What group of voters is even less Republican than African Americans, single women or the young? Answer: scientists. The most recent Pew study indicates that only 6% of the scientific community supports the GOP. That data is from 2009, but it doesn’t seem likely that the numbers have notably improved. Relations between conservatives and scientists are frostier than this could-we-have-some-global-warming-please 2014 winter.
How did Democrats come to be the “party of science”? According to their own narrative, Bible-thumping conservatives have gone to war with empirically verifiable reality in order to shore up the tattered shreds of their antiquated religion. Profit-minded capitalists exploit that reactionary suspicion as a means to escaping prudent regulation on industrial manufacturing. Thus, conservatives come to shun empirical science, and scientists naturally gravitate to the party that takes their findings seriously.
This is a wildly implausible tale, as becomes obvious to anyone who has viewed conservative politics from the inside. The truth is that conservatives don’t hate science at all, and religious people are nowhere near so threatened by it as liberals seem to suppose. Reactionary movements (like Intelligent Design theory) have some adherents, but their overall impact on the party has been minimal. The holy crusade against creationism has been a study in torpedo-versus-earthworm political tactics. Almost no conservatives have any interest in taking up arms against the scientific community generally.
Nevertheless, the stubborn fact remains that scientists are overwhelmingly politically liberal. And in capturing those votes, the Democrats also capture the considerable prestige that the scientific community commands.
What are we doing wrong? Or we might turn ask: what are they doing right? In fact, there are many factors that explain the scientific community’s liberal bent, and it would be well to begin by mentioning the obvious. One relates to bioethics. Scientists get impatient with (overwhelmingly conservative) worries about the ethical implications of certain lines of research. Another issue relates to different attitudes towards industry. Here it is conservatives who prefer a laissez faire approach while liberals regularly enlist scientists as their allies in demanding more governmental regulation.
Then there is the matter of funding. Here the questions become quite difficult, because scientists perpetually have their hats in their hands, and it’s hard to decide how much to allot to whom. Of course, some research does prove to be a superb investment. On the other hand, scientists like wasting money as much as the next public rent-seeker, with their main distinction being that they are hard to monitor, since it often takes years of study even to get a good sense for what a particular laboratory actually does. (And by the time a person has undertaken that much study, he has usually been culturally “inducted” into the scientific community, such that he is loathe to undercut its interests.) Liberals get in the good graces of scientists through their general willingness to splash out grants to all and sundry; conservatives, as the “stingy mama” of the American political landscape, are not so well loved.
Putting all of these factors together, it makes some sense the scientists would lean left. But this is not enough to fully explain the depths of anti-conservative hostility among scientists. In the minds of most liberals, certainly, conservative animosity towards science goes far beyond the usual balanced-budget murmuring. Conservatives are (so liberals believe) at war with science itself.
Liberals are right at least to suggest that conservatives can be quite contrarian with respect to certain scientific “causes.” But this stance is not (as they typically suppose) a symptom of a conservative aversion to reality, nor of an axiomatic willingness to defer to religious authority over empirically demonstrable truth.
In fact it is liberals who have become deeply confused about the true purpose of scientific research. If we consider more deeply what science really is, we will come to see that conservatives have never rejected science per se. They do, however, have a deep hostility towards those extra-scientific accretions that have enabled scientists to assume a prestigious political and spiritual role in liberal society. Unfortunately, these philosophical and political trends are unhealthy, not only for American politics, but also for science itself.
Climate Change: A Case Study
For decades, evolution represented the primary scientific-moral flashpoint in American society. But after milking the Scopes Monkey Trial for more than half a century, liberal scientists wisely recognized that it was time to change things up a little. Thus we have a new scientific crusade in “climate change.” This is the new favorite liberal example of conservative reactionary know-nothingism. Unsurprisingly, it is also an excellent exemplar of everything wrong with the liberal attitude towards science.
As most conservatives know, liberals do not understand conservative views on climate change. Liberals imagine us to be in a state of complete head-in-sand denial, and in fairness, one could easily get this impression from all the jokes we make about it. However, the truth is that conservatives can have interesting and nuanced conversations among themselves about the extent of their concern about the climate, and about what, if anything, should be done about it. There really is no conservative orthodoxy about the state of the climate itself.
We scoff across the aisle at the harbingers of meteorological doom because we recognize in climate change the marks of an unholy scientific-moral crusade. We note the sloppiness with which the movement’s apologists slide together the various scientific, moral and political questions that are relevant to their cause. We see how they play fast and loose with the evidence. We note as well the violence with which they throw aside the inquiries of anyone who demands greater precision and accountability.
Conservatives know that these scientific-moral crusades will arise periodically whether or not the world is in trouble. Perhaps the most amusing component of the climate change circus is the appeal for righteous activism, and even personal sacrifice. Note, for example, the way in which liberals piously obsess over minor personal habits in an effort to reduce their “carbon footprints.” (Hold the pineapple, Minnesotans!) I used to find this maddeningly ludicrous. Why are we obsessing over tropical fruits when we could be having productive conversations about (say) viable energy alternatives such as fracking or nuclear power? Eventually I realized that these little sacrifices and lifestyle adjustments actually filled a psychological and spiritual need for many liberals. They were a secular variation of my Lenten fasting.
As in Lent, there is even a quasi-eschatological dimension to this quest for climate virtue. The truth is that liberals love a good apocalypse scare as much as anyone. Having already dismissed the possibility of an old-fashioned divine smiting, they have to look elsewhere for spooky stories. In climate science, we see the apocalyptic side of the perpetual liberal tendency to immanentize the eschaton.
