Martin Robbins Tackles Liberal Bias, Science Writing's Elephant In The Room
    By Hank Campbell | February 14th 2011 08:00 PM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    Is a lack of diversity in science writing a bad thing?   Yes and no.   Obviously if science writing relied on conservatives and the free market where people will only work for what capitalism will bear, Science 2.0 could not exist.   Academics, progressives or liberals in America (I have made the case that they are quite distinct in America, however - see Like Freedom? Thank A Scientist - How Science Made America Possible), both famous and non-famous, have contributed here for no reason other than a desire to communicate science.

    But outside that (well, never completely outside - to the hundreds and thousands who have written and commented here for no other reason than wanting to share science with the public, thanks once again) a group of fairly militant progressive bloggers who lament, for example, that women are not 51% of all science disciplines, seem to have no problem at all rationalizing reasons why there are so few Republicans in science.

    Martin Robbins at The Guardian (a publication no stranger to claims of left-wing favoritism) whose column covers "science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics" (whatever that last one is) tackles that startling lack of diversity in today's piece.   

    He quotes Professor Jon Haidt at the conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Texas, who said on this issue last week
    This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity. [...] Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation. But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.
    Isn't that the nature of humans?  Conservatives certainly are not surprised, either by the numbers or the rationalization behind them.   Literally the only people ever surprised about claims of overwhelming progressive politics in science academia are the people who are progressives in science academia and think they are wholesome and inclusive and generally awesome in their tolerance.   

    Despite overwhelming evidence that it is true, some women in science objected to my assertion that gender discrimination was gone, yet would they accept that conservatives in science have worse ostracization than gay people pretty much anywhere outside the mid-East?  That their publishing and job prospects are hurt if their politics become known?    If the logic follows that not seeing 'like' people in classes hurts self-esteem and performance for women then it certainly should follow that virtually every dollar of outreach now be devoted to recruiting conservatives, since the numbers are shockingly low.

    Aside from the fairness and diversity issue, there's a practical reason to have more Republicans in science and science writing and I touched on it a lot in the run-up to the 2008 U.S presidential election - namely that if one political party thinks you are 'in the bag' the party who owns you will not cater to you, they will focus on undecided people, and the party who knows they do not have your vote will not bother to try.   President Obama gave lip service to science, as did Republican candidate John McCain, but the difference between their positions was non-existent yet how many scientists made that their deciding factor?   Plenty claimed science mattered.   And despite Republicans being supposedly overrun by 'Christian conservatives' no one in science asked Pres. Obama what he thought about religion, much less religion in schools or science classes, because they did not want to know his answer (1).   The worthy effort ScienceDebate 2008 did even not broach the topic of evolution - fish hatcheries apparently being more important than science education in public schools - in its questions for the candidates, likely because they would not have liked Obama's answer.   His position on vaccines and autism was the same as McCain - politically deft but clearly in defiance of the evidence and his supposed friendliness toward human embryonic stem cell research is actually about the same as Pres. Bush and no different than McCain's.  Will it cost him any votes in 2012, though Bush was vilified by science blogging for it?  Absolutely not.
    Back to Robbins, he notes some outstanding examples of people reaching across political divides to do good work - an easy way to defuse Al Gore's detractors regarding global warming, for example, is to note that current energy policy is making Middle East dictators and loons like that guy in Venezuela rich, so if we can cure pollution and give dictatorships less money to fund terrorism, that should be a good thing all around.    We need more of that and fewer shrill activists circling the wagons and insisting all people on the other side adopt every pet political and cultural positions before they can find common ground on any of them.   In that regard, science blogging could do with more diversity and creativity than we get now.    The science audience is through the roof over a decade ago, but the science blogging audience has been stagnant for years.   More bloggers who are not parroting each other's politics couched as science would be good for everyone because then both Democrats and Republicans (and religious people and atheists) would be reading.
    I've written previously about women in science blogging, and the likes of Alom Shaha have tackled ethnic diversity in atheism; but the left-wing bias in our community is perhaps even greater still. And maybe that ought to give us pause for thought in an age where science is increasingly at the center of political controversies, from climate change to drug harm. 

    Are science writers online too hostile to conservatives? Can we do more to reach out to right-wing or religious groups? And if we don't have a diverse range of voices, can we still reach a range of people across the political spectrum? Does it really matter? Am I a hypocrite for writing this given my history of Daily Mail bashing? Is anyone still reading?
    I am, Martin.  It may be the first time I actually finished one of your articles!


