The Next Ingredient in the "Reality Gap" Stew: Conservative Counter-Expertise

By Chris Mooney | June 14, 2011 2:27 pm

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

In my last post, I showed how academics and scientists in the U.S. today are overwhelmingly liberal, and have become increasingly so over the years–and that postgraduates in general are also moving into the Democratic column. To sum it all up, as I wrote in the Prospect piece:

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.

But of course, it is not as though conservatives, in response to all this, have said, “oh okay then, we’ll listen to the liberal academics and intellectuals.” No. In response to this trend–and at the same time, in a way that likely exacerbated this trend–for decades they have been both 1) attacking academia and 2) creating their own experts outside of academia. Which leads to the next part of my article–the growth of conservative counter-expertise:

The growth of conservative think tanks parallels the leftward migration of expertise in general: Call it a countertrend. Indeed, writes Columbia historian Mark Lilla, many conservatives in the 1970s and 1980s began to operate as “counter-intellectuals,” consciously dedicated to fighting back against the “intellectuals” as a class. In some cases, they became “counter-intellectuals without ever having been intellectuals–a unique American phenomenon.”

Another historian who has studied the growth of think tanks, Jason Stahl, spent months in the Library of Congress with the papers of William J. Baroody Sr., the longtime head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Based on this research, Stahl finds a very similar result. Baroody presided over the dramatically successful growth of his institute, from a staff of 18 and an annual budget of just over $1 million in 1970 to a staff of 150 and a budget of $10 million by the early 1980s. He did so by inspiring conservative and corporate funders to “break [the] monopoly” on ideas held by the left and to ensure that “the views of other competent intellectuals are given the opportunity to contend effectively in the mainstream of our country’s intellectual activity.”

So it is not as though conservatives lack intelligent and talented experts of their own. Democrats may have considerably more of them in their ranks than Republicans, but Republicans have more total experts than they used to, as well–the whole society does. And despite Stephen Colbert’s remark that “reality has a well-known liberal bias,” Republicans are not giving in. They’re fighting that “biased” reality constantly, in as many disciplines as they can. For every Ph.D., there’s an equal and opposite Ph.D.–or so it can often be made to appear.

So we’ve got a) a vast sea of liberal academics and experts and b) a devoted counter-force of conservative academics and experts. What happens next? We can here use psychology and motivated reasoning to predict–and that will be the subject of my next post….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Conservatives and Science

Comments (36)

  1. Johnny

    Affirmative Action for Conservatives at Universities

    At some point we must acknowledge that liberals aren’t choosing academia, but that academia is choosing liberals and excluding conservatives.

    What should happen next is legislation to counter the clear bias in academia toward hiring liberal professors and excluding conservative academics. We need an affirmative action campaign to reserve 50% of all the slots in Acadamia for conservative professors. Excess liberal professors should be terminated from University Employment.

    Liberal Academia is full of “diversity” programs, but what they really want is a diverse group of people who agree completely with their liberal orthodoxy.

    Academic Freedom is not the freedom to exclude conservatives.

  2. GregM

    “Republicans are… fighting that ‘biased’ reality constantly, in as many disciplines as they can.” Aren’t the think tanks primarily focused on economic policy issues? They use information about energy, environment and health care only in so far as it serves their policy agendas, but they are not generally working in these underlying disciplines.

    It may also be interesting to point out that some of the experts favored by conservatives were academics, such as Milton Friedman and Julian Simon. Several of the prominent climate change skeptics are based in academia.

    The role of academia is to advance knowledge frontiers in a range of directions and expose students to a range of ideas. It seems to be doing that. The role of the think tanks is to advocate for particular policy agendas. They do employ people with expertise in specific disciplines and their job as advocates requires them to be in the public eye, more so that an a typical bookish academic is likely to be. I suspect that is what you mean by the conservative PhDs often appear to be as numerous as the liberal PhDs.

