“Malicious,” “diatribe,” and “preposterous” are words recently thrown at me. (How remarkable that I lived nearly 60 years before drawing this kind of vitriol. Maybe I haven’t been assertive enough!) When a scientific question has political implications, people have trouble separating the science from the politics. Anyway, it started like this…

Daniel Sarewitz of Arizona State University wrote an astonishingly obtuse article in Slate (December, 2010) titled “Most scientists in this country are Democrats. That's a problem.” Sarewitz cited a 2009 Pew Research Center finding that 6 percent of U.S. scientists are Republicans and 55 percent are Democrats. He took off from there. The rest of this posting will make more sense to you after you scan Sarewitz’ 2-page article here.

Max Bronstein, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Science Policy&Governance, posted Sarewitz’ article to the SciSIP listserv.

I don’t lob (adverbially turbocharged) adjectives like “obtuse” without being ready to support them. If necessary, I’ll parse the Slate article line by line in later comments. For now, though, here’s what I posted to the listserv:

Sarewitz's statement that “a more politically diverse scientific community... could foster greater confidence among Republican politicians about the legitimacy of mainstream science” is one that scientists will ridicule. If cold, hard facts don't sway the Republicans, a squishy meme like diversity – which Republicans already dislike – will hardly do the trick.

Sarewitz also misses an important big-picture point: The same mentality that makes [modern] conservatives mean (in the word's original sense of 'small') causes them to prefer simple answers - even obviously wrong simple answers like Iraqi culpability for 9/11 - over the hugely complex and system-oriented answers that today's science demands. They may have loved e=mc2, but they'll never love complex climate dynamics.

Worried about our country’s current political polarization, I had already been reading and thinking about the psychology of 21st-century liberalism and conservatism. I sent to the listserv cuttings from my Conscious Manager blogs of Aug and Sept 2008:

This month, the former president of University of Wisconsin at Madison, John D. Wiley [wrote an] important editorial in Madison Magazine. Wiley attacks the staff of his state’s biggest industry association for insisting that the answer to every question is “cut taxes,” even as the association (and everyone else) watches Wisconsin’s education system deteriorate. Wiley compares Wisconsin to other states, including neighboring Minnesota, and shows clearly that the most prosperous states do not have the lowest per-capita tax burden.

Building on Wiley’s argument, I advanced the notion that insisting on simple answers in the face of overwhelming evidence of a problem’s complexity can only be viewed as a mental illness. (This modern conservative malady is counterpoint to the liberal academic’s tendency to declare complexity and then hide within it, without ever reaching a decision.)

My September ’08 blog went on:

Last week I ventured that voters who cling to simple answers to hugely complex questions are mentally ill.  It would be more proper to say mentally maladapted, according to former American Psychological Association executive director Bryant Welch. Welch’s new book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind notes that the world was once simpler, and we are still adapted to that world – not to this one. Moreover (and this is the main point of his book), we are ready, nay eager, to allow self-interested parties to manufacture false but simple explanations that we can buy into.  Of course he really means only one Party, and its name starts with R.

The book is reviewed in Miller-McCune Magazine. The reviewer punches a bunch of holes in Welch’s thesis – and to be sure, a psychotherapist can’t make a living curing mental pathologies unless there are plenty of pathologies out there, and some therapists are not above inventing new ones from thin air. But Welch’s main argument survives the review, holes and all.

Anyway, now here comes John E. Schwarz, Professor Emeritus of political science at University of Arizona, whose Washington Post op-ed reasonably asks “Why is tax-and-spend worse than borrow-and-spend?”  His reasonable answer: It’s not worse, it's better. It’s not only more moral (because it doesn’t take food out of  children’s mouths) but it’s also better economically. Schwarz shows that job creation has been far greater under Democratic administrations for the past 50 years. No,they were not all government jobs! They happened because government invested in expensive and risky new technologies, entailing R&D costs that no single company would pay for. The results were commercialized, creating high-paying private-sector jobs. Without increasing the National Debt.

