Exposing Scientist Liberality

A recent survey shows that the US public incorrectly assumes scientists are like them politically:

Public Not Know Scientists Liberal

If the public knew the truth, I expect two effects:

  1. The public would consider scientists to be less authoritative as a neutral source on policy questions, and
  2. Since scientists are respected, the public would become less conservative and more liberal.

Which of these effects would dominate?  Well since scientists tend to endorse liberal policies, the first effect should reduce support for liberal policies while the second should increase it.   So who seems more eager to inform the public about scientist liberality?  If liberals, that suggests the second effect is expected to dominate.  If conservatives, the first effect dominates.   My casual observation is that conservatives are more eager to speak up on this, suggesting the first effect dominates.   So over time I expect the truth will get out, science will lose authority, and scientist support will help liberals less.

Some other results from the survey:

The public has a far less positive view of the global standing of U.S. science than do scientists themselves. Just 17% of the public thinks that U.S. scientific achievements rate as the best in the world.  A survey of more than 2,500 scientists … finds that nearly half (49%) rate U.S. scientific achievements as the best in the world. … Fewer Americans volunteer scientific advances as one of the country’s most important achievements than did so a decade ago (27% today, 47% in May 1999). … Most scientists (55%) mention a biomedical or health finding when asked about the nation’s greatest scientific achievement of the last 20 years. …

Scientists are far less critical than the general public of government performance. Just 40% of scientists agree that “when something is run by the government, it is usually inefficient and wasteful”; a majority of the public (57%) agrees with this statement.  Scientists are, however, more critical of business; they are roughly half as likely as the public to say that “business corporations generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest” (20% of scientists vs. 37% of public).

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  • Given the incentives scientists face, (Government largest source of funding and education with political goals) it is to be expected that liberals would be overrepresented. Sad to see no representation of libertarians but then again, I doubt many libertarians learnt about it at school (again, is this a surprise given schooling and curriculum decided by governments).
    It’s a bit like being surprised that there are no atheists in the clergy.

  • Felix

    What percent of scientists are employed directly or indirectly (funded) by the government?

    I wonder whether “liberal” and “conservative” are tangled with which side the bread is buttered.

    And, I wonder who the public thinks pays for science.

    • Mike

      I can’t help but think this effect, mentioned in the post above, too, is small. Here’s my thinking:

      Scientists form an excellent advocacy group, because of the esteem the public has for them. Whether this is smart or right or not, it means something to many people if a bunch of Nobel Laureates back it. Meanwhile, basic science funding is very small next to the total size of the federal budget. If scientists could be *bought* by a party’s simply supporting more science funding, it would be very stupid for Republicans to resist. For a few billions dollars you could split a major advocacy.

      I think the reality is, scientists tend to be liberal because US conservatism is abominable to the the scientific mindset. At least in the US, conservatism is outwardly very “fetishist” — it is beholden to traditional ideology that is considered beyond question. For instance, conservatives are more likely to believe that the US constitution should be interpreted and applied only as the original framers would have intended, or strictly literally. This “elevates” the Constitution as if it were infallible (I do not mean to suggest there aren’t other, logical and legal reasons, why one would take this position). Similarly, US conservatives trump “free markets” as if this is some absolute notion handed down from above — at least outwardly it seems they take as a matter of principle that a less regulated market is better. Conservative politicians align themselves with religious interests — religion is perhaps the prime example of beholding people to tradition. And US conservatives advocate traditional values as good simply because they are traditional (they might invoke religion here, but it’s the same).

      This approach is the antithesis of science, which seeks to question inherited “wisdom” and constantly seeks better explanations and better understanding. As a scientist, I ask “why are free markets better?” It seems obvious to me less regulated markets are not always better, because the extreme is no regulation, in which case I don’t think there’s any meaning at all to the notion of “market.” “Why should I value traditional morals?” “Why should I believe a particular religion?” “Why should I take the letter of the law, instead of trying to intelligently apply the principles and themes uniquely to unique situations?” Etc.

      I don’t mean to imply the answers to these questions make one a liberal. In many cases, less regulation could very well be better. But at least in some cases, more regulation would be better. I think what happens is scientists do not want to be associated with the ideological mindset — in some sense association with that mindset is worse to them than tacitly supporting some specific policy that might not in fact be beneficial to them or their other values.

      • Thomas

        Ah, that’s it: scientists are liberal for the same reason that so many others are: because of ignorance.

        The bit on constitutional interpretation is one of the funniest bits I’ve read today. Not realizing that constitutional law is “fetishist” (as is law more generally!) is just the beginning of your mistakes.

      • Douglas Knight

        If scientists could be *bought* by a party’s simply supporting more science funding, it would be very stupid for Republicans to resist.

        Both parties nominally support large increases in the science budget. Both houses pass large increases, which die in the reconciliation committee. Local pork is important because credit for it is excludable.

