13 December 2010

Political Affiliations of Scientists

Last week my friend and colleague Dan Sarewitz tossed some red meat out on the table in the form of an essay in Slate on the apparent paucity of Republicans among the US scientific establishment.  Sarewitz suggests that it is in the interests f the scientific community both to understand this situation and to seek greater diversity in its ranks, explaining that "the issue here is legitimacy, not literacy."

Sarewitz's essay has been followed by predictable responses (1,243 of them at Slate alone). Writing at MIT's science journalism tracker Paul Raeburn offers this suggestively sinister critique:
And what is Sarewitz’s political affiliation, I wonder?
Since everyone else knows the answer to this, you'd think a journalist might have ways of figuring it out.  Similarly sophomoric, Chris Mooney, in his characteristic us vs. them fashion, asks if Sarewitz will be joining the forces of evil:
Would Sarewitz himself like to become a Republican?
Such responses dodge the real issue here raised by Sarewitz.

And what is that real issue?  The issue that Sarewitz raises is one of legitimacy.  All of us evaluate knowledge claims outside our own expertise (and actually very few people are in fact experts) based not on a careful consideration of facts and evidence, but by other factors, such as who we trust and how their values jibe with our own.  Thus if expert institutions are going to sustain and function in a democratic society they must attend to their legitimacy.  Scientific institutions that come to be associated with one political party risk their legitimacy among those who are not sympathetic to that party's views.

Of course, we don't just evaluate knowledge claims simply based on individuals, but usually through institutions, like scientific journals, national academies, professional associations, universities and so on. Sarewitz's Slate article did not get into a discussion of these institutions, but I think that it is essential to fully understand his argument.

Consider that the opinion poll that Sarewitz cited which found that only 6% of scientists self-identify as Republicans has some very important fine print -- specifically that the scientists that it surveyed were all members of the AAAS.  I do not have detailed demographics information, but based on my experience I would guess that AAAS membership is dominated by university and government scientists.  The opinion poll thus does not tell us much about US scientists as a whole, but rather something about one scientific institution -- AAAS.  And the poll indicates that AAAS is largely an association that does not include Republicans.

Sarewitz wonders about how this situation might have developed.  One factor might be seen in a recent action of the American Geophysical Union -- another big US science association: AGU recently appointed Chris Mooney to its Board.  I am sure that Chris is a fine fellow, but appointing an English major who has written divisively about the "Republican War on Science" to help AGU oversee "science communication" is more than a little ironic, and unlikely to attract many Republican scientists to the institution, perhaps even having the opposite effect.  To the extent that AAAS and AGU endorse the Democratic policy agenda, or just appear to do so, it reflects their role not as arbiters of knowledge claims, but rather as political actors.

Looking more broadly, I would wager that the partisan affiliation of scientists in the US military, in the energy , pharmaceutical and finance industries would look starkly different than that of AAAS.  If there is a crisis of legitimacy in the scientific community, it is among those institutions which have become to be so dominated by those espousing a shared political view, whatever that happens to be. This crisis is shared by AAAS and AGU, viewed with suspicion by those on the Right, and, for instance, by ExxonMobil, which is viewed by a similar suspicion by those on the Left.  Sarewitz is warning that for many on the Right, institutions like AAAS are viewed with every bit as skeptical an eye as those on the Left view ExxonMobil.

Such views are more than just tribalism, they are expressions of how different people evaluate knowledge claims, and to the degree that they substitute affiliations for evaluating knowledge claims, science becomes pathologically politicized.  Sarewitz thus offers a warning:
American society has long tended toward pragmatism, with a great deal of respect for the value and legitimacy not just of scientific facts, but of scientists themselves. For example, survey data show that the scientific community enjoys the trust of 90 percent of Americans—more than for any other institution, including the Supreme Court and the military. Yet this exceptional status could well be forfeit in the escalating fervor of national politics, given that most scientists are on one side of the partisan divide. If that public confidence is lost, it would be a huge and perhaps unrecoverable loss for a democratic society.
Many observers are so wrapped up in their own partisan battles that they either don't care that science is being associated with one political party or they somehow think that through such politicization they will once and for all win the partisan battles.  They won't. Political parties are far more robust than institutions of science. Institutions of science need help to survive intact partisan political battles.  The blogosphere and activist scientists and journalists offer little help.