One David Wojick then posted to the listserv:

This political diatribe by Phillips does not contribute to a meaningful discussion of the implications of these one-sided political demographics on science policy. A good case can be made that ideology may be leading federally funded science in several politically sensitive areas. The issue is worth serious consideration, given the striking numbers claimed by Pew.
Diatribe! My posts were mild compared with Sarewitz’ smarmy, snarky Slate column. Moreover, mine related the thoughts of three people with serious credentials, with nary an opinion of my own added. I couldn’t let it go; I posted again…
My last post in response to Daniel Sarewitz’ essay noted that a former executive director of the APA, a U. of Arizona Prof Emeritus, and an ex-U. of Wisconsin president have suggested that an aversion to complexity is maladaptive. When three people of such caliber speak, their proposition must be taken seriously. It needs to be investigated before any ill-advised rush to balance the ranks of science on ideological lines.

This is especially important as the scientific areas generating political controversy today are those involving extreme complexity – climate, genetics, stem cell research, human development, etc.

Members of this listserv understand the dangers of staffing a laboratory or a university department on the basis of ideology rather than merit. Bad enough when it happens spontaneously; so much worse if it happens as a matter of policy. These dangers, which in other nations have led to the total loss of scientific objectivity, easily outweigh the simple danger of antipathetic politicians spiking a funding bill.

The discussion begs the question of who should be in Congress pulling the purse strings. It is fine that there are conservatives in Congress, and fine that there are liberals. Regardless of stripe, a good legislator needs to be able to reach across party lines, engage in sincere dialog, and make judicious compromises. The fact that these skills are absent in a large fraction of the incumbents is the problem that causes the problem that Daniel Sarewitz describes.

The former, not the latter, is the problem that should be solved. We have a mechanism for doing so – elections. We have no mechanism for seeding the scientific ranks with Republicans. Solve the first one, and a solution to the second will not be needed.

Sarewitz’ hand-waving phrase “partisan politics aside” leads us away from the fact that partisan politics – not a shortage of Republican scientists – is indeed the central issue.  His view that “a more politically diverse scientific community…. would cultivate more informed, creative, and challenging debates about the policy implications of scientific knowledge” is a pipe dream in the current climate of polarized politics.

Mr. Wojick, I am simply agreeing with Sarewitz’ statement that “As a first step, leaders of the scientific community should be willing to investigate and discuss the issue.”

Because climate studies are only part of the broad scientific enterprise, though, I do not think Sarewitz makes a salient point when he says that climate science results “delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used… to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats.” Republicans, for example, are strong advocates of national defense. And it was, after all, scientists – not shade-tree mechanics or tea-party high school dropouts – who brought us atomic weapons, satellite battlefield imaging, and the stealth bomber. Likewise Republicans emphasize law enforcement, and it was scientists who developed DNA evidence techniques.

Wojick brings his impressive Pitt and CMU degrees to Expert (their term) service for the Heartland Institute. Heartland’s mission “is to discover, develop, and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems.” Don’t you love it when, instead of solving problems, people spend their time piling prior constraints on what kinds of solutions will be okay? I mean, it would be fine to say I want solutions that don’t kill or maim anyone. But constraints based on political dogma, come on now. “Partisan think-tank” is an oxymoron, if you ask me.

Wojick riposted:

I personally have no problem with most scientists being Democrats, as long as policy makers recognize the implications, when it comes to scientifically intensive policy issues. What is important is to distinguish doing science from applying science to a policy issue. Scientists are likely to interpret the science as favoring the Democratic side of such issues.

But as a cognitive scientist I think it is preposterous to argue that this lopsided demographic is because Republicans are averse to complexity. My conjecture is that Republicans interested in how the world works become engineers. Engineering is arguably more complex than science, because it deals with real situations, not abstractions. (I happen to be both.) The law is arguably more complex than either….