      • Peter Twieg

        At least in the US, conservatism is outwardly very “fetishist” — it is beholden to traditional ideology that is considered beyond question.

        Do scientists believe that this is a necessary condition of being a “conservative”, broadly defined? If so, they’re expressing some combination of nativity and ignorance.

        If not, they’re either being disingenuous (by acting as if this necessary association exists even if they’re not willing to defend it explicitly) or illogical (since I don’t think whether one wears a political label should be contingent upon liking everyone else who does.)

        It’s possible that Republicans might be more “fundamentalist” as a statistical fact, but that hardly means that the “conservative” positions are embedded in anti-scientific viewpoints. One could find many analogous “axioms” on the Left: That public officials are near-omniscient, that persistent demographic inequalities are the result of latent bigotries, that inaction against whatever hypothetical demographic or environmental disasters will lead to the end of human civilization as we know it, etc.

      • Mike

        Perhaps my statements required greater background. I have been influenced by Robin’s previous arguments that, at least for some people to some degree, political affiliation is used to signal values. So, I presume, at least for some academics, political affiliation is about what type of positions/arguments/people they want to be affiliated with.

        From this standpoint, it doesn’t matter what policies are “better” or what is the deepest level of analysis behind a political platform, what matters is what appears on the surface. I suppose for instance that some people who would be wholly better off by the full set of conservative policies might identify with liberal simply because they see conservatives as “anti-gay” and don’t want to associate or affiliate with bigots. I’m not saying this is a smart thing or a correct thing to do, just that I suspect it happens. I think, on the surface, “conservatism” appears to be more “ideological,” which I suspect similarly turns off some scientists.

        Thomas says I don’t realize constitutional law is “fetishist.” But I said it is. There are degrees here, and I suspect what conservatives refer to as an “activist” judge is one who applies legal principles that are less “fetishist” than others’. But this is probably a bad example, because “judicial activism” is a term applied to both sides.

        I hope my first comments satisfy Peter Twieg. I don’t pretend to know the motives of all scientists; I am merely making a speculation as to what might tip the scales for some. Also I agree that liberals have their own “fetishes” or “ideologies” (like for instance a foreign terror suspect should be given the same rights as a US citizen) — but at least from my perspective these are less central than questions of economics / domestic civil liberties/rights.

        In a lower post Constant thinks I claim support of markets is somehow non-scientific. I did not mean to suggest this. It is one thing to use analysis to say certain forms of market are better than others. It is another to say “we need less regulation” in response to *every* question (my impression of conservatives in the popular media is they do this — and as I said above I think the surface impression is important, even if its misrepresentative — at the same time I don’t think liberals say “we need more regulation” in response to *every* question, but maybe this reflects my partisanship).

        In fact, to be honest, I don’t quite understand what is really meant by “free market.” Does this mean no patent law and no copyright law? No bankruptcy law? No truth in advertising law? What about laws granting rights to corporations — limiting liability of investors? Since I don’t know what a “free market” is, any argumentation that relies on what seems to me to be a vague abstraction being without question the ideal seems to me rather unscientific. Now I presume one can define some notion of “market” for mathematical analysis, but I understand that “agents” in this abstraction are unrealistic. Furthermore, I presume our set of market rules is far from that of this abstraction. So it seems unscientific to me to assume *without analysis* that removing one piece of regulation or foregoing another is better, because “free markets are more efficient.” It seems the scientific approach is to be open to the possibility that, contingent on all the other rules we have, such options might or might not be better, thus warranting analysis/debate.

  • Requia

    Conservative politics has heavily demonized science, thats going to discourage scientists from wanting to associate with them regardless of whether most of their views are conservative. (possibly encourage them to change their views as well?)

    • Constant

      How have conservatives demonized science? Not the stem cell stuff, since that’s an ethical issue and liberals have plenty of their own ethical issues. There is even a store, called the Body Shop, which caters to liberals uncomfortable with the use of animals to test cosmetics. Maybe you mean creationism? I’ll grant you that, but liberals have their own problems with things Darwin said about the human races.

      Of course, with science so utterly dominated by liberals, liberal scientists are able to suppress and spin science in a way that liberals are more comfortable with.

      • Mike

        I think it’s not so much that conservatives “demonize” science, so much as they (at least outwardly) operate under a mindset that is very non-scientific (see my post above). I think this mindset is so abhorrent to scientists that they dare not be associated with it. Thus, even if a scientists prefers conservative policies and votes Republican, I would guess he or she is more likely to call him/herself a “moderate” rather than a conservative. And I suspect this is why the “neither” fraction is so high (42%!!! — what fraction of the general public calls itself neither liberal nor conservative?).

      • Mike

        I looked at the study and it turns out part of my hypothesis is wrong. When you look at actual party affiliation, 32% of scientists call themselves independent, while a slightly larger fraction (34%) of the public does.