  3. RocketDoc

    @Johnny

    If you are a conservative and actually espousing that view, why wouldn’t you instead suggest that it is incumbent on conservatives to compete on their own merits and see if they can survive in the free market of ideas? If their worldview is so successful, it should outcompete the liberals. And there are conservative-leaning universities, generally religious, who attract the kinds of people who you think are disenfranchised.

    It seems intuitively counter-conservative for you to mandate quotas. ;-)

  4. Chris Mooney

    As I explain in my article, there are reasons to think liberals are more likely to be academics due to personality. So “affirmative action” in this sense is a weird idea. Here’s Jonathan Haidt, who himself is worried about the left tilt of his field but also thinks it is partly inevitable:

    “Research on personality consistently shows that liberals are higher on openness to experience. They’re more interested in novel ideas, and in trying to use science to improve society. So of course our field is and always will be mostly liberal. I don’t think we should ever strive for exact proportional representation.”

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt11/haidt11_index.html

  5. 1985

    2. GregM Says:
    June 14th, 2011 at 3:35 pm
    “Republicans are… fighting that ‘biased’ reality constantly, in as many disciplines as they can.” Aren’t the think tanks primarily focused on economic policy issues? They use information about energy, environment and health care only in so far as it serves their policy agendas, but they are not generally working in these underlying disciplines.
    It may also be interesting to point out that some of the experts favored by conservatives were academics, such as Milton Friedman and Julian Simon. Several of the prominent climate change skeptics are based in academia.

    Economics clashes head on with all physical sciences. Economists “solve” the old conflict between the impossibility of infinite growth (postulated as the ultimate good by them and required by the current free market system) in a finite system by simply ignoring its existence, which is immediately equivalent to directly discarding all of science.

    That’s the essence of why the think-tanks attack science.

    That people like Friedman are academics is not very relevant – you can be pretty sure that a good proportion of the republican-leaning academics reside in the business schools and economics departments of universities and they are likely the majority there. But those places are very often only formally part of academia, the people who work there typically have such close ties to real-life business that it is a stretch to call them academics in the classical sense of the word.

  6. Terry Emberson

    The real concern here is that the definition of left-right dichotomy isn’t at all stable. Defense of the idea of free-market economies was once a radical leftist ideal, now all of the arguments that were once used by the right to challenge free-markets are used by the left instead, alongside a number of new arguments that come from Marx’s (flawed) outlook and the environmental movement.

    You are certainly right that liberals are more open to experience and shades of gray, but I don’t think that the modern Democratic party can be called liberal. It doesn’t support pluralism in politics or in financial freedoms, only in social situations. The modern Republican party doesn’t really support pluralism is political or social situations, only in financial ones. What seems likely is that those with an open mind are more likely to be drawn to the Democratic party, but once they are there, they are no more accepting of plurality than Republicans.

    Take, for example, the common lumping of the Cato institute as a conservative think tank by the left. The Cato Institute challenges the constitutionality of the USA PATRIOT act, studies the positive and negative effects of decriminalizing drugs, and champions calls to reduce military budgets and especially reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. However, since they also challenge ‘global warming alarmism’, call for deregulation of everything, and question the need for social entitlements, they are lumped as “the other guys”. The Democrats are no more open minded than the Republicans when looking at libertarian beliefs. Of course, recognizing that libertarianism is different than conservatism would also necessitate recognizing that liberalism is different from progressivism.

    One of the biggest coups of the Democratic party is cornering the name ‘liberal’. I bet it tricks a lot of open minded people into closing their minds.

  7. GregM

    @1985: I’ve had my complaints about economics, but there is much more variety in economics these days than your comment suggests. Google either environmental economics, or ecological economics.

    For real numbers on Republican academics heck out the Gross and Simmons study table 8 on page 34
    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.147.6141&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    Republicans are a minority even in the Business schools, but you still find significant clusters in unexpected departments like Elementary Education (38%), Electrical Engineering (32%) while economics comes in at 28%. Also check out table 10 on page 37: 52% of the faculty in Health Sciences voted for Bush in 2004.

