In yesterday’s Slate, Daniel Sarewitz has a remarkably snarky and unreflective piece, “Lab politics,” accusing scientists—who are mostly Democrats—of subordinating scientific truth to an explicitly political agenda. (Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Public Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, was trained as a scientist: he has a Ph.D. in geology from Cornell.)
Here’s his logic. A Pew survey last year showed that 55% of American scientists are Democrats, 32% are independent, and only 6% are Republicans (the rest “don’t know”). Further, the political parties diverge strongly in how they feel about issues like climate change. While 66% of Democrats say that the results of human activity on climate are being felt now, only 31% of Republicans agree. From this Sarewitz suggests darkly that scientists’ warnings about global warming reflect not the data, but our commitment to types of social change that are advanced by the controversy:
Or 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? Now this would be a good case for Mythbusters.
. . . The climate debacle is only the most conspicuous example of these debilitating tendencies, which play out in issues as diverse as nuclear waste disposal, protection of endangered species, and regulation of pharmaceuticals.
Sarewitz’s solution? More Republican scientists—and a call for us to investigate why there are so few of them:
Yet there is clearly something going on that is as yet barely acknowledged, let alone understood. 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.
It is interesting that so many scientists are Democrats. It’s not clear whether those with Democratic leanings are more likely to go into science, or whether being in science reinforces views that align with Democratic politics. Likely both are involved. I suspect, for instance, that it has something to do with love of the truth, which feeds into both correlations. Regardless, though, it’s pure sophistry of Sarewitz to suggest that something like global warming is a scientific controversy manufactured purely to push a liberal agenda. The alternative view is that the facts have convinced scientists that global warming is real and has dire consequences, and that—since we’re not Republicans—we don’t care to hide these consequences to protect business and industry.
Curiously, Sarweitz also notes that despite the Democratic leanings of scientists, 90% of Americans trust the scientific community as a whole—more than any other institution including the Supreme Court. Why would that be, unless the public senses that scientists are more objective than members of other institutions, and less willing to corrupt their pronouncements in the service of politics or philosophy?