    (1) And progressives are so willing to not believe their own eyes and ears, they put their heads in the collective sand about Obama, a break they would never give a Republican.   Here is Bill Maher insisting Obama is lying about being a Christian but is instead a 'secular humanist':


    I would like to be on your side here, against all the polarization and reaching out to the other side and all that, especially not using arguments to just fuel flames but instead being creative. However, when it comes to for example religious people and science, there is just a certain level that religious cannot (do not want to) grasp. Simple example: In order to think unbiased about quantum mechanics, you have to at least allow for playing around with some nihilistic possibilities. If you cannot even think about the 'multiverse' as a working hypothesis that holds true in as far as we know, you cannot grasp QM as it is today and so there is also not much way to go further and find out whether there are any corrections to that picture. Similar holds in many other fields (evolution and all that). Don't get me wrong - I am not saying that most of those who vote relatively left or call themselves progressive or liberal are much better, as all this is just their particular 'religion', but certainly those who are very conservative have a real brain-impediment to good, cutting edge science. Cutting edge science is about questioning the status quo and sometimes revolutionizing, the opposite of conservative.
    Yes, I agree the poles are unreachable.  Some on the left are always going to believe vaccines are causing autism and some on the right are going to believe the planet is 6,000 years old.   I don't much care about them because of diminishing returns the more we try to converge on perfect knowledge for people who do not want it.   A huge chunk of people in between are quite reachable, though.    Unless they are insulted first.

    From the beginning we set out to be as balanced as we could be, culturally and politically (difficult, of course, because most writers here are going to lean left so even 'balance' is relative) because a huge swath of the science audience will not read a place like - no one who is religious or a Republican wants to be vilified on a daily basis.  We at least hope this is a place where the bulk of religious people who do not deny science can get a little smarter.

    Blogging reaches about 3% of the science audience currently and a huge part of the reason is that a lot of science bloggers are militant weirdos and if that is the first impression people get, they dismiss the genre.    I think that's unfortunate.   If blogging gets bigger, better writers will do it from across the cultural spectrum and that will diminish the impact of the kooks who make much of science blogging look bad.   So I want it to get bigger and that means appealing to both the left and right.
    A huge chunk of people in between are quite reachable, though. Unless they are insulted first.
    Yes, that is what I always hope, but I came to see, also again through writing a blog, that the huge chunk of people in between are quite easily insulted. In fact, and excuse a buzz word, 'political correctness' involves silencing via stoking the fear of potentially insulting, which co-evolves with being insulted as a manner of (not) dealing with others' opinions.
    I really try to reach out, for example formulating articles about relativity so that neither those who violently deny nor those who believe in an aether will be insulted, same for vaccines and so on, but I often fail miserably.
    There is a limit of how sugary one can coat facts without bending them.
    It is neither coincidence nor discrimination that there are no strongly religious/conservative or, say, low IQs, understanding relativity and quantum physics (it vitally needs the ability to question what one all one's life believed to be obvious and self-evident). This is the extreme of a continuous range without some strange abrupt limit (like that all science beneath relativity could be totally accessible to religious). If this insults some readers who cannot deal with being implicitly called stupids, then that is just so, then these readers need to grow a thicker skin.
    Tricking conservatives to support solar energy by mentioning Hugo Chavez? Maybe a good idea that could be on a science platform under the heading of psychology - the science of how to manipulate people or some such. Using a science platform straight for such engineering under the heading "outreach" instead is a slippery slope.
    The things you outline here are likely good reasons why someone like P.Z. Myers can continue to write stuff for a decade and a half while most scientists give up.   There isn't even one scientist from the beginning who still writes here (or perhaps anywhere) because they are not fueled by the drama and controversy, it drains them instead.    In that light, the fact that he has been able to output so much, for so long, is impressive.  Most of us would have given up.

    On slippery slope psychology, that is what framing is, really.   Certainly a great many progressives have been tricked into supporting various anti-science positions by framing them in a way that appeals to their other sensibilities.  Obama being a friend to biology while Bush was an enemy despite having the identical policies is nothing but progressives framing his performance.   If a number of conservatives distrust the agenda of progressives but see an end result that is desirable, their distrust will no longer matter.   
    There isn't even one scientist from the beginning who still writes here (or perhaps anywhere) because they are not fueled by the drama and controversy, it drains them instead.
    This sentence doesn’t quite parse in my compiler.  What is it actually saying?  However, I certainly find blogging draining, which is why I’ve contributed so few articles recently.

    Perhaps that’s why so many of our favourite contributors seem to have given up.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England
    I suppose it was poorly worded; no scientist who wrote here in the first month of the site still writes here.   I think writers love to write and some scientists are writers but even ones who try may discover they do not like it.  PZ Myers has a large audience because he has been at it for a long time and it is still fun for him.   That is rare, it seems.   

    Fortunately, no one ever really leaves and we have people who contribute sporadically even if they have been gone for two years.   And new writers always sign up.   
    Some good points there. One thing I would add the the generic repub/conservative/fundie bashing is that the social cons tend to be lumped in with conservatism in general...and even many social cons are only conservative on particular social issues like abortion. The subset of social cons that are anti-science and not open to new information due to their religious beliefs is perhaps 20% of the conservative movement.
    I am personally a strong fiscal and constitutional conservative with a career outside of science but a strong interest in science and little in religion. Blogs like this are very helpful to me and while I had a strong education in basic science, I have learned much more about the subjects I am interested in on line than I ever did in school...(Top Tier Liberal Arts BTW). Since I spend a lot of time on the political forums with fellow conservatives... I often am able to articulate the fundamental errors and misinformation that are espoused by the YEC's & similar. So you might consider that a side benefit of being kind to conservatives on science blogs and not assuming that WE are the "missing link".

