney #8

    You claim:
    I surveyed academics, scientists, and postgraduates. Not just academics. Just reread what it says above.

    The original story above, nor the magazine article, nor the quoted excerpt, claim to have studied post graduates. The quoted text implies the opposite, when you cite “academics”.

    The word “postgraduate” does not appear anywhere in your articles, and even here you did not claim to have surveyed them in the original article above. Only now, here in the comments, when challenged, do you seem to be claiming to have surveyed them.

    Would you care to clarify?

  13. Chris Mooney

    @10 no, if you cannot see how there are postgraduates above, I’m very sorry, but it is an unambiguous fact.

  14. GregM

    @13, not sure what you are referring to in my #10. The postgraduate data is from the 2008 election. It would be interesting to see how things might have changed in 2010.

  15. Chris Mooney

    sorry was actually referring to @12

  16. Mike H

    Lets not confuse “expertise” with “credentialed”. An education alone does not confer expertise .. education and experience obtaining quantifiable results does that. I find that I personally am far more of an expert in matters relating to the energy industry than the entire “Wonk” brigade over at ThinkProgress, so much so that Joe Romm banned me years ago.

    I would argue that this “expertise gap” is not nearly as relevant or as pressing as you are making it out to be as there is more to the world than climate science and evolution. Is it really an issue that sociology and other social sciences are decidedly liberal? What do these people contribute to the national debate? What impact do they have on our day to day lives?

  17. Johnny

    @13 Chris Mooney

    if you cannot see how there are postgraduates above, I’m very sorry, but it is an unambiguous fact.

    I can see how academics are considered post graduates, but…

    I can’t see where you are surveying post graduates who are not academics. Provide us with a link that says you surveyed non-academic post-graduates, because all of the evidence you’ve provided so far is missing that information.

    ——

    @17 Mike

    Lets not confuse “expertise” with “credentialed”.

    To the academic left, there is no difference whatsoever between the two.

  18. Chris Mooney

    @18 I give up. You’ve defeated my by sheer refusal to read what i am saying.

  19. Marion Delgado

    Chris:

    One thing I think you should remind yourself of: while academically there are conservatives – and even then only to a degree and by leaving things out – academically there really aren’t liberals.

    Liberals in the US include all the people with only a high school diploma, GED, or even less in areas that aren’t too rural. They also include a lot of experts with doctorates and post-doc study.

    The conservatives do a little better with the middle – bachelor’s degrees and into master’s degrees.

    This was my second reason for disagreeing with one of your Point of Inquiry interviewees. He raised the issue of “liberals” not knowing what the NAS opinion was of – not what is ALWAYS covered in the papers and on TV, putting radioactive waste in some central dump, such as a proposed one in Nevada – but about dumping it in ocean ridges. To noone’s surprise, they didn’t correctly know. Given the bait-and-switch approach he used, a good question is how they possibly could have known, for purposes of answering a poll. To imply it’s equivalent to the conservative denial of AGW is, I think, just false.

    But another good question is, if you have one group that’s somewhat together educationally, or at least a continuum, can you apply the same standards to another group that’s at the two fringes? If you’re polling only people of comparable education, at least that’s good polling, but it’s not telling you what liberals think (and I think that’s a good thing, because only on some issues can you seriously say a diverse coalition thinks anything). On a science question, a liberal post-doc is not the same as a liberal janitor. Cabbies, maybe :)

  20. Maureen

    I found this site through twitter (of what value twitter is to me I am not yet sure.) Interesting back and forth over value of “expertise.” What I’m gathering is that there is a dispute over value of education as it seems suggested in these posts that Liberals or Democrats tend to be better educationally credentialed (I use credentials deliberately as I have found some very suspect thinking in Phds I have known). Of course I am a die-hard LIBERAL and generally think conservatives are either morons or just selfish bastards who like not thinking about others. There is a similarity that I do find in the over educated (I am one) who tend to think in narrow intellectual terms. They don’t like thinking of the many gray areas in life that cannot be covered by any fringe reasoning. Still I find that my government seems awfully full of people who have absolutely no knowledge of history, economics or science and it does seem to me that this absence of knowledge has led to some really sad decisions. My family on the right of every subject brag that they don’t bother reading (just like our last president). So they are proud of lack of “expertise” and still fanatic on their insistence that it is the liberals, the unions, the immigrants, the teachers etc. who are destroying their life. Sarah Palin is their hero.

  21. Jeff

    Finally found this post again after losing it reading all the follow-ons all over the place. I’ve been wanting to follow these comments and forgot where they were.

    Disclaimer: This particular post is sparse on measurement, heavy on opinion. MY opinion, of course, which is the one that drives my actions at the end of the day. :)

    @7 “I think the real “us vs. them” has both scientists and politicians on both sides of the climate debate. Its not all politicians on one side, and its not all scientists on the other.”

    Yes, the totality of the population of individuals includes a mix on both sides. However, several surveys inspecting the makeup of these populations unrelievedly show that a majority of politicians are on the denier side while a majority of academics are on the acceptance side. This is further delineated by Dem. vs. Repub., with Repub. factions highly polarized into extreme denial with Dem. factions highly polarized into extreme acceptance.

    To even get away from the surveys, you can look at Wikipedia for the Academic angle on this. If you look at the primary page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_opinion_on_climate_change, you see a long list of organizations that have published acceptance of the climate science. If you follow the link at the top of that page to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_scientists_opposing_the_mainstream_scientific_assessment_of_global_warming, you see a list of individuals with varying dissenting opinions.

    If we accept that organizations contain many individuals, here we have a rather brilliant record of the scope of the consensus. Many, many more individuals, as members of organizations, support climate science than those few individuals that dissent. Further, if you inspect the credentials of the individuals that dissent, some of their fields are highly suspect as expert opinions on climate science (for instance, what does mining geology teach us about global climate systems?).

    “I know you will readily acknowledge that there are many, many politicians on the Alarmist side of Climate Change. Can you acknowledge that there are also many, many scientists on the Denier side, even published climatologists in prestigious universities, like Pielke and Spencer?”

    Actually, I don’t readily acknowledge that many, many politicians are in the Alarmist camp. VERY personal opinion statement here, but to my eyes, talking about the potential consequences of climate change, we’re actually looking at the potential for a large scale extinction of the human race. Considering that, there are far too few Alarmists around.

    See above for one assessment of the “many, many scientists on the denier side.” :) Multiple surveys and analysis point to there being a very minority number of scientists on the denier side. I saw a link to one brilliant one, but have been unable to relocate that link, unfortunately. Once I come back across it, I’ll be back to post that.

  22. Incredulous

    #25 Jeff,

    Actually a mining geologist will have quite a background in paleoclimatology. When you become educated in the real variability of the earth’s climate beyond the last few thousands of years, the amount of change discussed in the climate change debate is tiny. Even 100,000 years is pretty minuscule when you are looking at 4 billion years or so.

    The climate *not* changing would be much more unusual than climate change. We live on a pretty dynamic planet in some respects. There are many feedback mechanisms and controlling factors that are not really understood yet. We still don’t have a full understanding of the mechanisms of ice ages, magnetic pole reversals, solar cycles, and many other events.

    That doesn’t give carte blanche to put crap in the atmosphere or oceans but it is not just a simplistic “Ohh, we are going to cut back on carbon emissions and save the world”.

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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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