Why the vast majority of Scientists are supporting the Democrats

OK this will hopefully be my last entry on the election -

From Seed's endorsement of Obama to the comments of various bloggers on ScienceBlogs and elsewhere it is obvious where most scientists stand on the political spectrum, but why?

Yes, it is true that most scientists I know are lefties when compared to the American political landscape. Is it that surprising that those who pursue a career in discovering deeper truths also tend to be slightly idealistic? But these statements neglect a deeper truth, this being the fundamental problem with American conservatism in 2008. In the past 30 years scientists, and other professionals, have felt alienated from the GOP. The GOP has become griped by an ideology, that of free-market fundamentalism. As in all ideologies, this core belief has been very useful for the GOP's patrons - the rich, the multi-national corporations, the energy industry, and the subcontractors and their lobbyist friends who live in the wealthiest communities in America, located in the suburbs of Washington DC.

Scientists attempt to construct models that have predictive power in the world we live in. Consolidating our ideas with reality, that is our job. We examine data, make theories, come up with innovative methods to test our models. Sometimes we fight with each other over the interpretation or the methodology, often we fight with ourselves. We are well aware that ideas that have little predictive power are hard to let go. And to be honest it is not always clear whether we should kill our pet theory. It's a struggle that we need to deal with on a day-to-day basis. From Popper to Kuhn, all of the greatest science philosophers have examined this aspect of the scientific endeavor.

But when we scientists look at the Republican party what do we see?

We see an organization that constantly fights for its main ideals, regardless of the data, regardless of the consequences. When you hold a vast supply of financial power, as the GOP's patrons have, you would always want the freedom and justification to use this power as you see fit. You construct models where the ultra-free market leads to better lives for everyone. It's the answer to all our problems, whether we talk about education, health care, energy policy etc. But the historians will always be there to tell a different story. And the scientists will be there to warn of dire consequences. In fact academics, who have fought with each other for centuries to come to a certain consensus, will be there to point out the fallacies and follies of the current policy. But instead of dialogue, war was declared on those who try to understand how the world realy works.

This war has been waged using the following tactics:

1) Attack academics.

If a professional, be it a scientist, a doctor, a lawyer or any member of the academic establishment challenge their world view, the GOP responds with propaganda, deceit and disdain. That strategy is the root cause of their cherish mantra that elites should not tell the American public how to live their lives. Don't be fooled, what that statement actually means is don't trust those professionals who have spent all their lives investigating some topic, trust us and our ideologies. Of course the US has never really had a truly free market. Of course some freedom has always had have been sacrificed for the sake of security and equality. Of course the middle class was built by the MIXED-ECONOMY pioneered by FDR's policies. But that reading of history, is an inconvenient detail for the libertarians who control the GOP's fiscal policy.

2) Have your own academics.

The conservatives have established their own class of "professionals". They are the infamous "think tanks" that are funded by the GOP's patrons and staffed by mercenaries whose sole goal is to promote the right-wing ideological agenda. If some news organization needs expert opinion, they may ask some academic from John Hopkins or "for balance" some right-wing ideologue from the Cato institute. These act to spread their ideas (this activity is also know as propaganda) and to seed doubt into existing scientific consensus.

The members of the Discovery Institute provide an illuminating example of the Think Tank phenomenon. In order to advocate for intelligent design, the right-wingers have been able to call up "scientists" from the Discovery Institute. These "scientists" never publish in any peer-reviewed journal of any importance. In fact, I, a lonely postdoc have many more high impact peer reviewed articles then the entire Institute. Yet when ever some news source wants a "balanced" assessment of some important discovery that impacts evolution, the DI has plenty of "experts" on hand willing to be interviewed in order to provide an alternative interpretation.

What scientists see in the GOP is a culture that neglects professional opinions when constructing national policy, a political operation that seeks to poison our national discourse and an unbridled self-serving ideology that has led to economic turmoil and an uncertain future.

From free-markets, to health care policy, to education, to the war in Iraq, to global warming, Scientists look at the GOP and see a commitment to an idea, right-wing ideology, despite what reality itself might be telling us. And this is why almost all scientists are voting against the GOP ticket this election cycle.

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Great post, Alex. I would encourage anyone who's interested in the GOP's tactics to check out Chris Mooney's book, "The Republican War on Science." I just read it earlier this year -- it's a very detailed expose of exactly the tactics you describe: undermining faith in actual experts while cultivating a stable of "equally valid" experts who just happen to agree with the ideological GOP line. There's also a lot of detail about the ways that the GOP Congress has undermined nonpartisan sources of scientific information, and how they have used legislation calling for "more research" to stall or prevent action on global warming. Overall a really eye-opening read.

You're obviously unaware that the Cato Institute opposes much of what the Bush Administration has done. Cato was and is completely against the war in Iraq, for example.

As for the Democrats, read up on the best theory and data on international trade (say, by reading Paul Krugman's "Pop Internationalism") and then compare it to what the Democrats propose to see if they really care about the science of economics.

You really ought to try and consolidate your theories with reality some time.

By Classical Liberal (not verified) on 03 Nov 2008 #permalink

I think it also has to do with the government funding of research. Every scientist trains in an academic lab that is funded in some part by the U.S. government, and can see the benefit of that investment. Many Republicans are all about reducing the size of government, and believe that research would make more progress if it were privatized. I think this is largely why academic research is filled with Democrats. Since I've gone to industry, I've noticed that it's a little more diverse over here--still mostly liberals, with a few conservatives sprinkled in for flavor.

"Many Republicans are all about reducing the size of government."

No. Many Republicans SAY that they are all about reducing the size of government.

Federal budget numbers say otherwise. Trust the numbers.