  8. ╦heBigo╦

    I remember a quote from somewhere i forgot from whom, that “the only place where capitalism and the free market does not work is in the College/University campus because of all the leftist ideals.” Most academics lean either to the far-left or statist(progressive) for a variety of reasons. Although key things to keep in mind is what an academic actually is and what makes up academia.

    Basically an academic is anyone with any sort of college/uni degree, does not necessarily have to be say a Ph.D. Genius individuals like say Gates, Steve Jobs, Zuckerberg changed the world in many ways with their ideas and inventions. But they are also uni dropouts and therefore none academics. An academic spends his/her time in the ivory tower or academic cocktail parties.

    But most academics are useless and most don’t have any real practical skills and most degrees are worthless. There is no need for affirmative action programs for libertarians and conservatives as he free market will just correct this eventually. Eventually the college bubble will burst and put these people out of the job. Most unis are heavily in debt such as Harvard which needs to borrow almost a billion p/y.

    http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1994/2/2/a-billion-here-a-billion-there/

    http://articles.boston.com/2010-09-28/news/29282180_1_debt-service-harvard-university-drew-faust

  9. 1985

    7. GregM Says:
    June 14th, 2011 at 4:47 pm
    @1985: I’ve had my complaints about economics, but there is much more variety in economics these days than your comment suggests. Google either environmental economics, or ecological economics.

    I am very much aware. But you won’t find those people at Sloan, Harvard, UChicago and the rest.

    For real numbers on Republican academics heck out the Gross and Simmons study table 8 on page 34
    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.147.6141&rep=rep1&type=pdf
    Republicans are a minority even in the Business schools, but you still find significant clusters in unexpected departments like Elementary Education (38%), Electrical Engineering (32%) while economics comes in at 28%. Also check out table 10 on page 37: 52% of the faculty in Health Sciences voted for Bush in 2004.

    I am not exactly sure what goes where, but I also see Accounting at 48% and Finance at 35.7% there. Interesting data nevertheless. BTW, the EE numbers aren’t that surprising actually, many people in those departments have very close ties to business too or come from conservative backgrounds.

  10. Incredulous

    I think it would be more instructive to look at the numbers if you separated the professional degrees from pure academics. In general, most people that go for advanced degrees are not in it for creating a career outside academia. There just isn’t that much return on investment in the outside world. There are only a handful of areas where an advanced degree is a requirement for practice. Otherwise, an advanced degree adds a bit to the starting salary but 5 years out, there is not really a differential in salary to compensate.

    People choosing the advanced degree path (Ph.D.) generally fall into two categories: People that are fascinated by their area of study and people that don’t want to — or can’t — deal with a job on the outside. They certainly are not in it for the money. Other than a few “Rock Stars,” the majority don’t come near what people make on the “outside”. They have different motivations and perspectives than the ones that go in to college, get a degree, and move on.

  11. GregM

    @1985:

    Harvard Environmental Economics Program
    http://www.hks.harvard.edu/m-rcbg/heep/

    Sloan School of Management initiative in Sustainability
    http://mitsloan.mit.edu/sustainability/

    U of Chicago econ department has only a couple of people listed in environ econ.
    http://economics.uchicago.edu/faculty.shtml

    Most economics departments at major universities have a few people who work on environmental issues and if you seek I think you will find that many offer a subspecialty in environmental economics.

    Accounting and Finance are generally found within in colleges of business, and that would be in line with your earlier point about most Republican faculty being associated with business schools. Many engineering and agriculture colleges have been bastions of Republicanism or conservatism, although that seems to be changing, and they are more apolitical than liberal. In my experience the portions of the university that have ties to business can be very influential if they are a source of income to the institution. The liberal departments that do not bring in revenue are often more vocal, but they are often complaining about their relative lack of funding and influence.

    The real world is often far more varied and interesting than our speculations about it. Science and empiricism more generally are much more interesting that ideological bloviation. Ideology never surprises. Careful observation does.

