Thanks to the President’s appearance on Mythbuster’s, Slate’s Daniel Sarewitz looked into a year and a half old survey from the Pew Research Center on the public’s perceptions of science and scientists and social perceptions of the science community. The survey spends a few pages dissecting the general politics of scientists and finds (SHOCKING… wait for it) that a meager 6% of those surveyed identify as republicans. The majority identify as democrats (55%) and the rest independents (32%). For Sarewitz, this is a problem. I would also postulate that if this story gains more traction, some conservative commentators will have more fuel for conspiracy theories that science is biased against “main street America.”
Plenty of commenters and others have pointed out the obvious – it’s pretty difficult to reconcile conservative ideologies, which have been openly hostile to science for more than a decade – with science. For example:
- The right wing’s penchant for picking fights over whether or not evolution exists. According to the Pew survey, 97% of scientists believe humans evolved over time, whereas 39% of the public surveyed who identified as republicans believe life always existed in its present form.
- Republicans have spent years attempting to discredit global warming. 94% of scientists believe the Earth is warming and 70% believe that’s a serious problem.
- While some notable republicans have been in favor of stem cell research, 93% of scientists are in favor of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.
- Finally, as Kevin Drum from Mother Jones points out – republicans generally gravitate towards the business world. It’s not often we see a room of scientists sucking down cocktails at an expensive lunch or regularly crashing in 5 star hotels to sleep off a hectic business dinner. In fact, just 4% of scientists in the survey said that a “financially rewarding career” was very important in their choice to pursue a scientific field.
Sarewitz calls on leaders of the scientific community to look into the overall red/blue disparity because it’s just not fair to have a field filled with people who don’t give enough weight to ideologies that disagree with scientific fact. He cites the climate change debate as one example and believes that finding more republican scientists would foster “more informed, creative, and challenging debates about the policy implications of scientific knowledge.”
Sarewitz misses a few variables in his argument and though I’m no scientist, I suspect they may be important. He barely notes the 32% surveyed who identify as independent. Such a high number of independents in both categories (34% of the public surveyed identified as independent) suggests that highly partisan politics, which often become very emotional and hyperbolic, might not be welcomed with open arms in the realm of science. While informed and challenging debates should certainly have components that contain emotion and consider morality and ethics, should rigid dogmatism have a place? It’s no secret that politians, especially those with close ties to industry and business, have often attempted to use, influence or skew scientific results and studies for financial and political profit. Somehow finding a way to entice scientists to stress a party affiliation would invite more of that behavior. Finally, how many of those surveyed prescribed one ideology but later switched affiliations later in their careers?
Adhering to a rigid partisan political ideology when actively researching, experimenting or otherwise conducing the business of science should be viewed with skepticism. Card checking party affiliation could damage a field that should be, at its core, an objective measure of facts.