For Sale; 1 Vote, Price: “Science” or Best Offer

by Josh Witten on September 18, 2012Comments Off

This was originally a guest post at Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Culture of ScienceIn light of Romney’s “defeat” of Obama in the Science Debate, I thought it was worth revisiting, as some of the points may help explain why Obama’s responses seemed to reflect minimal time, effort, and concern with the debate.

Perhaps my earliest political memory came from presidential election coverage in, let’s call it 1988. I distinctly recall a portion of a news segment on voting experiences in which a Catholic priest described the ghosts of his ancestors compelling him to vote a straight Democratic ticket.

I think about that priest when I hear the “why is the Republican party anti-science?” discussion and I wonder. While we can debate whether Republicans are more anti-science than Democrats[1], the rhetoric of Republican politicians is certainly more hostile toward science and the scientific establishment. When confronted with such statements about your colleagues, yourself, and your field of work, it is natural to wonder “why?”.

We’ve spilt a lot of ink trying to figure out what is wrong with these people. Maybe genetically determined personality traits that incline a person toward conservative positions on other issues also incline a person toward anti-science. Maybe it is pandering to politically active Christian fundamentalism (45% of Republicans and 52% of white evangelicals claim science conflicts with their religious beliefs[2]). Maybe it is populism run amok, with scientists cast as authorities and elites.

Maybe one or more of these “maybes” significantly contributes to Republican anti-science rhetoric. Unfortunately, that knowledge is not very helpful. Neither you or I can do anything about these causes. Also, telling people what is wrong with “them” is a highly ineffective method of persuasion. Changes in personality require interventions like traumatic brain injuries, which are ethically dubious. Changing religious views may be even harder. And, frankly, if decades of schooling, respected titles, and public admiration is not “elite”, I don’t know what is.

Which brings us back around to that priest. His story brought a couple of thoughts to my nine-year old brain. First, Catholic priests do not have a particularly inspired view on the issues of the world. This was a good call. Second, that any campaign effort by either a Republican or Democratic candidate trying to influence that vote was a wasted effort.

Being a dedicated partisan, like our ordained friend above, eliminates your ability to influence a politician’s positions in exchange for your vote. While I know the guy[3] you voted for is not like this, it is reasonable to assume that the primary incentive for politicians is votes. If your vote is already committed, there is no reason to attempt to appeal to you.

Fortunately, science is not partisan. Unfortunately, the people who do science are. Scientists – the public face of science policy issues – perceive themselves to be overwhelmingly liberal. A Pew survey found that 81% of scientists are or lean Democrat. Only 9% claim a conservative ideology. and only 6% were Republican. A majority (56%) would describe the community of scientists as politically liberal. Only 2% called it conservative[2].

Do the politicians know this? Only 20% of the general public sees the scientific community as politically liberal; but a scan of political blogs suggests that the politically astute are aware of the liberal trend among scientists (e.g., they read the Pew survey report). In which case, we need to ask ourselves why Republican politicians should try to make scientists happy, when we indicate that were are unlikely to vote for them no matter what they do. Why should a candidate risk anything for that reward?

Unlike the possible causes above, the policy positions of political candidates are legendarily malleable. To exploit this, we just need to figure out how to convince Republican politicians that there will be a reward at the ballot box for wooing the pro-science vote. I have a few ideas of dubious merit, assuming that you are not cool with science policy continuing to be enslaved to partisan politics:

Independents acting like independents
Although 81% of scientists lean Democrat, 32% of scientists actually identify as independents. If these independents act like independents who prioritize science policy above all, rather than Democrats who forgot to check the party affiliation box on their voter registration[4], that would give Republican candidates the opportunity to compete for almost half the votes of scientists.

Embrace diversity
The survey results indicate that the scientific community has not yet achieved political homogeneity, but it acts like it has. I spent graduate school watching talented researchers embed juvenile jokes about George W. Bush’s intelligence into their presentations. I sat in on numerous conversations in which my colleagues bemoaned the obvious evil and imbecility of anyone who voted Republican. Unsurprisingly, this silences voices that do not agree with the majority. I have known graduate students that lean conservative who fear that having their views exposed would damage their careers – not for being conservative, but for being perceived as an idiot, which is apparently required for voting Republican. Sadly, these silent voices are the ones that would advertise to Republican candidates that there are pro-science votes for which they can compete.

Get over their “wrongness”
It is tempting to point out how “wrong” the Republican rhetoric is on many science issues. This would imply that the onus is on these Republican politicians to improve their thinking and move their positions toward those with scientific support. Fine in theory, but these are human beings. We are going to have to appeal to them. Yes, I know they are wrong. Get over it.

Label changes
Abandon partisan labels. Using generalizations, like Republican anti-science (as above, below, and throughout), seem like handy shortcuts, but exacerbate the “us” and “them” mentality. It forces ownership of general trends within a party on all members, like a stereotype. It also avoids directly criticizing the people making spouting the rhetoric.

Embrace the public
Turns out scientists are more popular than politicians. Remember 84% of the public think science has a mostly positive effect on society. An astounding 70% say that scientists contribute a lot to the well being of society. We should use that. We need to embrace the entire public as advocates for science and focus energy on generating public enthusiasm for candidates based on their science policy, not political party[5].

Conclusion
While it is important to understand why people hold the views they do and how the current partisan situation around science policy came to be, it is more important to find ways to recover from this situation. Equally, it is important that we do not ask anyone to compromise their views on science issues to pander to candidates. Here, I prefer to argue that we should make science more important than ever. More important than our political affiliations and certainly more important than the cheap thrill of feeling superior to another group.

When we face the reality that politicians face more significant pressure to appeal to voters that might actually vote for them than the do to be effective leaders, we are also presented with options to save science from partisanship; but will we take those opportunities?

Notes
1. For example, 88% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats believe that science has a “mostly positive effect” on society[2].

2. The Pew Research Center, “Scientific Achievements Less Prominent Than a Decade Ago”

3. Use of male pronoun currently has an 83% probability of accuracy in Senate (83/100) and House of Representatives (366/441, including non-voting representatives).

4. Yes, I am aware that there are many non-partisan, science advocacy organizations that already exist. There is, however, an important distinction between nominally non-partisan groups and actually non-partisan voters. We need to demonstrate that the latter actually exist in the science community.

5. ScienceDebate is trying to do this. Their treatment in 2008 clearly indicates that candidates from both parties did not see the value in competing for the votes of the pro-science voters.