  12. Chris Mooney

    In the article I look at both the academics and the postgraduates. Both are trending left, but the former, as a group, are much further along. original link is here

    http://prospect.org/cs/articles?article=reality_bites

    I didn’t break out the details of how all the fields vary within academia. It is obvious that some fields are more conservative and more liberal. The general statement about the liberal lopsidedness of academia remains true.

  13. 1985

    11. GregM Says:
    June 14th, 2011 at 9:26 pm
    @1985:
    Harvard Environmental Economics Program
    http://www.hks.harvard.edu/m-rcbg/heep/
    Sloan School of Management initiative in Sustainability
    http://mitsloan.mit.edu/sustainability/
    U of Chicago econ department has only a couple of people listed in environ econ.
    http://economics.uchicago.edu/faculty.shtml
    Most economics departments at major universities have a few people who work on environmental issues and if you seek I think you will find that many offer a subspecialty in environmental economics.

    Those are almost exclusively greenwashers. I had in mind people like Herman Daly and the likes who dare to point out that growth is unsustainable and has to stop (even they tend to have exhibit certain greenwash leanings from time to time, BTW, but the important things is that they have made the major conceptual leap forward).

  14. GregM

    In 2010, postgraduates favored Democrats in the House of Reps by 53% to 45%, an 8% margin, but this is down from the 18% margin that Obama got from this group. Teixeira reported that postgraduates gave Gore an 8% margin in 2000. So, maybe there is not much of a trend since 2000. Each election turns on different issues and I think it should be recognized as speculative to draw essential inferences from specific election results. Yes postgraduates tend to vote Democrat, but the margin is variable.

    http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2010/results/polls/#USH00p1

    Teixeira had also identified the white college grads as a demographic that was increasingly voting less Republican and more Democratic. In 2008, this demographic favored McCain by only 4%, compared to 20% margin for GHW Bush in 1988. But in 2010, this demographic went for Repubs by a 19% margin.

    There is complex, variable fluidity in voting behavior and people’s minds. People have changeable minds and shifting loyalties that gets obscured by the convenient stereotypes and ideologies of commentators fixated on narrating some version of Cain vs. Abel, or Luke Skywaker vs. Darth Vader.

  15. Chris Mooney

    Yes, in a Republican wave midterm election the number changed. That’s not a big surprise…I am not sure how midterms relate to presidentials on this variable due to turnout.

  16. Incredulous

    The real question is how does this bias effect what research is selected for study? With a clear leaning toward liberal views on the part of the academics who conduct the research, how can you so casually dismiss the existence of a liberal bias in the research? I am not talking about falsification of research, that can be found out over time.

    This is similar to the problem in medical research. Nobody is jumping in and really researching things that don’t create a profit. Nobody will fund it. If you don’t get money, you cannot pay researchers. That is why everyone tries to get pharmaceutical companies to fund their research.

    If you have a deep bias in favor of climate change (If you didn’t have a strong interest one way or the other, why would you be studying climate change?), you don’t select hypotheses that do not support your beliefs. You have the same bias in the student research when all of their advisers share the same perspective. You have the same like minded people selecting what is accepted for peer review. There are no opposing views allowed unless it is serendipitously discovered and so incontrovertible that it can’t be dismissed out of hand, even if the math is correct theoretically. (Sorry, had to throw that one in because it really sticks in my throat.) Null hypotheses don’t get you funding or a Nobel Prize. You only have so much time and you can’t test every hypothesis.

    Since the non-academics without this liberal bias are dismissed as industry shills, you end up with an apparent consensus from people who believe the same thing. What a surprise.