      • Constant

        Mike, your characterization of conservatives is entirely partisan. For example one could just as easily characterize liberals as having religious faith in government as god. Economists -scientists- have been arguing for free markets since Adam Smith, and before.. Not all of them, true, but enough that it is plainly absurd to characterize advocacy of markets as anti-scientific. Marxists, at one time the main anti-market economists, fancied they were scientific, but it was either failed science or pseudoscience, depending on whether they admitted Marx was wrong or clung to his theories as to religious documents.

      • Peter Twieg

        I’ve always been fond of the aphorism stating that convservatives reject evolution but accept its implications, while liberals accept evolution but reject its implications. Look at left-wing attitudes towards evolutionary psychology and sociobiology if you want to see very clear examples of political faith trumping empirical evidence.

      • Requia

        The liberals bitch about nuclear power and the fringe elements complain about animal testing.

        Conservatives attack medicine (not just stem cells, fringe elements attack organ transplant, and mainstream conservatives went nuts over the brain death thing a few years back), sociology, evolution, climate change, economics (free market means something completely different to a conservative than an economist), genetics, geology, chemistry and physics.

        Fringe elements of the neocons like to attack scientific method itself, saying theres no way science can make *any* predictions.

        What exactly are you claiming Darwin said that liberals have a problem with? The Darwin was racist thing? Cause that has no basis in history.

      • Requia

        I forgot to mention liberal attacks on modern agriculture, which tend to attack *all* modern techniques instead of focusing on specific issues (IE, genetically engineered tomatos lack nutrition therefore all GE foods are bad).

      • Constant

        What exactly are you claiming Darwin said that liberals have a problem with?

        Have fun sanitizing the following statements for liberal consumption.

        There is, however, no doubt that the various races, when carefully compared and measured, differ much from each other,–as in the texture of the hair, the relative proportions of all parts of the body …, the capacity of the lungs, the form and capacity of the skull, and even in the convolutions of the brain. … But it would be an endless task to specify the numerous points of difference. The races differ also in constitution, in acclimatisation and in liability to certain diseases. Their mental characteristics are likewise very distinct; chiefly as it would appear in their emotional, but partly in their intellectual faculties. Every one who has had the opportunity of comparison, must have been struck with the contrast between the taciturn, even morose, aborigines of S. America and the light-hearted, talkative negroes.

      • Requia

        OMG different people act differently its the end of the world!

        I suppose some of the ultra liberal types that think saying ‘black people do better at sports’ is racist would have issues wit that though.

      • Constant

        free market means something completely different to a conservative than an economist

        No, not really. Friedman, Hayek, Buchanan, and several other actual economists, pretty much define the conservative view of economics.

      • Greg

        Did scientists start out as liberals and simply apply their bias to their work? Or did the work they do, the exploration of the world as it is, lead them to more liberal definitions of “truth”?

        I think it is the latter. As Stephen Colbert says “Facts seem to have a liberal bias”

        If you look at almost any scientific issue today, its the conservatives who are mounting challenges to established scientific thought. They are simply sitting back and saying “Nuh Uh” They are looking at the work done and denying rather than doing the work themselves, they are intellectually LAZY as a rule.

        Science is far from perfect but I have much more respect for the humility that is built into the scientific method than the arrogance with which most conservatives look at the world. How can any thinking man buy into any of the modern American conservative movements poor excuse for a well reasoned, well thought out platform?

    • Dan

      Constant, I think your attitude amply illustrates while only 2%(!!) of scientists see themselves as “conservative”. I especially like the last paragraph. 🙂

      • Constant

        Dan, there is no attitude here, only reasonable inference. The same applies to, for example, the mainstream media, where the journalists are mostly liberals. Why would what us so obviously true of the media not also be true of science?

  • Neil

    If the public knew the truth, I expect two effects:

    1. The public would consider scientists to be less authoritative as a neutral source on policy questions, and
    2. Since scientists are respected, the public would become less conservative and more liberal.

    Why would the authoritativeness of scientists rest on policy neutrality? If scientists observed strict policy neutrality it would mean they were altering or concealing conclusions to suit the “neutrality” requirement rather than letting the cards of science fall where they may. Their authority lies in their willingness to step on toes if that’s where science leads them.

    • kvn

      The assumption is that scientists are liberal due to a selection effect, not because science recommends liberal policies.

      Conservatives are over represented in managerial work and small-business ownership, liberals are over-represented in journalism, academia, and apparently science. I suspect a big part of this is that different personality types are drawn to different ways of status seeking, and, thus different career paths

      Many programmers and engineers I know are libertarians.

      • Peter Twieg

        I’ve always wanted to see an (attempt at an) explanation of why programmers/engineers lean libertarian. I think it would be pretty interesting.

      • Chris

        I would like to see a study that shows that they actually do.

    • Chris

      This is a common misperception among partisans that has to do with their primary identification being with their party vs with their country, their vocation etc… If your primary identification is as a partisan, then it will inform / override inputs from inferior identifications. I.E. More important to block health care reform to gain a political win because it is good for my party even though it is bad for my country.