It’s perfectly reasonable for conservatives to have some fun mocking this most recent liberal piety. Still, we should be careful not to go overboard and find ourselves committing the genetic fallacy. Climate science fills the liberal need for a scientifically rooted “cause.” That gives us grounds to regard it with suspicion, but not to be confident that the movement has no scientific basis whatsoever. My Catholic faith is psychologically salutary for me too, but it doesn’t follow from this that there is no God or that the pope is the Anti-Christ.
At their best conservatives realize this and draw the appropriate distinctions. At their worst they can get a little reactionary. But in neither case are they rejecting empirical science as such. They are rejecting the all-encompassing role science has come to play in the lives of many Western people, and this is a good thing, not only for the sake of politics and philosophy, but also for the sake of science. The truth is that scientists cannot do their jobs well when they are simultaneously expected to serve as pastors and makers of public policy. They should be relieved of these functions so they can fulfill their true calling as explorers of the natural world.
What do scientists really do? Properly understood, they are explorers of the natural world. Their primary task is to increase our understanding, first by conducting a thorough examination of observable natural phenomena, and then by looking for suggestive patterns that might enable us to inductively reason our way to scientific laws or principles. Good scientists are proud of the discipline with which they pursue this knowledge, and justifiably so. Methodological rigor is the glory of modern science.
This is particularly true of empirical science. There is a reason why every schoolchild is taught to respect the Scientific Method, and to appreciate its success in unlocking the wondrous secrets that have enabled medicine and technology to improve in leaps and bounds. We have ample reason to be grateful for that effort, which improves our lives on a daily basis, whether we are chatting with a friend a thousand miles away or dropping by the drug store for a bottle of pink stuff that might save our child’s life.
The Scientific Method demands that conclusions be based in observable empirical evidence. Equally importantly, it insists that the researcher must confine his enquiry to the kinds of questions that can be investigated through empirical observation. He must restrict himself to the project of understanding the material world on its own terms, while appreciating that broader metaphysical questions (“Why does the material world exist at all?” “How did it come to be?” “Might it have been otherwise than it is?”) are simply beyond the realm of what he (at least in his professional capacity) can answer or even ask.
Curious people tend to chafe under such strict methodological rules, which is why this demand for rigorous empirical discipline really is rather a distinctive feature of the Scientific Method. In a bygone era, when philosophy and theology were widely regarded as the noblest of disciplines, great thinkers tended not to engage in this sort of rigid specialization. Even those (like Aristotle) who were genuinely attentive to the observable material world made free to interpret their findings in light of broader philosophical views. Thus we find them endorsing theories about the natural world that make sense in light of their metaphysical commitments, but that turned out not to be quite right.
All things considered, this should not be terribly surprising, nor should we infer too much from the fact that humans are unable to reason their way deductively to a full understanding of the natural world. Supposing (for example) that the universe were created by an infinitely wise God, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that finite, mortal beings such as ourselves would sometimes be surprised by its contents? Our world is wondrous and strange, and I for one am delighted that it should be so. But it does turn out that the best way to uncover its secrets is by conducting a thorough investigation, doing our best to make sense of the material world on its own terms.
This arduous endeavor is the rightful domain of empirical scientists. They are a highly organized, highly specialized army of observers, each tasked with investigating some tiny corner of the world and adding a piece to the ever-growing body of human knowledge. Their success over the past few centuries is truly awe-inspiring. But as so often happens, success has undermined the very discipline that enabled it.
Flying the Coop
The scientific community now enjoys a high level of social prestige. In light of that fact, many scientists are no longer content to see themselves as humble under-laborers chiseling away at a momentous task. They feel they have earned a more vaunted role. They want to be makers of public policy and authors of books of wisdom. They want to be masters of the universe, not students of it.
Initially, this hubris tends to manifest itself in a move that is more injurious to the scientist’s soul than to his science. He elevates a methodological principle to a metaphysical one. Having accepted the challenge to understand the material world on its own terms, he eventually finds himself proclaiming that the material world is all there is.
There is no sense in which this has been proven or even strongly suggested by scientific research itself. In his professional capacity the scientist has no business even speculating on such matters; beyond it he is just another person musing on God and eternity, without particular expertise. That professional scientists trend towards secular materialism is interesting psychologically, but it doesn’t tell us much about the nature of the universe.
On further consideration, even the psychology may not be so interesting. Aren’t people always inclined to equate “what I happen to know about” with “what is worth knowing”? We’ve all known dull, self-absorbed people who seem to think their profession or hobby the only thing worth discussing, and if tax attorneys and realtors can be myopic in this way, it’s not strange that scientists should too. By embracing materialism, scientists can put a philosophical flourish on their disciplinary imperialism, crowning themselves king of the epistemological mountain. Why defer to philosophers and religious authorities for their insight into what lies beyond, when you can simply declare that nothing does?
The truth is, scientists needn’t even crown themselves. Liberals are quite happy to plan the coronation for them. Spiritually-impoverished liberals all but demand that scientists serve as their gurus, prophets and political advisers.
There is a certain logic to this. If you crave objective truth but want it shorn of all mystery and metaphysical grandeur, science is the most promising place to look. Hucksters like Richard Dawkins are happy to cash in on this market by churning out smut philosophy for the simple-minded. Rank and file scientists are sometimes a little ashamed of Dawkins’ over-the-top antics, but they are mostly willing to toe the line in exchange for continued grants and social prestige. Thus science becomes more and more the tool of the left, used to advance liberal politics and progressive philosophy.
We should all be deeply concerned about what this portends. Science without integrity can be a very dangerous thing, particularly when (as in our time) the public is inclined to defer to scientists as wise and learned men. We must continue to explain to the public that conservatives are not in the least hostile to the study of the natural world. At the same time we must make clear that we will oppose all efforts to use the mantle of science to undermine liberty, justice and the genuine pursuit of truth.
Rachel Lu teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas. Follow her on Twitter.