  17. Colin

    I can tell you, working on my post graduate degree in the political science field, that both my adviser and the program director at my university are significantly left-leaning. Of my assigned books in my current course on developing economies, none note the significant fact that the only countries in which human dignity is widely respected and the poor are well fed are those that emphasize free markets with minimums of restrictions (except oil economies, where planned economies are insulated from idiocy by the sheer necessity of oil to developed nations). One of these books even says that capitalism only works by way of forcing developing nations to buy the goods of developed nations. No facts needed, we’ll just guilt people into believing that ‘capitalism is just plain bad’.

    Don’t get me wrong, corporations have been at fault for significant inhumanity, but they are also responsible for most of the improvement in fortunes that the destitute have seen in the last 50 years while social programs and foreign aid have done little to lift people out of poverty. Yet, if you were to read these books, Marxism has done more than capitalism despite the millions who have died in the effort to plan economies. And these are well regarded books in the social sciences.

    If I disagree with the instructor or the books, than I might as well kiss my degree goodbye. I would suggest that most would not be able to politely disagree with the idiocy involved.

  18. GregM

    @13
    1985: first you said they didn’t exist, and after I present evidence that they exist you dismiss them as “almost exclusively green washers” without explanation. Do you have data or just convenient knee jerks?

    Herman Daly recently retired from University of Maryland, where he worked for many years. His long time collaborator in ecological economics, Robert Costanza, recently moved from University of Vermont to Portland State University.

    I am an empiricist. When someone pontificates a position, I consider it my job to present data that contradicts the pontification thus proving their fallibility. I think the issue we are struggling with is that our media landscape has become dominated by pontificators with soothing stories to tell different constituencies. It is self serving of me to say this but I think we need more empiricists who can undermine the pontifications.

  19. GregM

    @15
    Chris: 2006 midterm election results were similar to 2008: House Democrats had a 17% advantage over Repubs in the postgraduate demographic. http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2006/pages/results/states/US/H/00/epolls.0.html

    If wise people change their minds, and fools never do, then there seem to be some wise people left. But I get the impression from these conversations that we seem to be a nation of unwavering ideologues. That is sad. Observation is so much more interesting than foregone conclusion. Nothing new comes from forgone conclusion. Reality has a way of smacking foregone conclusion in the face. And it is so much more pleasant to seek out all the wild variation that does not fit the standard and convenient ideologies.

  20. Chris Mooney

    @18 empiricists of the sort you describe will be well appreciated here.

  21. Incredulous

    #14

    The numbers between those elections are not really comparable. Obama was actually an aberration because there were people actually voting *for* him. Many people were brought into his election that normally wouldn’t have had that much interest in voting otherwise.

    There were many extraneous factors:

    Some identified with Obama for youth, some for race, some for his agenda. Add to that the fact that the McCain-Palin ticket just scared the crap out of people, and you have a really odd set of numbers.

  22. GregM

    #21
    For the main demographic that we are discussing, i.e., the post graduates, the results in 2006 and 2008 were nearly identical. See the link in note #19. As Michael Shermer notes in his book the Believing Brain, our brains are good at coming up with knee jerk stories that we latch onto. But we ought not allow ourselves to be slaves to those knee jerks. We ought to test them against empirical evidence.

  23. Incredulous

    #22

    Yes, but the numbers can be nearly identical but the mathematics of polling data can be very closely compared to numerology. People don’t follow mathematical principles in their political affiliations. You can’t say things like “People + 4.5 years of graduate studies = 76% liberal affiliation.” There are just too many things that are not quantifiable involved. You might as well be tossing in the percentage of people born under a full moon in the calculation.

  24. Rob

    Mooney leaves out a lot of factors, such as the fact that people change. Liberals become conservative and vise-versa.

    When I first started reading these articles, my fist thought was “… but I lean conservative and I’m well educated!” Then it occured to me that I was a liberal when I was a student. So what happened?

    In my field (organic chemistry) Ph.D.’s are relatively common. My Ph.D. advisor was a very young prof and had to work like a dog to prove himself and aquire the funding necessary to do quality work. In between the classes he often had to teach, he was constantly writing proposals. After my doctorate, I moved on to a post-doc position in a high profile laboratory. Post-docs are also fairly common in my profession. The guy I worked for as a post-doc was very well established, and a potential Nobel candidate. Still, he also worked like a dog.