      It is a form of bias to assume that because one subsumes all other considerations to partisanship, that all do the same.

  • Mike


    I would guess that the public thinks scientists are more religious than scientists really are. And, perhaps like the political question, I would think that if the public knew this, it would cause them to more question scientific input on ethical questions or questions of natural history, than it would cause them to question their religious beliefs.

    I don’t think it should surprise that scientists have a different view of govt performance than the general public. Scientists are to great extent funded by govt granting agencies and by public universities, both of which are very well-functioning arms of govt. If you primed members of the public by telling them about the quality of US science and academia, and then reminding them that these efforts are supported to large extent by govt, then I expect you’d find an increase in approval for govt on a subsequent poll. Similarly if you showed scientists films about idle road construction, military pork, and farm subsidies etc, and then polled them, I expect you’d get a dip in approval of govt performance.

    • Chris

      I think the scientists are more evidence driven than funding bias driven.

      I also think that it is a biased view to assume that scientists are more or less ethical or moral than religious people, but agree that the pattern of religious thinking is to reshape the evidence considered to support pre-formed conclusion rather than critically examine logical gaps in religious dogma.

      • Constant

        I think the scientists are more evidence driven than funding bias driven.

        But if the evidence is politically neutral or mixed (as I think it is), then the funding bias, however slight with respect to evidence, can still have a much greater bearing on a scientist’s political views than the evidence. For example if you are a climate scientist, then you study climate, not government, so the evidence that you know intimately does not include evidence about whether big government is good. Not having any evidence, you are free to be fully swayed by other factors, such as knowing who is financially supporting your research.

  • Cognitive Miser

    It looks like Pew Research has an interesting definition of the word “Scientist”. Apparently it consists of anyone, regardless of their credentials, who’s willing to fork over the $146 necessary to join the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a liberal organization.

    • Chris

      whereas the definition of liberal organization is one that includes scientists?

    • Dan

      Well scientific inquiry and the advancement of it is a enlightenment and liberal view, no surprises here.

  • Floccina

    1. If the globe cools I think that scientists will take a big hit as they did when world population growth failed to destroy humanity as Paul Erlich and many other scientists predicted.
    2. Since so much science is funded by government wouldn’t we expect scientists to be biased to be more pro government?

    • Chris

      1) If climate change destroys the humanity, then both are correct eh?

      2) If we expected that, we would call it a hypothesis, design/execute/document tests that prove/disprove it, then submit the results for peer review to rule out bias.

      • Jayson Virissimo

        Peer review rules out bias? You haven’t been reading the psychology journals.

      • Dan

        But isn’t the psychology journals also biased then… 🙂 . I agree with Dawkins that the post-modern view is totally bunk when it comes to science, there is objective truth and scientific facts. Yes there is always bias, but peer review seems to have even identified it in peer review. So yes it seems similar to noise in a communications channel, but yet I think it is possible to minimize that noise and extract the objective fact and truths…

  • An academic scientist has dedicated years of his life to the study of nature, often forgoing a more lucrative career in the private sector, and frequently collaborating with colleagues from around the world. This suggests that scientists would be likely to
    a.) be long-term thinkers
    b.) have a sympathy for preserving the natural world, especially the particular subject of their research
    c.) be inclined not to value financial ambition very highly
    d.) not be very nationalistic; inclined to identify as closely with foreigners as with Americans

    These are personal sympathies, or cognitive biases, that I think would make scientists favor different public policies than the average U.S. citizen. (They’re also biases that would make scientists tend, on balance, to favor climate change legislation.)

    • Sam

      As a scientist and a liberal this answer rings the truest to me.

      • Calvin Ball

        It’s also rather vain.

      • Sam

        Not sure how those 4 sympathies relate to vanity, but if so then color me vain.

  • kendall

    …we seem to be discussing “facts” not in evidence. We don’t KNOW the overall political leanings of scientists, nor public perceptions of them… from this survey.

    Details of the alleged ‘scientific’ survey are not openly available {link dead-ends at walled site}

    If the full methodology of referenced “survey” were openly available, I guarantee its Response-Rate and other factors would not meet even minimum probability-sampling requirements. The “survey” is just a guess.

    If anyone can find the official Response-Rate on the survey… please post it here.

    • Douglas Knight
  • Doug S.

    Reality has a well-known liberal bias.

  • Granite26

    Is there historical tracking of this data? The Vietnam War was about 40 years ago, meaning that most(or at least a statistically significant number of) ‘Scientists’ today were in college during it.

    So far as I know, there’s a statistically significant number of students who went and stayed in college in order to avoid the draft due to political concerns.

    I’d also like to see those numbers divided up between hard sciences and soft sciences. I suspect that belief in the efficacy of socialogy and it’s ilk is highly correlated with a liberal (pro-state) outlook.

