21 April 2011

Analysis of the Nisbet Report -- Part II, Political Views of Scientists

One part of Matthew Nisbet's recent report that has received very little attention is its comparative analysis of ideological and partisan perspectives of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Nisbet shows that AAAS members are extremely partisan and ideological.  The word "extremely" is mine, and what do I mean by it?  Look at the figure above:  AAAS members are more partisan than MSNBC viewers and even Tea Party members.  AAAS members are more ideological than evangelical churchgoers but less so than Fox News viewers.  In both cases AAAS members are very different than the public as a whole.

Dan Sarewitz has discussed the problems with the ideological and partisan likemindedness of our scientific community, which has been exploited and reenforced in political debates:
During the Bush administration, Democrats discovered that they could score political points by accusing Bush of being anti-science. In the process, they seem to have convinced themselves that they are the keepers of the Enlightenment spirit, and that those who disagree with them on issues like climate change are fundamentally irrational. Meanwhile, many Republicans have come to believe that mainstream science is corrupted by ideology and amounts to no more than politics by another name. Attracted to fringe scientists like the small and vocal group of climate skeptics, Republicans appear to be alienated from a mainstream scientific community that by and large doesn't share their political beliefs. The climate debacle is only the most conspicuous example of these debilitating tendencies, which play out in issues as diverse as nuclear waste disposal, protection of endangered species, and regulation of pharmaceuticals.

How would a more politically diverse scientific community improve this situation? First, it could foster greater confidence among Republican politicians about the legitimacy of mainstream science. Second, it would cultivate more informed, creative, and challenging debates about the policy implications of scientific knowledge. This could help keep difficult problems like climate change from getting prematurely straitjacketed by ideology. A more politically diverse scientific community would, overall, support a healthier relationship between science and politics.
It should come as no surprise that the increasing politicization of science has come to make science more political rather than politics more scientific.  At the same time, the more partisan and/or and ideological that you are, the more welcome and comfortable that you will find the politicization of science, as it reenforces your preconceptions.

It also fits perfectly into a political strategy that holds that arguments about science can help to resolve political debates.  Climate change is only the most visible of this tendency, where the empirical evidence shows that efforts to wage climate politics through climate science have had the greatest effect in magnifying the partisan divide.  Some are blinded by these dynamics -- for instance Chris Mooney excuses the extreme partisanship/ideology of AAAS members by blaming  . . . George W. Bush.

Anyone concerned with political decision making in a society that contains a diversity of partisan and ideological perspectives should be concerned that, in one sector at least, the experts that we rely on have views that are far different than the broader society.  One response to this would be to wage a political battle to try to convert the broader society to the values of the experts, perhaps through the idea that improving science communication or education a great value transformation will occur.

My sense is that this strategy is not just doomed to fail, but will have some serious blowback effects on the scientific community itself.  More likely from my view is that such efforts to transform society through science will instead lead to the partisan debates across society taking firmer root within our expert communities. This is a topic that deserves more discussion and debate.  Dan Sarewitz concludes provocatively that, "A democratic society needs Republican scientists."

It is important to recognize that hyper-partisans like Joe Romm and Chris Mooney will continue to seek to poison the wells of discussion within the scientific community (which is left-leaning, so this is a discuss that needs to occur at least to start within the left) through constant appeals to partisanship and ideology.  Improving the role of science and scientists in our political debates will require an ability to rise above such efforts to associate the scientific community with only a subset of partisan and ideological perspectives.  But science and expertise belongs to all of us, and should make society better as a whole.


  1. One quibble: we do not have reliable data on what the partisan affiliations and ideologies of scientists actually are. We have information on AAAS members, a subset likely to be unrepresentative of scientists as a whole.

    The scientists I know tend to be less partisan and more likely to describe themselves as independent. Ideologically, I've noticed chemists tend to be pro-free-market; physicists and biologists less so. But anecdote is not the singular of data.

    There really ought to be a study, including academia, government, industry, and non-profits; and including BS and PhDs in scientific subjects. The demarcation really ought to be 'working on scientific problems'. But above all else we need clean, representative data.

  2. -1-Gerard

    Yes, thanks, I agree with this. The issues raised here are not universal across issues to be sure.

  3. Unless I cannot read the chart correctly, it looks like the AAAS membership is slightly more Democrat than Republican (55/45), and slightly more conservative than liberal (52/48). How does that distribution call for more Republican scientists? I think that political views in science are a problem if they affect the validity of the results obtained. Otherwise, scientists advocating for policy based on sound science seems perfectly acceptable - see the campaign against smoking tobacco.

  4. "We know that political orientation biases scientists’ view of even scientific questions, much less ones of policy. There is no reason that there should be a strong correlation between the belief that cloud-based radiative climate forcing feedback is positive, and the belief that nationally-administered health care plans are more efficient than privately-administered ones, but there is. Thus we can take as a working assumption that political views bias scientific judgement.
    Now consider the recent Pew survey of the attitudes of scientists and the public on various issues. While assuming scientists are biassed, let’s also make the assumption that they know more about scientific issues than the general public does. In fact let’s completely ignore the public’s view on the issues. We want to remove a bias, not measure public ignorance.
    Now Pew handily gave us a calibration yardstick: they divided scientists, and the public into three groups: Democrats (35% of public, 55% of scientists), independent (34% of public, 32% of scientists), and Republicans (23% of public, 6% of scientists). Now we assume each population is normally distributed, and set the tails of the distribution equal (i.e. make the breakdowns line up). This allows us to solve for the mean and standard deviation of scientists on the public political scale, which we assume is a continuous spectrum. The scientists’ mean comes out to be -0.484 sigma on the public scale (left-leaning is more negative), and their sigma is 0.87 of the public’s.
    We can now correct for political orientation in the sense that we can calculate how many scientists, if scientists were distributed politically the way the general population is, would agree with the Pew questionaire’s statements. ... "


  5. Ok here is question. I read from the report and I see the line is split between the environmental and conservative/industry lobbies.