Overall I find your characterization of Republicans to be malicious, not scientific.

OK, first of all, Wojick’s bio says “Ph.D. in the philosophy of science and mathematical logic from the University of Pittsburgh and a B.S. in civil engineering from Carnegie Tech.” Do you see cognitive science in there? I don’t.

Second, hey, I’m posing a hypothesis. Science allows hypotheses of any origin – from any consideration whatsoever, apples falling on your head, or, yes, a malicious conviction that the theory of Professor Jerk down the hall just can’t be right. Science requires objectivity in testing hypotheses, and in deriving conclusions from the results.

Third, again, those conclusions (as distinct from recommendations based on the results) are objective, unless they are presented selectively. Thus, scientific conclusions may be freely applied to policy issues. Supposing, I guess, that they come with high p-values.

Fourth, I leave it to you to comment on Wojick’s conjecture about Republican engineers. Which I find preposterous.

And fifth, calling me malicious for questioning the equilibrium of the folks the press for months had been calling “the party of mean”? This is, at the very best, the pot calling the kettle black.

Other listserv members joined in to condemn the topic as inappropriate for the forum. Not surprising, as the forum often seems less oriented to debating science policy than to extracting maximum grants from the government. So, it’s no place to talk politics – as if science policy could be separate from politics.

Another member then challenged Sarewitz’ statistics:

The Pew sample is drawn from AAAS members. Is the AAAS membership representative of American scientists in general? It seems plausible that Republican scientists may be less likely than Democratic scientists to join AAAS. Details at http://people-press.org/report/?pageid=1554 

Still another reminded us that support for science had been bipartisan through the senior Bush’s presidency and into the Clinton years. This provided good context for the issue at hand, and I don’t disagree with it. The point I was arguing with Sarewitz and Wojick was about how “conservatism” had so drastically mutated since the Clinton administration.

By excerpting her listserv post, let’s let Elizabeth Graffy of the US Geological Service have the last word:

The right question is not what political party scientists… belong to; past research has already shown that there tend to be associations between different scientific disciplines and political worldviews.

It is somewhat misleading -- though undeniably provocative and interesting -- to focus on the appearance of a correlation between scientists' political affiliations and the policy options on the table for any issue. Political scientists and policy scholars, not to mention natural scientists, have never assumed, nor would they likely endorse, such a direct connection. Or, perhaps to put it another way, if there is any question about whether such a correlation really exists, then the right focus would be on the institutions for deliberation, not on the political parties of scientists.

As still another election approaches, and as it appears so far again to be characterized by extreme polarization and name-calling, I believe putting partisan psychology (and, as Graffy suggests, institutional design) on the scientific table “is worth serious consideration.” Even if I’ve done some of the name-calling myself!

Yes, I let my own bias show, but in the service of raising a real scientific question. My interlocutor let his bias show, in the service of suppressing the question. What do you think?

Would forcing a “balance” of Dems and Reps in science lead to an unacceptable politicization of science? Or would not doing so perpetuate an existing politicization?

Does answering every policy question, regardless of its nature, with “cut taxes” indicate an aversion to complexity? (There was a time when “answer every question with ‘cut taxes’” might have been an unfair caricature. Today it is no caricature, but a well-deserved characterization.) Is it maladaptive? (Mr. Welch of the APA argues on the basis of evolutionary psychology, and all evolutionary psychology is speculative. I should also mention that Prof. Schwartz is a Fellow of Demos, an organization advocating a “strong public sector.” So I’m happy to entertain arguments against my appeals to authority.)

Simplicity-seeking is admirable, in moderation. All scientists prefer simple laws and elegant solutions – when possible. Sometimes simple laws and elegant solutions are not possible. Are there people who are immanently immoderate simplicity-seekers? And others who are not? Do the two types gravitate to different political philosophies? Are (i) yes, (ii) no, (iii) let’s test it, and (iv) it’s wrong even to raise the question, the full possible range of answers? Which of the four do you subscribe to?