By George Smiley (not verified) on 03 Nov 2008 #permalink

"In fact, I, a lonely postdoc have many more high impact peer reviewed articles then the entire Institute."

This is an important point. I'm currently reading through a stack of *hundreds* of applications for a tenure-track faculty position. Every. single. applicant. in the top half of that pile has a better publication record than the entire "Discovery" Institute.

DI is, literally, at the bottom of the barrel.

By George Smiley (not verified) on 03 Nov 2008 #permalink

Classic Liberal,

Although the Cato Institute was against the war (in line with a certain subset of Libertarians) their political philosophy of limited government and outsourcing to the private sector is what brought chaos to Iraq. Iraqis who were glad but apprehensive about the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, were pissed off that the Americans couldn't make their lives better. Libertarian policies led to anarchy.

Also are Democrats so anti-free trade as you seem to suggest? Unlike the thow-shalt-not-speak-ill-of-another-conservative right, there has been much debate within the left as to how much workers and environmental protection should be included in free trade deals. But overall the Democrats have generally been pro-Keynesian and pro-free trade. And Thomas Friedman, whom you quote, may be critical on certain elements of the left, is clearly horrified by what he sees in the GOP.

The Democrats have never been hostile to academia.

The only academic institution that has held any significant sway in the GOP is the subset of economists, best exemplified by the University of Chicago. It's been very convenient for the GOP backers from the private sector to believe that all of our problems can be solved in the private sector. Now that followers of the University of Chicago's economics department are thinking twice about the wisdom of the ultra-free markets, it will be interesting to see whether the GOP adopts or simply hunkers down in their Libertarian economic ideology.


Here's the problem: Cognitive dissonance. The GOP wants to reduce government. So they destroy federal agencies by appointing cronies and outsource all these tasks. The agencies then end up spending MORE money for wasted efforts. Government IS smaller because it turns into an empty shell but IT SPENDS MORE because it doles out all this money to private contractors.

Just look at Iraq. There are more employees of subcontractors then there are American soldiers. The subcontractors perform the same work as the soldiers do for for many times the price. Instead of cooking their own meals, the army hires Halliburton. Brenner's guards? Blackwater. Government has become a hollow shell, it is smaller (fewer soldiers) but spends way more to get the same job done with zero oversight. The federal funds is a giant pool of money that has been given away to the GOP's backers. Although you can argue that this is not conservatism, it is a direct result of following the illogical and idiotic policies spouted by think tanks such as the Cato institute.

"The GOP wants to reduce government. So they destroy federal agencies by appointing cronies and outsource all these task"

The growth of the privatized quasigovernmental sphere has *not* - in general - been accompanied by a reduction in the size of federal agencies. Hell, even the NIH doubling under Clinton? Spearheaded by Gingrich and the Congress borought in by the "Contract on America." You could Sam Silverstein about this. He would confirm it. The military? Growth. DHS? The largest new federal bureaucracy in the last three decades. Entitlements? The prescription drug benefit is the largest new entitlement in over thirty years. A stupid, horribly implemented entitlement? Sure. But that was not the question. This is not to say that vast funds are not being channeled to the private sector, or that our government is getting more effective. Obviously, it has not been. Funding priorities have been horribly re-shuffled,

But it is counterfactual to say that Republican administrations have reduced the size or scope of government, overall.

By George Smiley (not verified) on 03 Nov 2008 #permalink


We're mostly on the same page. But I do believe that if the GOP had their way, there would be no Social Security or Department of Education. I would also bet that the actual number of federal employees in the typical federal agency (such as the FDA) has decreased over the last 8 years (outside of new departments such as DHS). I would also bet that a huge chunk of spending increases at the federal level has actually been the result of a massive increase in subcontracting out business to the private sector.

As for the NIH budget, we often thank Varmus for that, but in was also due to lobbying from Pharma and Biotech. Again the GOP listens to business, and it just happens that the interests of business and academia were in alignment. If Pharma and Biotech weren't around, I'm sure that the NIH would have suffered the same fate as the NSF.

Great post. Your example of "alternative academics" also extends to modern journalism. In the world of the right wing, an opposite opinion is, by definition, an equal opinion. This kind of thought masquerades as democracy, but it's an insult to the founding fathers, who prided themselves on being Men of Reason. The obvious example, of "opposite is equal" is, of course, Fox News.

When data are abundant, the notion that all ideas carry equal weight is highly non-scientific.

Glen Greenwald at Salon discussed this today in response to an editorial comment by the Washington Post ombudsman:

What if the actual facts -- i.e., "reality" -- are consistent with the views of "the hard-core left" and contrary to the views of the "hard-core right"? What if, as has plainly been the case, the conservatives' views are wrong, false, inaccurate? What if the McCain campaign was failing and relying on pure falsehoods and sleazy attacks, and The Post's coverage simply reflected that reality? It doesn't matter. In order to sell more newspapers, according to Howell, The Post's news coverage must shape itself to the Right and ensure that "their views [are] reflected enough in the news pages...
That corrupt formula is, of course, what is now meant by "journalistic balance" -- say what both sides believe and take no position about what is true -- and it is precisely that behavior which propped up this incomparably failed and deceitful presidency for so long. The establishment media bears much of the responsibility for what has happened during the last 8 years, and amazingly enough, the lesson many of them seemed to have learned is that they didn't go far enough ("we're too liberal; we need to accommodate the Right more"). If there is an Obama presidency, watch for them very quickly to re-discover the long-dormant concept of "adversarial behavior.

To paraphrase Foucault. isn't it a battle for authority? The right and the religious ask for obedience and view academics as the opposition in this war of authority?

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 04 Nov 2008 #permalink