March 12, 2013

Political science

In an era of rapid advancement, scientists’ political leanings are more worthy of scrutiny than ever.

One of the things I find irksome about studying in science is being exposed to science students’ sense of superiority—a sense that manifests itself in a grating insistence that the objective, value-free scientific method places the natural sciences above and beyond other “soft” disciplines. At least in my experience, you don’t have to try too hard to be on the other side of a conversation derisive toward (what is perceived as) non-quantitative political theory, opinionated historical accounts, or partial sociological surveys. Such positions invariably put scientists in an ivory tower: an apolitical, judgment-free higher ground where the only thing that matters is hard data. Look a little closer and you’ll find the implication that, by extension, scientists are more logical creatures than everybody else.

But this attitude raises a question: Who genuinely believes that scientists, just by virtue of being scientists, are themselves objective beings? There’s obviously a distinction between doing objective science and being an objective scientist. The former is required for good science, but the latter doesn’t really exist at all.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that in the modern world’s political landscape, scientists tend to be a fairly distinct group of people. For instance, if a 2009 Pew Research survey, recently referenced by New Scientist, is to be believed, scientists overwhelmingly lean to the left. The survey reports that 52 percent of scientists identify as liberal, while only 9 percent identify as conservative. Needless to say, these are not the national averages.

Such a dichotomous result reinforces an oft-held association between science and liberalism. This may be a response to the often anti-scientific stance of the right, a large number of whose adherents question the validity and/or utility of scientific evidence on many grounds, most vocally on evolution and climate change. But if that’s the only criterion, then is everybody who disagrees with the right on science considered leftist?

And what exactly does it mean to be “left-leaning?” If by “left” you think merely along the Democrat-Republican split and your criterion is voting for Obama, then my personal experience bears that out, but I’d be interested to see how different this would be at places that aren’t UChicago. Do scientists merely respond to a social liberal agenda—abortion, gay rights—or are they likely to respond to a truly leftist agenda involving, for instance, wealth redistribution, progressive taxation, increases in social spending, control on markets, and/or the move toward a welfare state? Or are they responding primarily to the Democratic Party’s support for increased scientific research, especially in areas such as stem cell research where right-wing scrutiny has been particularly obstructive?

As a science major in my undergraduate program, my science friends (admittedly, not all of them, but a great many) would often proudly exclaim that they simply didn’t care about international relations, political science, or whichever course I happened to take alongside my major requirements. In grad school, such matters don’t really come up, given the high specificity of our program. However, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that, regardless of the degree of interest or whether or not one professes one’s beliefs, all of us are certainly political—at least at a basal level.

But, as the obligatory retort goes, why does it matter to any of us whether we know how scientists feel about the world? Well, there are a few reasons. First, of course, for purely demographic purposes. Second, because it would open doors to figuring out the role of scientific education in a person’s development, and how training students about the objective world shapes their subjective views.

There’s more, however. I’d argue that there’s an absolute need to have a discussion about this. I’ve always subscribed to the view that even if subjectivity cannot shape the actual result of an electrophoresis gel or the nature of smashing particles, ideologies can influence the kinds of things scientists gravitate toward, and want to study. Does an increased environmental component to the body of ongoing scientific study provide political space to discourse on climate change? Absolutely. Of course, there’s incontrovertible evidence for climate change that scientists are swayed by, much as there’s evidence of evolution. But in today’s starkly partisan atmosphere, it also lends itself to a political position, and that’s unavoidable. How about research on human fertility, and the development of in vitro fertilization or work on stem cells? Is there a reason scientists on the whole seem so much keener than the Republican Party to investigate this area of knowledge? Is it, perhaps, because their belief systems make them view it as vitally important to human progress?

The poll results I cite above are far from providing enough information. It could be easily argued, for instance, that there are natural constraints on how leftist today’s science can be, given its long-standing affiliation with corporatism. Industry grants are integral to much of scientific research, and this often puts limits on what is being studied completely independently of individual scientists’ leanings. Fundamentally, the flow of capital is essential to facilitating scientific research, even if it can’t dictate experimental results.

Regardless, with Obama possibly looking to devote a large amount of federal funding to a giant project aiming to map the human brain (akin to the way in which the Human Genome Project mapped the human chromosomes), scientists will soon find that the folks in the White House have profound effects on the state of their research to an unprecedented extent. Now would probably be a good time to see where they stand on politics.

Kamil Ahsan is a graduate student in developmental biology.