Last week, Slate published an interesting article with a very arresting subhead: “Most scientists in this country are Democrats. That’s a problem.”
Though seemingly obvious now, I never made the connection between the two groups in the past. Slate reporter Daniel Sarewitz writes that
only around 6 percent of U.S. scientists are Republicans; 55 percent are Democrats, 32 percent are independent, and the rest ‘don’t know’ their affiliation.
He then begins to analyze why this might be:
Could it be that disagreements over climate change are essentially political—and that science is just carried along for the ride? For 20 years, evidence about global warming has been directly and explicitly linked to a set of policy responses demanding international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, and the redistribution of wealth. These are the sort of things that most Democrats welcome, and most Republicans hate. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science.
Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence—or causation?
As I kept reading, I found myself getting more and more annoyed with some of his generalizations. At the end of the article, he proposes his solution:
As a first step, leaders of the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue. They will, of course, be loath to do so because it threatens their most cherished myths of a pure science insulated from dirty partisanship. In lieu of any real effort to understand and grapple with the politics of science, we can expect calls for more “science literacy” as public confidence begins to wane. But the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists.
As I mentioned earlier, I first disagreed with Sarewitz’s article. He chose to brush off the viewpoints of the scientists themselves. If Republicans saw themselves as underrepresented in the scientific community, then what barriers are keeping this number from growing? There are none. However, after letting Sarewtiz’s points marinate, I began questioning my rationale. Initially, I envisioned science as a methodologically strict activity that involves drawing sound conclusion from the analysis of empirical data. The political affiliation of the scientist ultimately should be irrelevant. As I see it now, the problems arise when public policy must be based off scientific conclusions. This is where politics enters the picture and starts to complicate things.
For instance, think about Sarewitz’s climate change example. Simply put, most science says the planet is warming and changes need to be made. If this is true, but we were to enforce public policies that denied this truth, these policies would result in the long-term destruction of the planet. If today’s scientific claims about global warming are false but we pursue public policies that accept these claims as true, our actions would result in an internationally damaged economy. Ethically speaking, what’s worse?
The fact that most of scientific research is funded by the government doesn’t help us resolve the matter, either. Though we would hope that scientific research is funded without regard to partisan concerns, I feel as though there is always a quiet, underlying bias that guides the incumbent political party to pull science in one direction over the other.
The more I think about it, the harder time I have committing to a final conclusion. Though I feel Sarewitz is right in that there is a relationship between science and politics, I do not think that having more Republican scientists will change this reality.