This is Part I of a guest post by Josh Witten.
Perhaps my earliest political memory came from presidential election coverage in, let’s call it 1988. I distinctly recall a portion of a news segment on voting experiences in which a Catholic priest described the ghosts of his ancestors compelling him to vote a straight Democratic ticket.
I think about that priest when I hear the “why is the Republican party anti-science?” discussion and I wonder. While we can debate whether Republicans are more anti-science than Democrats, the rhetoric of Republican politicians is certainly more hostile toward science and the scientific establishment. When confronted with such statements about your colleagues, yourself, and your field of work, it is natural to wonder “why?”.
We’ve spilt a lot of ink trying to figure out what is wrong with these people. Maybe genetically determined personality traits that incline a person toward conservative positions on other issues also incline a person toward anti-science. Maybe it is pandering to politically active Christian fundamentalism (45% of Republicans and 52% of white evangelicals claim science conflicts with their religious beliefs). Maybe it is populism run amok, with scientists cast as authorities and elites.
Maybe one or more of these “maybes” significantly contributes to Republican anti-science rhetoric. Unfortunately, that knowledge is not very helpful. Neither you or I can do anything about these causes. Also, telling people what is wrong with “them” is a highly ineffective method of persuasion. Changes in personality require interventions like traumatic brain injuries, which are ethically dubious. Changing religious views may be even harder. And, frankly, if decades of schooling, respected titles, and public admiration is not “elite”, I don’t know what is.
Which brings us back around to that priest. His story brought a couple of thoughts to my nine-year old brain. First, Catholic priests do not have a particularly inspired view on the issues of the world. This was a good call. Second, that any campaign effort by either a Republican or Democratic candidate trying to influence that vote was a wasted effort.
Being a dedicated partisan, like our ordained friend above, eliminates your ability to influence a politician’s positions in exchange for your vote. While I know the guy you voted for is not like this, it is reasonable to assume that the primary incentive for politicians is votes. If your vote is already committed, there is no reason to attempt to appeal to you.
Fortunately, science is not partisan. Unfortunately, the people who do science are. Scientists – the public face of science policy issues – perceive themselves to be overwhelmingly liberal. A Pew survey found that 81% of scientists are or lean Democrat. Only 9% claim a conservative ideology. and only 6% were Republican. A majority (56%) would describe the community of scientists as politically liberal. Only 2% called it conservative.
Do the politicians know this? Only 20% of the general public sees the scientific community as politically liberal; but a scan of political blogs suggests that the politically astute are aware of the liberal trend among scientists (e.g., they read the Pew survey report). In which case, we need to ask ourselves why Republican politicians should try to make scientists happy, when we indicate that were are unlikely to vote for them no matter what they do. Why should a candidate risk anything for that reward?
Unlike the possible causes above, the policy positions of political candidates are legendarily malleable. To exploit this, we just need to figure out how to convince Republican politicians that there will be a reward at the ballot box for wooing the pro-science vote. I have a few ideas of dubious merit, assuming that you are not cool with science policy continuing to be enslaved to partisan politics:
More coming soon..
1. For example, 88% of Republicans and 83% of Democrats believe that science has a “mostly positive effect” on society.
3. Use of male pronoun currently has an 83% probability of accuracy in Senate (83/100) and House of Representatives (366/441, including non-voting representatives).
Josh Witten practices science as a Career Development Fellow at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK studying the regulation of splicing of mRNAs by protein-RNA interactions and writes about science at The Finch & Pea. He earned a PhD in Molecular Cell Biology at Washington University in St. Louis studying genetics in yeast and humans. In a previous life, Josh has spent time as a high level rugby player, hat model, whale rider, and magician’s assistant.