Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Scientists and Republicans

There seems to be a widespread belief that academics and researchers in the hard sciences and engineering are, on average, more conservative than academics in the humanities. This may be true, if only because humanities academics tend to be pretty far to the left. However, the oft-repeated suggestion that hard scientists tend to tilt conservative because they work in fields with more objectively verifiable facts and standards is both false and a non sequitur. Scientists may be more conservative than humanities academics, but they're still pretty liberal. As Nicholas Thompson reports in a recent Washington Monthly, Republicans have been gradually alienating scientists for four decades:

The split between the GOP and the scientific community began during the administration of Richard Nixon. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, protests against the Vietnam War captured the sympathy of the liberal academic community, including many scientists, whose opposition to the war turned them against Nixon. The president characteristically lashed back and, in 1973, abolished the entire White House science advisory team by executive order, fuming that they were all Democrats.


By the mid 1990s, the GOP had firmly adopted a new paradigm for dismissing scientists as liberals. Gingrich believed, as Nixon did, that most scientists weren't going to support him politically. "Scientists tend to have an agenda, and it tends to be a liberal political agenda," explains Gingrich's close associate former Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), the former chairman of the House Science Committee. In 1995, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), then-chairman of the House committee dealing with global warming, called climate change a "liberal claptrap." In interviews with The Washington Post in 2001, Texas Republican Tom DeLay dismissed evolution as unproven, said that we shouldn't need an EPA because "God charges us to be good stewards of the Earth," and denigrated scientific Nobel Prize winners as "liberal and extremist."

No party that panders to creationists while scoffing at Nobel Prize winners can honestly claim to be the party of science and hard-headed, objective thinking. Even top Republican strategists believe that, as a voting bloc, scientists are so liberal as to be a lost cause.

Now, people with business degrees, on the other hand...


p.s. While I'm at it, I may as well point out Tim Lambert's examination of (via Crooked Timber), a site that purports to debunk junk science by, among other things, running guest commentary by prominent creationist lawyer Philip Johnson. The proprietor of, Steve Milloy, is an "adjunct scholar" at the Cato Institute, a well-funded and highly influential conservative/libertarian think tank. On the Cato interview linked above, Milloy states proudly:

Explanations of human evolution are not likely to move beyond the stage of hypothesis or conjecture. There is no scientific way - i.e., no experiment or other means of reliable study - for explaining how humans developed. Without a valid scientific method for proving a hypothesis, no indisputable explanation can exist.

The process of evolution can be scientifically demonstrated in some lower life forms, but this is a far cry from explaining how humans developed.

That said, some sort of evolutionary process seems most likely in my opinion. But there will probably always be enough uncertainty in any explanation of human evolution to give critics plenty of room for doubt.

That loud hacking sound you just heard was the sound of someone coughing up whatever shreds of intellectual integrity he had left in order to pander to the right. It's a sound that's all too familiar to scientists who hang around with conservatives.

p.p.s. UPDATE: NY Times reports:

More than 60 influential scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, issued a statement yesterday asserting that the Bush administration had systematically distorted scientific fact in the service of policy goals on the environment, health, biomedical research and nuclear weaponry at home and abroad.