    So, in the second year of my post-doc, I had a choice to make: A career path in academia or industry. Work like a dog in academia for lousy pay, or take a 9-5 job in pharma for roughly 3x the pay. Hmmmmmm? I chose the more lucrative industrial position. Now, almost two decades later, I am reasonably wealthy and somewhat conservative. I visit some of the aging profs of my graduate school from time to time. They are as poor as they were two decades ago, liberal, and sour.

    Could it simply be that the lousy pay and slave-like work hours of academia breeds liberals, whereas the more lucrative easy life in industry breeds conservatives? I think this may have a lot to do with the disparity.

  25. Chris Mooney

    Rob–all true, and none of it left out if you read my original article, which after all starts with an example of a conservative becoming liberal, and contains this passage:

    “Neil Gross’ research with Fosse and Fresse, for instance, suggests that the expertise gap is likely the result of a “self-selection process,” fueled by the fact that for liberals, academic jobs hold prestige–but for conservatives, they’re not considered attractive nowadays. That’s partly because academia has been repeatedly smeared as a liberal bastion and perhaps also partly because of differing values: Ambitious and smart conservatives would rather work on Wall Street.”

  26. Rob

    Chris (#26),

    I read that differently. When I choose industry over academia, I was a liberal. However, the choices I made then, I think have a lot to do with me becoming more conservative later in life. In other words, rather than my politics influencing my decision, my decision influence my politics.

    Fortunately, organic chemistry isn’t anywhere near as tainted by politics as climate science. Conservate and liberal organic chemists can discuss theoretical issues without screaming at one another.

  27. Chris Mooney

    Rob–
    I think academia, and some liberal organizations, have this philosophy sometimes of making the young suffer with very low salaries….and very long hours…I don’t doubt that the hard life it imposes turns many away, and then the rightward turn may naturally follow.

  28. GregM

    @25, 26, 27, 28:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Rob. I think there are several factors that might contribute to campuses being liberal environments. One that I have not seen mentioned is the constant influx of young students, many of whom are in an experimental phase of their lives. There are also international students, and a sense that people come to the campus to explore a wide range of ideas. Even if a person works in an insular department, they will likely come in contact with a diverse variety of people on various committees, at the gym, or as neighbors. I think this contact with a wide range of perspectives might promote liberal social attitudes. Perhaps one could get similar experiences in industry depending , but I don’t know since I’ve spent my entire adult life on university campuses (35 years including my own undergraduate time). Few if any industries would have the same degree of youth influence or the general exploratory function. Some industries have significant amounts of international staff, but I would expect the focus to be on producing marketable products rather than generalized exploration and learning. Scientists would be evaluated based on what they contribute to the organization’s profitability and not for pursuing a new line of research simply out of curiosity or to resolve some theoretical puzzle. But I am just speculating.

  29. Sean McCorkle

    Chris,
    I think academia, and some liberal organizations, have this philosophy sometimes of making the young suffer with very low salaries….

    There’s a high premium placed on suffering, not always or just low salaries, although thats part of it, and it begins at the graduate school level. Jeff Schmidt talks about this at length in “Disciplined Minds”. There’s a great deal of psychological marine-corp-training suffering at the core of graduate school in many fields, and I think it fits in to what Robert Cialdini describes as the reason for hazing rituals required by many societies – it instills commitment to the group by the initiate. When the new member has proven themselves by suffering enough, they’re in. If they quit out early, they didn’t belong. The new member is deeply loyal to the group because they suffered so much to get in, but I also think a nearly unavoidable consequence is also an arrogant attitude: “I am one of the X and therefore superior” (X being some field like physics or something). I believe this kind of hubris was one of the root causes of the downfall of high energy physics in the U.S. and I believe its very much part of the problem of political polarization and academia that you describe in the American Prospect article (great article by the way). Beyond the industry-sponsored counter experts and merchants of doubt, whats really dividing the large populations is a reaction by plain folks to this superiority complex (or rather reaction to a perception of a superiority complex – not all scientists and academics are arrogant by any mens). The political demagogues on the right are fanning this fire like crazy: Palin dismissing “book learning”, Limbaugh, Beck and the like putting fingers quotes around the word “experts” etc. its nearly constant stream of that stuff anymore.