    I also think there is a bit of elitist arrogance that is common to many professions. Scientists are generally pretty smart guys & gals and have a particular expertise that requires years of study and preparation. This does not mean that you are always right...or even that the "consensus" is always right...even when it is JUST about the actual science. It also does not give scientists any particular ability beyond mortal men to judge what public policy should be...given the scientific facts. (Nor does is preclude having strong political opinions...but that is a bit different than setting oneself up as an oracle). Since scientists tend to be liberal AND dependent on government funding... they are going to run head on into conservatives like me who have quite different views on the role of government... and we'll need to be SOLD not TOLD on the benefits of any proposed policy vs. the trade offs which must be made.
    Hard to make progress on that front when people with life achievements lower than my own, show no respect for other opinions and are quite as vicious as anything emanating from the far right.

    Anyway... thanks for a good column & I hope some find this interesting.

    I think most of the science world is ignorant about religious people. Esp. when they believe that their thinking ability is limited only b/c of religion. Well let me enlighten you. It's not true. Some of us believe that a day is actually longer in God's terms than humans. We also believe that science is the blue print of His works and we are here to discover it, learn, and expand our minds about who He is through science.
    Diversity in science is key because if everyone thought the same and agreed the same beliefs... science will go no faster than it is now.
    If we look into history, Science lept bounds because of the people who did not agree with the general science population. If you look into the past many major science contributors that we glorify in the science world were religious but of course many books created by the "progressives" like to by pass that. If you become limited to the people who think and believe differently than the general science population you might actually be overlooking or turning a blind eye towards someone who has an easy answer in curing Aids or cancer.
    On a final note.. Many of the reasons why most Right-ist (which I am not nor am I a left-ist) do not out themselves in science or even go towards science is the ignorance of the majority collective in science. I mean really, do you want to be belittled every day by others who think that they are better than you in the terms of intelligence? Who needs that mental/emotional abuse daily. I sure don't.

    My friends and I may be atypical--I doubt it---but we like science and we don't go around belittling religious people--in fact some of us practice faiths. I think Dawkins' book (God IIlusion) paints an inaccurate picture; it polarizes like some much of what is unfortunately going on in the U.S. ---a civil war of sorts without the blood.
    Probably a reason why you are here.   We are certainly different than many science writing sites - they claim to be more 'tolerant' but really they are only tolerant of people who believe what they do and vote the way they vote.

    Don't get me wrong, the most militant science blogging site has twice the readership we have so they certainly figured out that controversy sells - but we'd rather be science than Keith Olbermann/Glenn Beck types masquerading as science.
    I have a strong attachment to both Canada and the US(have lived in the latter; daughter was born there), but there's one thing that you hear far less of in Canada: the distinction between a conservative and liberal stance, even though two of our three major political parties carry that label. Maybe I haven't read enough on the debate, but can it be objectively assessed that there is a shortage of "conservatives" among scientists?--- May I even go further and wonder how you can know for certain if someone---extremes aside--- is a liberal or conservative? Aside from acknowledging that a spectrum exists, I'm sure positions fluctuate and that maybe the very act of measuring such a thing will cause a shift in position.
    I assume political surveys are reasonably accurate on the simple questions, like if someone is a self-professed liberal or conservative.   That is also an average.   In the social psychology conference referenced above, there were 3 self-professed conservatives out of 1,000 attendees.  In physics, it is likely 50-50, in engineering perhaps it is even a majority of conservatives, but most everywhere else in America academics are left.   As the professor notes, it is well-known but few people talk about it or admit that it leads to issues in science (or science writing).   Certainly no one disputes it.
    Gerhard Adam
    Hank,  I think you would agree that too often the problem occurs because any discussion invariably degenerates into one side (or the other) simply treating their opponents as the enemy rather than someone they disagree with. 

    As a result, we don't end up having discussions regarding the different approaches to a problem, but instead we focus on vilifying the opponent and raising questions as to their fundamental intelligence regarding the views they hold.  Certainly there are times when anyone can get sarcastic, or insulting, but if there's truly something to be said, then I presume that someone is prepared to say it.  At present, that doesn't seem to occur regarding our politics. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Sure, it is often the case, especially in a nascent area like science blogging, that kookier people find a new way to express dislike they already have and simply find ways to reaffirm it - like Bush and human embryonic stem cells.    As this medium matures, the kooks will be less important.   An advantage of this over traditional journalism is people can speak plainly and in a variety of styles; I am different than you and you are different than Sascha and we all attract different readers.   In journalism, the NY Times has its readers and expects journalists to adapt their style to them.

    Science only exists because of it, capitalism is the fuel. Even a scientist should know that.