    So, as a sceptic, I pick an example from looking at this. I notice the budget of the "clean" coal lobby is put on the debit side does that mean it contributes against some lobby mentality that is unlisted or is it always bad in some un-winnable game?

    For example a quote from the debit "clean" coal lobby industry side:

    "Maybe you’ve heard the term CCS – carbon capture and sequestration. Dan works on it every day. Watch as this engineer from CONSOL Energy explains his work and his belief that, in the near future, we will be able to successfully capture and store CO2 from coal-fired power plants."

    A bit hokey I admit probably, maybe got some of that anti-limey lovelyness that Randy Olson recommends. But who is lying here?

    How do you delineate the "for and against" money when you don't even fully understand the result or even the underlying mechanism of the system too clearly?

    It is all useless, posturing, polemic. We limeys have a phrase - Nice work if you can get it.

  6. Anti-GMO, anti-nano-technology, anti-vivisection, anti-vaccination, anti-nuke are all positions that are supported by the green left. Are we then to assume that the green left is ant-science and the right is pro-science.

    To say that the left trusts science and that the right distrusts or vice versa is to me just foolish. It defies all evidence.

    People are political.
    Scientists are people
    Scientists are political - according to Aristotle anyway

  7. One benefit of the politicizing of science is that it caused smart people outside the field to look closely at what was going on behind the curtain. That has been harmful to the short run reputation of science, but helpful to the long run competence of science.

  8. There is so much talk about scientists but wasn't it an engineer (with help from an economist) who exposed the shoddy basis of the hockey stick graph? After all climate scientist are proposing some pretty far fetched engineeing solutions.
    I liked Mr. Harbinson's comments about chemists vs. physicists and biologists and their political tendencies. I would take that one step further and ask who would these practicing scientiest in these disciplines be most likely to work for? A higher proportion of chemists are likely to work in private industry while physicists and biologites are more likely to work for government or academia. So are politics and ideology in the scientists simply tied to the source of one's income?

  9. Looking at the AAAS members by discipline shown in table 4.3. Social and Behavioral Sciences are the most liberal at 65%. They are even more ideological than Mormons. Earth Sciences liberals come in second at 59%. About as ideological as Mormons.

  10. I think Sean makes a good point about looking where scientists work. Bob K points out that AAAS earth scientists are very liberal. I suspect that if you looked at the membership of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which probably represents more people, you'd get a considerably different result.

  11. I accept that scientists like other academics are all liberal Democrats. This will not change as long as they are living off of the Federal teat. My solution would be to cut off their funding.

  12. The problem with AAAS and other large associations is that when the organization is big enough and old enough, the goals of the organization start to diverge from the goals of the members. The AAAS isn't the American Association for the Advancement of Science, so much as the American Association for the Advancement of the AAAS.

  13. I would like to see data for other industrialized countries. This seems to me an American-centric issue. There is no similar feeling of political partisanship in most European countries I am familiar with, for example. Then again, there is also no major European party that embraces anti-scientific ideologies such as creationism either.

  14. Roger,
    I think that the Nisbet report missed the point entirely.
    This is a better summary of the problem the AGW promotion industry is facing:
    Here is a nice part:
    "The public's concern about global warming as a pressing problem is in marked decline not least because of the growing realisation that governments and the international community are ignoring the advice of climate campaigners. Instead, most policy makers around the world refuse to accept any decisions that are likely to harm national interests and economic competitiveness.

    They are assisted in this policy of benign neglect by a public that has largely become habituated to false alarms and is happy to ignore other claims of environmental catastrophe that are today widely disregarded or seen as scare tactics."
    Nisbet's intricate mechanisms resolutely avoid facing this reality, and in doing so is left with little meaning.

  15. As Tetlock has documented, expert predictions are worthless. Any mature member of the general public who has been paying attention or who has the benefit of learning a bit of history understands this. The only rational approach the public can take when faced, yet again, with extraordinary claims of a coming apocalypse is to yawn and shake its collective head. History repeats itself as farce.

    So how do the alarmists react when society responds rationally? Instead of recognizing that extraordinary claims of gloom and doom require extraordinary levels of evidence and proof, they have a temper tantrum and blame everyone but themselves. They double down on their fallacious argument from authority, and thus confirm that they aren't bright enough to be credible.

  16. Some thoughts.

    Do the ideological perspective and partisanship affect the science the scientists do? If they don't, then it doesn't really matter if the scientists are more liberal/ democrat than the general public.

    Nisbet's report states that "ideology also guides the political interpretations of scientists and environmentalist." By political interpretations, I take Nisbet to mean "the scientists' interpretations of the kind of political interventions required based on the scientific consensus." I believe Nisbet has carefully skirted any argument on the influence of ideology and partisanship on scientific interpretations.

    Or is there no difference between scientific interpretations and political interpretations?