Saturday, September 5, 2009

Liberal bias in scientists

In the Science magazine, there was a report which showed selected results from a Pew survey. Newsflash! Scientists are more liberal than the general public!

Actually, based on personal experience, this isn't remotely surprising. I can tell just from the popular science media that I read. And of the science professors who have expressed anything vaguely political, they tend to be either liberal or flamingly liberal. It could be that the conservative scientists just keep quieter than the liberal ones do, but hey, here we got a survey! The survey shows that, no really, there aren't many conservative scientists.

What do we make of this? I suppose it depends whether you want to put a liberal or conservative spin on it.

A liberal spin: Reality has a well known liberal bias. Also, the Republican party has so many anti-science elements, I, for one, would have serious qualms about supporting them. The biggest ones off the top of my head are Creationism, anthropogenic global warming denialism, and abstinence-only education. And then there are lot of smaller issues, and ones which are only indirectly related to science. What anti-science elements do liberals have? There's alternative medicine, but that group is not so clearly associated with the Democrat party.

A conservative spin: I suppose the conservative person could frame it as a matter of economic self-interest. Scientists are frequently funded by the government, so of course they want to increase government spending. Indeed, I would be unsurprised if scientists working for private industries were on average more conservative than scientists working for government funding. The conservative might go on to say that these economic concerns have caused science to be biased. Therefore, Republicans are somewhat justified in doubting scientists.

If you want my opinion, I think the economic self-interest is a big part of it, but it's justified. Science is one of those common goods, the sort of thing that really does need government spending. Education, too. Contrast with engineers who tend to be on the conservative side. Engineers often work for big corporations, the kinds which benefit from a freer market. My own half-baked political opinion is, they're both right! Our economic policies should be liberal when it comes to science, education, and environment, but conservative when it comes to most everything else.

Wait, you wanted supporting arguments too? And this is why I usually keep my blog out of politics.

From the same poll, here's another comparison.

First, note that this does not show that 56% of scientists are liberal, and 2% are conservative. Rather, it shows that 56% of scientists think scientists are liberal, and 2% of scientists think scientists are conservative. Based on the pie chart, it seems to me that scientists really are generally liberal. So one way to read the pie chart: 80% of the public is wrong about scientists, while only 44% of scientists are wrong about scientists.

Or maybe I'm reading too much into it. Surveys!

Another way to read it: The public trusts scientists because they believe scientists are politically neutral. In fact, scientists are not politically neutral. Therefore, the public should place slightly less trust in scientists.

How I read it: The public trusts scientists because they believe scientists are politically neutral. But they misunderstand! The reason science is trustworthy has little to do with the neutrality of scientists, and everything to do with the objectivity of the method. If you do the science correctly, it doesn't matter whether you are liberal or conservative, you should get the same results. Therefore, the public should continue to trust scientists, but for different reasons.

Of course, science isn't always done perfectly, and there are a lot of interpretive elements involved. As a result, bias among scientists can sometimes translate to bias in science. However, simply pointing out the personal biases of the scientists is by no means a complete criticism. You also need to point out the flaws in the method. And you can point out methodological flaws no matter what part of the political spectrum you come from.

(Via The Thinker, via Overcoming Bias)


smijer said...

Nice essay. I'll have to point out that the language you use to discuss the first set of charts is imprecise. I'm assuming this is a survey of American scientists. American Democrats are hardly "liberal". So, we don't have a measure on the conservative/liberal split - we have a measure on the Republican/Democrat split.

And, yeah - one reason may well have to do with the anti-scientific elements in the GOP tent.

It would be interesting to compare scientists' party affiliations in nations whose "conservative" wing lacked that element.

Anonymous said...

Woohoo! Let's hear it for us liberal scientists!

Dubious said...

you seem to imply, in those last paragraphs, that being liberal creates bias. perhapse scientists are liberal because they believe that the best policy choices are the ones that are classified as liberal. No one chooses to be liberal and then makes their decisions according to what liberal leaders say, we make decisions and then classify those decisions as liberal or conservative.

miller said...

That is one way to look at it, but I don't think it's that compelling. It's based on one causative link (studying science leads to liberal policies) and one questionable claim (that liberals aren't influenced by their leaders).

I think it's more compelling to argue, as I did, that whether being liberal creates bias or not, any bias is filtered out by proper method.

Dubious said...

I do believe that there is a causal link between studying science and liberal thinking, tho this is mostly from my personal experience in talking with colleagues at work and at conferences who tell me the methodology they developed while working (in science) is in general the same methodology they now apply to thinking about public policy.

if you intended to argue that any bias is filtered out by proper method. then i agree with you. I personally didn't feel like thats what you were communicating, but I suppose I could be misreading you.

paragraph 10 lays out this argument nicely but paragraph 11 left me feeling like you think its a wash and thus didn't come to a conclusion.

miller said...

Paragraph 11 ("another way to read it") was the view taken by The Thinker. I disagree with it.

Anonymous said...

Republicans are typically stupid and rich, while scientists tend to be intelligent and principled.

If we could give more money to scientists who slave away every day at uncovering the true nature of reality, perhaps we would live in a better world...

Larry, a.k.a. The Barefoot Bum said...

It's funny: When we're talking about ordinary private economics, individuals acting in their own economic self-interest is the highest good. When some citizens realize their economic self-interest lies in the government, suddenly it's the greatest threat to civilization since, well, communism.

Anonymous said...

Science gave us pesticides. Were they libs?
All Liberal climate change research is into causes, not effects and all denier is into causes not just effects. And note all denier science is publicly funded and believer is public.