  • Yvain

    “Which of these effects would dominate? Well since scientists tend to endorse liberal policies, the first effect should reduce support for liberal policies while the second should increase it. So who seems more eager to inform the public about scientist liberality? If liberals, that suggests the second effect is expected to dominate. If conservatives, the first effect dominates. My casual observation is that conservatives are more eager to speak up on this, suggesting the first effect dominates. So over time I expect the truth will get out, science will lose authority, and scientist support will help liberals less.”

    Is this true? Both have an incentive to inform the public about scientists’ views, but conservatives have an incentive to frame it as “Scientists have a liberal bias”, and liberals have an incentive to frame it as “Scientists, who are probably objective, have confirmed our beliefs.”

    So conservatives talk about scientists’ liberal bias, and liberals talk about how scientists agree that global warming exists and is man-made. I’ve seen both.

    • Chris

      I think it is interesting that the word liberal is used so liberally (forgive) and means so little within the framework of their arguments.

      I would think the scientists on the thread would start by asking for the definition each person is using since it seems to vary between ‘Anything that doesn’t agree with my beliefs’ to ‘Pro State’ to ‘Long term thinking’.

      It would be an interesting exercise for everyone to repost their positions without using the word at all.

  • Walt

    Professions may reflect a natural bias.
    As conservatives seem to have a stronger disgust response it shouldn’t surprise us that they dominate prosecutorial offices. Likewise scientists tend to be of an inquiring bent; perhaps this leads to self-identification as liberal.
    None of this, of course, should give weight to any particular political scheme…

  • David

    I’ve been in both worlds. In science academia, you find a lot of people that are: (a) willing to spend the rest of their youth in graduate school; (b) accepting of a ridiculously low-paying post-doc; (c) prepared for a lifetime of employment at low compensation relative to length of education; (d) familiar with a world in which “revenue” comes from writing a grant, not producing and selling, and “profit” is an irrelevant term. In the private sector, you don’t find such a concentration of these people.

    That said, isn’t there a difference between calling yourself a liberal and having some random schmo call you a liberal? From what perspective? According to Gallup 40% of the population identifies as conservative. It’s likely that if they had a particular beef with some branch of science they’d answer “liberal,” otherwise “neither.” Same with liberal respondents, who are apparently 21% of the population. I bet there’s some Bayesian fun you could have with these two polls. Wish I had time.

  • Wayne

    I think this misses the point a bit. The neural wiring that makes someone good at science (i.e. able to take many loosely connected facts, draw inferences, test those inferences experiementally, etc.) is inherently associated with a liberal or independent, open political mentality. Same with journalists: “draw inferences based on facts you’ve gathered, then write about it.” is a task best suited to someone who is open to questioning the authority of facts.

    Science and Journalism carrers are made up very free-flowing, open-ended types of tasks, and the rigid, conservative mind which is mostly dependent on received knowledge just doesn’t do well. I think it has very little to do with the source of funding. For example, my research is currently funded by a private cancer foundation, thought the rest of our lab is heavily reliant on the NIH.

    • Robert Koslover

      Dear Wayne:

      You are insulting conservatives. And sadly: (1) you don’t even realize it, and (2) you have a lot of company among left-leaning academics. Just take a look at your own words. They are strongly reminiscent of those used in the past to justify black slavery, not letting blacks vote, etc. If you appled your words about conservatives to blacks, while simultaneously applying your words about liberals to whites, you would be rightfully called a racist. Right?

  • Scott

    Of course scientists tend to be liberal- this isn’t a revelation! When your career is referred to as “pork” by Republicans (who are considered conservative for some reason), it is easy to feel slighted. If everyone thought science was pork, scientists would be left trying to discover bald-cures or convincing the public that cigarettes are perfectly safe. When a scientist hears conservatives illustrate their viewpoint that “If something was worth doing, a private corporation would do it for profit, right?”, it makes it tough to feel conservative as a scientist.

  • James P

    Then again Big Govt and their liberal scientist sympathizers got us to the moon.

    • Chris

      …and Tang!

  • David

    Wayne, I’m no liberal, but I’d definitely questioning the authority of your “facts.”

  • TGGP

    Half Sigma objects to the poll here. Razib provides data on the political leanings of academics by subject matter here. Razib’s numbers seem to support HS’ contention: in no “hard science” field are the percentages of conservatives as low as in this poll. It is however the case that scientists lean liberal to a greater extent than the public believes.

    • Chris

      It is the suggested case.

  • Peter Forrester

    Given that universities are little nanny states, these data aren’t surprising.

  • Dave

    That poll is basically meaningless to me, as it doesn’t distinguish between economic and social ideologies.

  • HC

    Who thinks scientists are smarter? How do you define “smart?” When I think of scientists I think more of Rain Man smart than Steve Jobs smart. I think of scientist as savants with high raw intelligence but low emotional intelligence- more like a social misfit or hermit who understands one specific subject matter very well but is clueless in others. Steve Jobs, on the other hand, is more of a generalist who understands a lot about many things without being an expert in anything.

    • TGGP

      We can determine if scientists are smarter by giving them IQ tests. There is a single underlying general intelligence or g-factor found in all IQ tests with the most g-loaded tests correlating the most with others and being the most reliable. Attempts to devise tests that do not have the g-factor have come to nothing and there is no factor analysis supporting theories of multiple intelligence (whereas there is in the case of personality) or reason to refer to other traits as “intelligence”.

  • anon

    Capitalists and engineers are also hard math people, it’s just they didn’t get sucked into altruistic academic careers.

    This is why liberals find it so necessary to suppress scientific opinions from anyone not attached to an academy. If they can define scientists by criteria that include a highly self selected group of liberals (academics), then they can create a narrative where intelligence = liberal.

    Needless to say, the rise of the engineers through the internet has made this a bit harder…

  • Peter

    I don’t know about all this “liberals are all free-flowing thinkers and conservatives are sticks in the mud” stuff — but there are a few GOP issues and attitudes that _are_ pretty anathematic to most scientists:

    1. Intelligent design — this is a real non-starter for 99.9% of scientists. A lot of republicans lost a lot of credibility w/ a lot of scientists by backing this one.

    2. Climate change — yes, it’s still debated, and of course there’s uncertainty, but the IPCC has a lot of scientific credibility, and parsimony (every good scientist’s best friend) suggests we should act on best evidence, not political expediency (note, plenty of democrats are guilty of the latter, but good scientists are not). As a left-leaning moderate scientist, I often (but not always) go w/ democrats as the lesser of two evils. I almost never believe that when the party is pursuing goals I support they are doing it out of a pure and Olympian respect for knowledge. But motivation is less important in politics than outcome.

    3. Also, there are plenty of conservative intellectuals, but the GOP has recently been big on decrying “elites” and “intellectuals” and “ivory towers.” Amusingly, this clarion call to ignorance often comes from the conservative media elite (who are certainly no intellectual slouches). This is likely a cynical move to try and monopolize middle America, but it’s not going to appeal to a group of people who have devoted their lives to knowledge seeking, seldom in the name of profit.

    I’m all for scientists seeking meaningful, real-world applications for their knowledge-base (as opposed to just twiddling their thumbs in their ivory arm chairs, as the popular GOP narrative of late would have it), but you’re not going to build up that knowledge base plumbing or what-have-you. Please note I’ve got nothing against plumbers — we’d be in sorry shape w/out them. But we’d be in sorry shape w/out scientists too, and it’s a different skill-set.

    • Constant

      These are recent controversies. I do not recall either creationism or climate change being even remotely important in the mid-eighties. Since we are not mayflies I think that if scientists are generally liberal today then they were probably generally liberal in the mid-eighties. So I do not believe that either of these recent controversies were key. The academy has been left-leaning for decades.

      In fact, I think these are excuses. Liberals like to play up the idiocies of the right, but the left has plenty of idiocies to play up as well. Recall the following two well-known sayings:

      The man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at forty he has no head.


      A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.

      Both of which play off the greater realism of conservatives, who are contrasted with liberals, who are blinded by idealism. See also Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, which explains this in detail.

      • TGGP

        What evidence well-known sayings? It would be better to provide evidence as to what extent people move to the right with age or after experiences of the “mugging” type.

      • Constant

        TGGP – My point was that the left has plenty of idiocies. Granted, I hardly argued to defend this claim. The full argument for this point doesn’t fit in a comment. The argument occupies a large chunk of the blogosphere, and more is added to it every day.

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  • “So, I presume, at least for some academics, political affiliation is about what type of positions/arguments/people they want to be affiliated with.”

    I think you’re right. The scientists I work with seem to dislike Republicans primarily because of the anti-science positions/statements and social intolerance of so many prominent Republicans.

    So, they avoid talking with or listening to Republicans (and people who sound like Republicans) in general and thus seem to have not been exposed to much conservative or libertarian thought on any issue.

  • It looks to me that there are some weird things with this poll. Having members of AAAS represent science kind of reminds me of the 1936 presidential poll that thought subscribers to the Literary Digest represented the public (leading to a forecast of victory by Alf Landon).

    I have known and continue to know many scientists, and way more than 2% of them are definitely conservative, although of course I could be suffering from small sample bias with my observations being strictly anecdotal, as they say. But, one thing that makes me even more suspicious is the supposed finding that only 88% of “scientists” seem to believe in evolution. Does this mean that there are 10% of scientists who are “not liberal” but also do not believe in the theory of evolution? Sorry, but this does not begin remotely to compute.

    • Granite26

      It could be that Liberal ‘scientists’ (After looking up the organization in question, I find the label ‘scientist’ to be laughable) are more comfortable self-identifying as liberal than they are conservative.

    • I miswrote here. It is 98% of scientists who are supposedly “non-conservative.” So, supposedly we have 10% of scientists who are either moderate or liberal who somehow do not believe in the theory of evolution. I find this hard to believe, almost as hard to believe that only 2% are conservative, as way more than that whom I know are conservative.

  • Mark

    There seems to be some big idea here that everything scientists do is somehow linked to large public policy issues, like climate change and the ethics of human embryonic stem cell research.

    News flash – most scientists work on things with little direct public policy implications. Like, what mutations are found in this sort of cancer? Is it receptor type X or Y that mediates this signalling under these conditions?

    Or maybe all of you think that there is a “Conservative” answer to how drug X affects a cell vs the “Liberal” answer?

  • 8

    I find it ironic that there are such biased comments about conservatives and scientists on a blog called Overcoming Bias.

    Any reason why scientists chose evolution and climate change as the two theories that define whether you are pro- or anti-science? Why not string theory or dark matter?

    • Dan

      No reason, if you accept evolution but rejects Newton law of gravity, that is still evidence of an anti-scientific mindset…

      When it comes to evolution and AGW, it is a very easy tell, as these issues have been subject to enormous propaganda and religious indoctrination, if you can evaluate everything (including the propaganda) and only sift out the facts, that can be a good indicator of a scientific mindset.

      If String Theory and Dark Matter were proven (or disproven) and you rejected the conclusion regardless it will be the same…

      It is best to take obvious (and maybe not so obvious, but with allot of evidence that requires some thinking) stuff if you want to gauge such issues.

  • tonyf

    Constant , July 28, 2009 at 11:37 am: “Mike, your characterization of conservatives is entirely partisan. For example one could just as easily characterize liberals as having religious faith in government as god. Economists -scientists- have been arguing for free markets since Adam Smith, and before…”
    Note that Adam Smith is generally considered the founding father of liberalism.

    • David

      Tony, Smith’s brand of liberalism is what we now call “classical liberalism.” It’s different.

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  • Stephen

    There is something of a fallicy in the poll,s distribution of political leanings when it comes to scientists.

    When one looks at the personal characterists of most scientists, their pursuit of sociatal ideals is a traditional view of western intellectual tradition. Scientists tend to dress more conservatively; drive more cautiously; avoid the vices; get appropriate sleep on a regular basis; marry and raise a family; make sure their kids do homework and engage in extra-curricular activities; maintain and grow financial resources; pay morgages; maintain proper insurance; maintain an even-keel temperment; maintain quality interpersonal relationships and so on.

    The above are all qualities followed by George Washington down to Al Gore (evidenced by one of his daughters taking time-off from her second year in medical school to help with her father’s campaign.) All those characterists are traditional; and generally shared by judges, doctors, lawyers, business leaders and so many others.

    If similar studies of scientists were done throughout our nation’s history, one would likely see that the viewpoints of scientists of yesturday were probably more conservative. The scientists of today, generally work in academic environments and simply adapt the prevelence of their work environment. It’s called, getting along.

    One can acqually create pie-charts which demonstrate that the vast majority of those in poweful positions to be in fact rather traditional to American ideals. The above chart, on the other hand, simply picks out some designer criteria to show that scientists are liberal by inclination.

  • It’s a bit like being surprised that there are no atheists in the clergy.

    Hah. Ever heard of the Church of England? They’re half de facto atheists, and some of them are only not atheists by semantic juggling.

    That aside, the degree to which scientists have been Bought, Sold and Pwned by progressivism is extreme. It’s not just funding, either – scientific minds are probably naturally inclined towards technocracy. It suits them intellectually, psychologically, educationally, historically and economically. Scientists are technocrats because technical-abstract people tend to be – technocracts.

  • Forget “conservatism,” please. It has, operationally, de facto, been Godless and thus irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God they are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    ”[Secular conservatism] is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today .one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It .is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com

    Recovering Republican


  • Richard Pointer

    Professor Hanson,

    How do you see yourself? Liberal, conservative, or other?

    I would like to see how your self evaluation matches with my evaluation of your writings.

    I will reserve exposing my position until after you respond, but I will record it prior to receiving your response.

  • Les

    If the public knew the truth, I expect two effects:

    1. The public would consider scientists to be less authoritative as a neutral source on policy questions, and

    The “conservative public” may come to view this premise and conversely if the shoe was on the other foot where there were conservative scientists…the “liberal public” may but I doubt it. Liberals would be more inclined to actually look at the data to see if it is correct.

  • jukin

    $79 billion dollars in government grant moneys to prove that the con of AGW is real just might have something to do with the falsification and bias of these scientists. I don’t know just maybe.

    • Carl Shulman

      Citation needed.

  • The liberal bent of the scientific establishment isn’t a trivial characteristic. It has legitimate implications for their work and the manner in which they interpret results.

    Stephen Jay Gould was infamous for doing so, including his disputes with Dawkins and his conspicuously erred Mismeasure of Man.

  • Roberto

    I don’t think we should be reading too much in these polls, at least no just yet, so far we don’t know the causes or consequences of scientists’ liberalism – a large portion of the result might be explained as just a fad, as the Republican party is not particularly popular at the moment, maybe exacerbated in academia by the perception that the last Republican administration has been anti-intellectual, or at the very least unwilling to fund certain scientific endeavours. But the point is, if it were a fad it would probably be only a temporary result.

  • Psychohistorian

    I would have thought the first thing out of most people’s keyboards would be criticism of the methodology. You should just ask people how they “identify,” you should ask them what their stances on issues are. Identifying as liberal or conservative is highly dependent on context and social standards. It’s not very informative to know what labels people use when they think of scientists vs. what labels scientists apply to themselves; they could both be right about their actual views!

    Not to mention asking someone to qualify everyone in a profession along a rather sharp dichotomy may not be the best way to get a precise answer.

    But never let an absence of an actual dispute get in the way of a good debate…

  • Robert Koslover

    Scientists in the academic community trend liberal. I’m not so sure that holds for scientists in industry and government contracting, however. I would also assert that academics account for the bulk of publications, hold the most positions in academic societies, and also are the most vocal in their views. But I suspect that industry scientists account for more patents. Guess why? Because in both cases, that’s what their jobs are all about! Anyway, it is also my experience that academics often consider themselves to be above their industry colleagues in status and intelligence, while considering the typically higher-pay that their industry counterparts earn to be unfair. This perception of unfairness reinforces their liberal bias that capitalism itself is unfair. Have you ever heard a professor declare himself or herself to be overpaid? When I left graduate school, I thought I was very smart and that working in industry would be easy, since all the really smart people were in academia! I was dead wrong. I’m not proud of how arrogant I was, but at least I got over it. Unfortunately, it would seem that permanent academics seldom do ever realize that they are not intrinsicially any smarter than their industry counterparts. They like to think of industry scientists, the free market, capitalism, profit, and anything they deem to be other than pure scholarly non-profit academic activities as simply uncivilized and brutish. They think academics (like themselves) should be in charge of the world, and be paid the most too, not those brutish capitalists. And this deeply skews their views of politics.

  • Todd

    Liberal? As in real liberal? As in the original, laissez-faire liberal?

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  • Chet

    The public would consider scientists to be less authoritative as a neutral source on policy questions

    Well, now, wait a minute. If everyone can accept that a scientist can be religious without compromising his scientific work, why is it untenable to expect that a scientist can be political without compromising his scientific work?

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  • navarro

    this result is unsurprising. sadly for most conservatives, reality has a well-known liberal bias. since scientists are, as a group, people who must confront reality it cannot be considered remarkable that they would tend towards views that are generally denoted by the term “liberalism.”

  • John David Galt

    There’s more than one political dimension, and there’s more than one kind of science.

    Scientists whose living depends on tax-funded grants are indeed selected to favor big government — both because they want to keep the grant-deciders happy, and because those who feel that tax funding of science is morally wrong will tend not to look for or take those jobs.

    Meanwhile, there is a strong correlation between one’s view of economics and one’s political leanings. Modern economics (the Austrian and Chicago schools) gives a better understanding of how a huge government budget drags down the entire economy than does the discredited Keynesian school, so those who understand the modern kind of econ almost always become conservatives or libertarians.

    As a corollary, I suggest that a survey of scientists broad enough to include a lot of scientists who work for private, non-tax-funded organizations will tend to find a more balanced spectrum of political views than one which concentrates on government institutions and the “university-agency complex”.

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  • Don

    I’m a conservative guy who has a degree in Research Biology. A good chunk of what the poster Mike was saying is true. Being seen as conservative in an academic environment is like being a communist during McCarthyism.

    Anyone who has been a science major in college knows that the professors actively push liberal agendas. They pressure young 18, 19 year old kids to think the same way they do. It’s basic brainwashing 101.

    Additionally, once I graduated… research failed to really appeal to me as a career because the pay and grant system seemed to not reflect the effort or effectiveness I put into my work. Instead I went into biological sales. I make 2 to 3 times more than my research peers.

    It’s funny because the top students in my class work as dentists, doctors, and in sales with me. I don’t believe the vast majority of research scientists are not the top students in college. They tend to be the people who don’t compete well and that makes jobs where you are compensated for your effort and not your results.

  • manderso

    Just read Don the dummy, shows you everything you need to know.

  • Psyclone99

    “Bias” has nothing to do with whether you are liberal or conservative; it has to do with how you assess information that might change your conclusions. Self-identifying as a liberal, or conservative, or any other “-ism,” strongly suggests bias,but reaching conclusions which are associated with one or the other does not necessarily.
    In science, we should judge a position not by whether we agree with it, but by the quality of the process. Reasonable people will reasonably disagree, and can learn from each other. People who reason from conclusions are a waste of time, and certainly not scientists, regardless of degree or job description.

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