  30. Chris Mooney

    Sean–
    Exactly. Anti-elitism has been a powerful force on the right since the American conservative revolution. Frankly, I too think that a lot of the anti-elite sentiment is justified. I think you agree that my piece did not let the experts off easy–

  31. TTT

    Sean@31: that’s just one way of framing a set of assertions. I personally find the notion that a trained expert would understand their issue of focus better than an untrained layman to be not arrogant but, rather, a brute fact. It is the people who act like they are qualified to speak on issues about which they have never invested any time or effort, and who believe any discussion of any topic becomes a tie the instant they show up… in other words, right-wingers…. are the truly sickeningly arrogant ones.

    As one of Irving Kristol’s old prep school buddies once pointed out, it’s actually a leftover of the neocons’ Marxist origins, in which as long as you use the right philosophy, everything you say must be true or the next best thing.

  32. Sean McCorkle

    Chris,
    I think you agree that my piece did not let the experts off easy–
    Not only that, but I think you’ve been consistently and rightly laying some responsibility on the scientific community for inadequate public communications in these polarized times. While there are deep-seated psychological issues involved, I think some friendly Carl Sagan-like personalities can go a long way towards ameliorating the situation.

    TTT@34 I completely agree with you on this. I in no way intend to justify the actions of the arrogant ignorant or equivocate that with academic haughtiness.

    However, that being said, I think there’s a real asymmetry here in that the folks that really do know things have a special obligation to take the extra step of giving what they can to the lay public in a positive spirit of offering something to make other’s lives better. In this sense, they should assume the mantle of “teacher” and that means reducing or nullifying any divisive attitudes on their part. If a teacher is going to really communicate something to a student, there has to be some level of affinity, deep down at some level, between the two, because the student will need to trust that the teacher has something to say which may be worth the effort it takes to understand. There’s going to be coaxing involved on the part of the teacher.

    I say obligation because experts are part of a civilization which keeps them alive, fed, clothed, and under roofs where they can carry out their work, and their contribution to that civilization is their expertise. In the case of the sciences, where the research is largely financed by the public, the scientists have an incumbent duty to explain to the public what they are doing and why its important.

    Humility can be a good thing. Expertise is highly specialized these days, and any expert is bound to have real ignorance issues in other areas. A Nobel Laureate chemist could easily be seen as a member of the lay public from the point of view of a historian or musician.

  33. Incredulous

    #34 TTT

    “It is the people who act like they are qualified to speak on issues about which they have never invested any time or effort, and who believe any discussion of any topic becomes a tie the instant they show up… in other words, right-wingers…. are the truly sickeningly arrogant ones.”

    To be fair, there are kooks of all denominations, not just right wing. Look at the celebrities that come out espousing all their “expertise” on every topic imaginable. Jenny McCarthy
    anyone?

    Most hard science is amazingly simple and understandable once it has been pinned down by experts. Take an introductory science class in any field. It is full of things that were huge milestones in the field. Once Einstein had the brilliance and insight to quantify the relation of energy and matter, it is a high school exercise to perform the calculations.

    I don’t have to be a doctor to believe that the Tuskeegee Experiment was wrong. I don’t have to be a chemical engineer to say I don’t want a dioxin plant next to my house. I don’t have to be an expert in cetaceans to think they should shouldn’t be killed.

    This is the reason we strive for universal education. The goal is not to just roll over and hand all the decisions over to “those who know best for us.” Why would we want to replace the last set of high priests with the secret knowledge with a new set of scientific priests?

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »