The Science of Politics

Many have noted the odd relationship American conservatives have to science. It isn’t just anti-intellectualism. Nor is it even necessarily a broad attack against all science. It is highly selective and not consistent whatsoever. It is a reactionary attitude and so must be understood in that light.

I regularly interact with a number of conservatives. It gives me a personal sense of what it might mean.

There is a sense behind it that scientists are mere technocrats, puppets of political power. This mindset doesn’t separate science from politics. There is no appreciation that most scientists probably think little about politics while they are focused on the practical issues of doing research and writing papers. Most scientists aren’t trying to make a political argument or to change anything within or through politics. Scientists just have their small corner of expertise that they obsess over.

There is a paranoia in this mindset, typically unacknowledged. There is a suspicion that scientists somehow are an organized political elite conspiring to force their will on the public. In reality, scientists are constantly arguing and fighting with one another. The main politics most scientists are worried about is most often the politics of academia, nothing so grand as control of the government. Science involves more disagreement than anything else.

Getting all scientists to cooperate on some grand conspiracy isn’t likely to ever happen, especially as scientists work within diverse institutions and organizations, public and private, across many countries. They don’t even share a single funding source. Scientists get funding from various government agencies, from various non-profit organizations, and increasingly from corporations. All these different funding sources have different agendas and create different incentives. For example, a lot of climatology research gets funded by big oil because climatology predictions are important in working with big oil rigs out in the ocean.

There is also another even stranger aspect. I get this feeling that some conservatives consider science to almost be unAmerican. I had a conservative tell me that science should have no influence over politics whatsoever. That politics should be about a competition of ideas. a marketplace of ideas if you will, and may the best idea win or profit, as the case may be. That reality is too complex for scientists too understand and so we shouldn’t try to understand that complexity. So, trying to understand is more dangerous than simply embracing our ignorance.

This goes so far as to create its own vision of history. Many conservatives believe that the founders were a wise elite who simply knew the answers. They may have taken up science as a hobby, but it had absolutely nothing to do with their politics. The founders were smart, unlike today’s intellectual liberal elite and scientific technocrats. The founders understood that science had nothing to offer other than the development of technology for the marketplace. That is the only use science has, as a tool of capitalism.

This is a bizarre mentality. It is also historically ungrounded. The founders didn’t separate their interest in science from their interest in politics. They saw both science and politics as the sphere of ideas and experimentation. They didn’t just take someone’s word for something. If they had a question or a debate, it wasn’t unusual for them to test it out and find what would happen. They were very hands-on people. For many of them, politics was just another scientific experiment. The new American system was a hypothesis to be tested, not simply a belief system to be declared and enforced.

This view of science is widespread. This isn’t just an issue of cynical reactionaries, ignorant right-wingers, and scientifically clueless fundies. This worldview also includes middle and upper class conservatives with college education, some even in academia itself. Many of these people are intelligent and informed. Very few of them are overt conspiracy theorists and denialists. Much of what I’ve said here they would dismiss as an outlandish caricature. They are rational and they know they are rational. Their skepticism of science is perfectly sound and based on valid concerns.

When these people on the right speak of science, they are speaking of it as symbolizing something greater in their worldview. It isn’t just science they are speaking of. They fear something that is represented by science. They fear the change and uncertainty that science offers. They distrust scientists challenging their cherished views of present reality in the same way they distrust academic historians revising established historical myths about America. These intellectual elites are undermining the entire world they grew up in, everything they consider great and worthy about this country.

Conservatives aren’t wrong to fear and distrust. Indeed, their world is being threatened. Change is inevitable and no one has a clue about what the end results might be. But they should stop attacking the messenger. Scientists are simply telling us to face reality, to face the future with our eyes wide open.

* * * *

Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries:
The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment
by Tom Shachtman

Science and the Founding Fathers:
Science in the Political Thought of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison
by I. Bernard Cohen

The Invention of Air:
A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America
by Steven Johnson

 

 

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10 thoughts on “The Science of Politics

  1. Warning: this is the most I have ever disagreed with you.

    This is good liberal common sense, and like most common sense: it’s false. Like most of the Enlightenment, it’s also a myth. If one looks at contemporary science studies instead humanities books about the relationship of “science” to the “Enlightenment liberalism”–a lot of this pops like a balloon. There are three problems I have hear

    1) “Scientists are simply telling us to face reality, to face the future with our eyes wide open.”

    No, they absolutely are not. They are not unified in any such manner and that view appears to me to be the mirror image of the denialism it’s critiquing. It’s naive scientism. One) it takes one’s intention and one’s function as the same. One’s want to be a-political and one’s actual results are not related because cognitive biases in relationship to identity apply in both cases. This is not do say the denialists are right–they absolutely aren’t, but anyone who has seriously studied the sociology around science and its department function and funding and can say scientists and science can’t honestly say that science just about discovering the truth with a straight face. Science requires money, money requires funding, funding requires stake-holder results. It’s not innocent beyond even the cognitive biases.

    2) You speak of science as we have an agreed definition of what it even is.

    Any knowledge of the demarcation of what science is will tell you that all the early Enlightenment criteria and most of the early 20th explanations don’t hold. Vertificationism is impossible as the falsity of induction always applies. Falsification is undermined by the very notion of probability. Studies of the practices of science such as string-theory, evolutionary bio, etc indicate the experimental methodology actually doesn’t apply to either historical sciences or theoretical sciences. So when you are talking about science what are you talking about?

    More on this:
    http://www.lehman.edu/deanhum/philosophy/platofootnote/PlatoFootnote.org/Talks_files/demarcation%20problem.pdf

    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.mx/2013/04/whats-point-of-demarcation-projects.html

    So what evidence do I have for my cynicism involving your assertion that science is primarily self-correcting:
    http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21588057-scientists-think-science-self-correcting-alarming-degree-it-not-trouble

    “Other data-heavy disciplines face similar challenges. Models which can be “tuned” in many different ways give researchers more scope to perceive a pattern where none exists. According to some estimates, three-quarters of published scientific papers in the field of machine learning are bunk because of this “overfitting”, says Sandy Pentland, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Similar problems undid a 2010 study published in Science, a prestigious American journal (and reported in this newspaper). The paper seemed to uncover genetic variants strongly associated with longevity. Other geneticists immediately noticed that the samples taken from centenarians on which the results rested had been treated in different ways from those from a younger control group. The paper was retracted a year later, after its authors admitted to “technical errors” and “an inadequate quality-control protocol”.

    The number of retractions has grown tenfold over the past decade. But they still make up no more than 0.2% of the 1.4m papers published annually in scholarly journals. Papers with fundamental flaws often live on. Some may develop a bad reputation among those in the know, who will warn colleagues. But to outsiders they will appear part of the scientific canon.”

    In other words, the current evidence is that science is actually NOT self-correcting. At least not in a given generation. Something that would surprise few people familiar with “science studies.”

    I can give you more and more examples:

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2013/05/lee-smolin-future-physics

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/26/the-coming-rd-crash/

    So,

    “There is a sense behind it that scientists are mere technocrats, puppets of political power. This mindset doesn’t separate science from politics. There is no appreciation that most scientists probably think little about politics while they are focused on the practical issues of doing research and writing papers. Most scientists aren’t trying to make a political argument or to change anything within or through politics. Scientists just have their small corner of expertise that they obsess over.”

    Completely true, and also systematically part of the problem. The narrowing of scientific fields by necessary has also narrowed the funding of those fields, something that conservatives actually a keenly aware and in practice seek to control. The idea that noble scientist lives in a-political context because of the self-intention of his or her obsession makes no more sense that saying the noble shop owner exists outside the formal movements of the larger nature of capitalism. The individual scientist almost always sees himself or herself as objective and yet there are scientific fields at direct odds with each other: anyone who has seen what comparative biologists have to say about evolutionary psychologists can see that. But it’s not just politically charged sciences

    Lastly three)

    “There is a suspicion that scientists somehow are an organized political elite conspiring to force their will on the public. In reality, scientists are constantly arguing and fighting with one another. The main politics most scientists are worried about is most often the politics of academia, nothing so grand as control of the government. Science involves more disagreement than anything else.”

    Again, this reads like an inversion, and one is not likely to be true. Read ANY of the books on the new physics battles, scientists stack departments for funding and eliminate opposition just like any other profession. They are social and human and the “scientific method” (something that doesn’t even apply to several sciences.. including evolutionary biology) is not necessarily a check against this. Kuhn saw this early it, the fighting is evolutionary but it very much takes place in the same social context. Yes, it involves disagreement–it also involves silencing disagreement. What this conservatives miss is not that these things go on–it’s that there is no motivation behind them. They are not conspiracies, so much as petty sociological functions.

    “When these people on the right speak of science, they are speaking of it as symbolizing something greater in their worldview. It isn’t just science they are speaking of. They fear something that is represented by science. They fear the change and uncertainty that science offers. They distrust scientists challenging their cherished views of present reality in the same way they distrust academic historians revising established historical myths about America. These intellectual elites are undermining the entire world they grew up in, everything they consider great and worthy about this country.”

    Like liberals fear all the studies that show that even scientists don’t overcome identity and cognitive biases. Or that show that conservatives aren’t actually any more ignorant of general science than liberals?

    What do I have to back this up:

    Non-Americans may believe in evolution more, but they actually don’t understand any better on average than Americans (http://www.culturalcognition.net/blog/2013/6/19/what-does-disbelief-in-evolution-mean-what-does-belief-in-it.html)

    “People reliably respond to “Evolution” and “Big Bang” in a manner that signifies their identities. Moreover, many of the people for whom “false” correctly conveys their cultural identity know plenty of science.”

    REGARDLESS of their actual knowledge, and it gets worse, Ben.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marty-kaplan/most-depressing-brain-fin_b_3932273.html

    Thinking politically in terms of one’s ability actually reduces your ability to math–REGARDLESS of political persuasion.

    So again, no, this is not really about “Science” even in the liberal case, and the science involved in is ideal type, not reflected in actual scientific studies of science itself.

    Even Chris Mooney, who I generally view as naive on this, gets on this:
    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/06/dan-kahan-climate-change-ideology-scientific-illiteracy

    Conservative’s aren’t more generally scientifically illiterate either. Just like for the studies I linked on evolution belief and evolution knowledge, there is NO CORRELATION between understanding climate change, accepting climate change, and political identity:

    “Because there is clearly no meaningful relationship between getting the “right” or “wrong” answers on the proto- climate-science literacy test and either people’s cultural identities or their beliefs about climate change, it doesn’t matter which answer one treats and which as wrong in that respect. That is, there is still no relationship.”

    (Here’s a large paper on all of this: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~nyhan/nyhan-reifler.pdf )

    So you have two problems here: the narrative about identity doesn’t wash. Neither are conservatives generically ignore or afraid of science nor are the scientists just a-political as you are painting them.

    Furthermore, liberals are just as given to this in areas in which they are highly likely to have identity driven cognitive biases, and both are likely to be scientifically illiterate

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/02/25/most-democrats-dont-know-it-takes-a-year-for-the-earth-to-go-around-the-sun/

    But scientific literacy is actually higher for US college grads than Asian and European college grads:

    http://www.aps.org/units/fed/newsletters/summer2009/hobson.cfm

    Because we make everyone take it in liberal arts and also don’t allow as much specialization in high school.

    Now, there are ties between racism and intelligence:
    http://www.livescience.com/18132-intelligence-social-conservatism-racism.html

    While there are studies that seem to show “conservatism” linked to low IQ, there is actually a lot of problems depending on how you define “conservatism”: http://reason.com/archives/2014/06/13/are-conservatives-dumber-than-liberals

    So we have little correlation between scientific literary and belief in evolution or climate change. We have no evidence of literacy differences between them. We do have some evidence that some types of conservatives have a slightly lower IQ, but it is highly dependent on who you are and aren’t defining as conservative.

    Conversely, we have a lot of evidence that science is political even if scientists themselves try not to be. We have strong recent evidence that science is no longer particularly self-correcting. We have the problem of over-specialization, grant-direction, and political-economic direction of scientific research.

    We can see that you are right that identity predicts denialism, but this actually applies to liberals too, and ANY political ideology loses reasoning power when confronted with information directly contradicting their vision of reality.

    It seems that if we believe in the objective mission of Enlightenment science, we have to say that Enlightenment view of science doesn’t stand up to this nor is there much evidence that belief in something is predicated on knowledge of it, even in the case of high IQ individuals with liberal temperaments.

    So, yeah, I basically only agree with you that conservatives are wrong about evolution and climate change generally, and beyond that, I think the rest is rationalization.

    • Thanks for the lengthy response. As you know, I like to receive and give lengthy responses. Your comment is a lot to digest, but I’ll break it down to bite-sized pieces.

      “They are not unified in any such manner and that view appears to me to be the mirror image of the denialism it’s critiquing. It’s naive scientism.”

      I think I see what you mean. I was describing how many scientists would perceive themselves. But you might be correct that they are mirroring what is being criticized.

      “Science requires money, money requires funding, funding requires stake-holder results. It’s not innocent beyond even the cognitive biases.”

      I definitely agree with that. For this reason, I pointed out that scientific research receives diverse funding. In an ideal world, that funding would have even more diverse sources seeking more diverse stake-holder results.

      I’m not against stake-holders and their influence, but I would like more people to be involved as stake-holders. The problem is when all of the most influential stake-holders are those with immense money and power.

      “You speak of science as we have an agreed definition of what it even is.”

      That is true. I was speaking that way. I was keeping it simple because of what I was focusing upon, but obviously in reality it is complex.

      I’d love to have public debate about those complexities. Those attacking science, however, wouldn’t be interested. We have to be willing to seriously discuss science itself to have a serious discussion about the genuine problems involved.

      “So what evidence do I have for my cynicism involving your assertion that science is primarily self-correcting”

      That is interesting and I’m glad you brought it up. I’m more cynical than I let on in this post. I was making a rhetorical point, while not letting on about my larger attitude toward science. I’d be the first to admit that my idealism and my cynicism are a bit in conflict.

      “The narrowing of scientific fields by necessary has also narrowed the funding of those fields”

      That is a key issue. I’ve often thought how we can make everything more democratic, from politics to economies, but also science. How do we broaden our view? Part of this has to do with creating more stake-holders in all aspects of society. There is a lot going on here, though. I’m not sure I understand what the main implications are.

      “scientists stack departments for funding and eliminate opposition just like any other profession. They are social and human and the “scientific method” (something that doesn’t even apply to several sciences.. including evolutionary biology) is not necessarily a check against this. Kuhn saw this early it, the fighting is evolutionary but it very much takes place in the same social context. Yes, it involves disagreement–it also involves silencing disagreement. What this conservatives miss is not that these things go on–it’s that there is no motivation behind them. They are not conspiracies, so much as petty sociological functions.”

      That actually fits my broader view. Part of my point is that scientists are humans, just as petty as other humans. Scientists aspire to be more than this, but scientists can’t stop being human with all the standard biases of the human mind and all the standard challenges of human relationships.

      I was never arguing science and scientists are perfect.

      “Like liberals fear all the studies that show that even scientists don’t overcome identity and cognitive biases.”

      I don’t fear that. I know of these studies. I’ve known about them longer than I’ve known you. It is one of my main interests, as part of my general interest in the social sciences.

      “Or that show that conservatives aren’t actually any more ignorant of general science than liberals?”

      That was one point I made in my post. It isn’t just about education.

      “Thinking politically in terms of one’s ability actually reduces your ability to math–REGARDLESS of political persuasion.”

      Yep, I’ve come across that before.

      “there is NO CORRELATION between understanding climate change, accepting climate change, and political identity”

      I’ve written about a related topic. Americans actually know more accurate information than they normally admit to, maybe even to themselves. It all depends on what kinds of incentives are given.

      https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2014/05/24/most-americans-know-what-is-true/

      “So you have two problems here: the narrative about identity doesn’t wash. Neither are conservatives generically ignore or afraid of science nor are the scientists just a-political as you are painting them.”

      Most people are fully capable of basic rational thought. It is all about creating the right conditions for it. I’ve pointed out to you before about how psychological priming makes this possible, such as the studies where people unjumbling word puzzles before solving problems requiring rational-decision-making.

      Also, there is this:

      http://www.bloombergview.com/articles/2013-05-20/how-to-humble-a-wing-nut

      “The good news is that wing nuts usually don’t matter. The bad news is that they influence people who do. Sadly, more information often fails to correct people’s misunderstandings. In fact, it can backfire and entrench them. Can anything be done?

      “For a positive answer, consider an intriguing study by Philip Fernbach, a University of Colorado business school professor, and his colleagues. Their central finding is that if you ask people to explain exactly why they think as they do, they discover how much they don’t know — and they become more humble and therefore more moderate.”

      The Enlightenment project isn’t a failure. We just haven’t gone about it very systematically. The failure is that most people have be uncertain about whether they actually want a society based on Enlightenment principles. A rational and informed public wouldn’t be as easily manipulated. The challenge might be less in knowing how to improve society and more about in finding the motivation to improve society.

      “Furthermore, liberals are just as given to this in areas in which they are highly likely to have identity driven cognitive biases, and both are likely to be scientifically illiterate”

      It doesn’t surprise me that most Democrats don’t know it takes a year for the earth to go around the sun. As you know, I obsess over demographics.

      Most Democrats don’t identify as liberal and many even identify as conservative. But even ignoring that, Democrats are split between poor under-educated people and wealthier well-educated people, while Republicans have a disproportionate number of people in the middle. When averaged out, that makes for a higher IQ for Democrats, but the Democratic demographic includes a large number of low IQ people.

      “While there are studies that seem to show “conservatism” linked to low IQ, there is actually a lot of problems depending on how you define “conservatism””

      Of course. One of my favorite topics is defining ideologies and labels.

      “Conversely, we have a lot of evidence that science is political even if scientists themselves try not to be. We have strong recent evidence that science is no longer particularly self-correcting. We have the problem of over-specialization, grant-direction, and political-economic direction of scientific research.”

      Everything is relative. Science as practiced now is more self-correcting than, for example, ancient religious views of astrology. But it isn’t as self-correcting as we’d like it to be. There is always plenty of room for improvement and always much need for vast improvement.

      “We can see that you are right that identity predicts denialism, but this actually applies to liberals too, and ANY political ideology loses reasoning power when confronted with information directly contradicting their vision of reality.”

      I’ve been a longtime critic of ideological dogmatism, in all its forms and expressions.

      “It seems that if we believe in the objective mission of Enlightenment science, we have to say that Enlightenment view of science doesn’t stand up to this nor is there much evidence that belief in something is predicated on knowledge of it, even in the case of high IQ individuals with liberal temperaments.”

      I take the larger view. The Enlightenment project is a long-term project. It will take possibly many more centuries to move it forward toward the ideal results. But that doesn’t lessen the accomplishments of progress made so far. We humans tend to be too impatient and too short-sighted.

      “So, yeah, I basically only agree with you that conservatives are wrong about evolution and climate change generally, and beyond that, I think the rest is rationalization.”

      Then you agree with the main thrust of my post. I would add, though, that wasn’t my main motivation for writing it. Your comment overlooked the only thing that particularly interested me at the moment.

      The subject I was most concerned with was American history. I was considering how ignorance of the past doesn’t bode well for our dealing with the present, much less the future. I was a bit disheartened in finding conservatives who dismissed the importance science played in the revolutionary era and among the American founding generation.

      Everything you bring up is important. I want all of that discussed. And I want the even broader view of history discussed. But we first have to get people to care, to acknowledge that it matters what we know and don’t know.

      • I have a question: Why do you think religiousity stopped being tracked to liberalism? For example, prior to the 1920s, most Baptists were not only liberals but almost socialists. While I admit that Haidt’s research seems to indicate a temperament issue, the question is why would that religious temperament change what political temperament it was most attracted to?

        • I am familiar with the history of American Christianity. The early communes were always Christian. Owen started his secular commune, New Harmony, by buying the property and buildings of a former Christian commune, that of the Harmonists.

          Something major did happen about a century ago, although beginning in the mid-to-latter 1800s. I’m not sure what caused the original shift, but interestingy it s shifting back the other way again.

          http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2013/07/19/2324411/the-rise-of-the-religious-left-religious-progressives-will-soon-outnumber-conservatives/

          ““However, the percentage of religious conservatives shrinks in each successive generation, with religious progressives outnumbering religious conservatives in the Millennial generation.”

          “According to the survey, 23 percent of people aged 18 to 33 are religious progressives, while 22 percent are nonreligious and 17 percent are religious conservatives. By contrast, only 12 percent of those aged 66 to 88 are religious progressives, whereas 47 percent are said to be religious conservatives.

          “Religion has long been co-opted by religious conservatives as a vehicle for political gain, but this study hints that the future of faith-based political advocacy could rest with the left-leaning faithful. Religious progressives already make up 28 percent of the Democratic party—this in addition to 42 percent that are religious moderates—a number that only stands to grow as Millennials age and begin to vote in greater numbers.

          “Religious progressives are also more ethnically diverse than religious conservatives, a fact that bodes well for the Democratic party as the country becomes more racially varied. And when it comes to economic issues, religious progressives are actually more passionate than other liberals about eradicating income inequality; the study found that 88 percent of religious progressives said that the government should do more to help the poor, more than any other group polled.

          ““This survey also shows that religious progressives are a more significant group than is usually assumed, and there is a strong social justice constituency among religious Americans that cuts across labels,” said E.J. Dionne, a Brookings Senior Fellow.”

        • So, progressives are becoming the majority of US Christians, if the trend continues among the young generation. Meanwhile, according to at least one poll, the young generation has more favorable opinions of socialism, at least as a word, whatever they may think it means.

          Back in the day, God-fearing socialists and communitarians were major players in American society. As the Cold War era recedes from public memory, maybe those old types of Christians will return to the mainstream.

          Speaking of historical knowledge, how many Americans know much if anything about this tradition of socialist-minded and communitarian Christianity? Probably not many. Probably not any different how many know about that science played an integral role during the American Revolution among the founders.

          This historical ignorance goes hand in hand with scientific ignorance. There hasn’t always been the conflict we have now between science and religion. In the US, much of science was originally motivated by Christianity or at least not seen in conflict with it. Scientific and theological issues went together in the way did scientific and political issues.

          Maybe we will begin to see a lessening of the overt conflict between believers and scientists.

  2. The answer is that the conservative movement does not like the results of science, so they are attacking it.

    Science has suggested that some of their most cherished beliefs, for the Religious Right, are a fiction. The world is not 6500 years old. It’s 4.5 billion years old and the universe 13.7 billion years old. There’s not much else to it. Evolution through natural selection is how we came to be, not creationism.

    Among economic conservatives, global warming is attacked. I think the reason why is because at heart, they know that they’ve had control of society for the past 40 years. Here we are the worst recession since the Great Depression.

    Society has de-regulated finance, privatized many of the functions once done by government, reduced progressive taxation, and a whole lot of other things. Global warming represents a fatal failure to that ideology that “laissez faire” free markets are the solution to everything. It represents a problem that free markets cannot solve.

    Similar thoughts about neoconservatives, who have been wrong about Iraq having WMDs in 2003, wrong about the insurgency, and wrong about foreign policy in general.

    I do not agree with the poster above me.

    There are some things that scientists broadly agree on. Global warming for example being caused by humans has pretty broad consensus.

    The political right attacks science because they understand that the scientific method is an existential threat. It proves that the very things that they hold dear are well .. garbage.

    • Skepoet is just saying it is complex. There is a lot going on when discussing issues of science. There are such things as ethnomethodology, sociology of scientific knowledge, experiment expectancy, etc.

      The way scientific knowledge progresses is by debating the limitations and challenges of science. Some of the most interesting scientific research is that which studies scientists themselves.

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