The Politicization of Science (Research)

Source: City-Journal, Autumn 2016

  1. there’s the Left’s opposition to genetically modified foodsTo preserve their integrity, scientists should avoid politics and embrace the skeptical rigor that their profession requires. They need to start welcoming conservatives and others who will spot their biases and violate their taboos. Making these changes won’t be easy, but the first step is simple: stop pretending that the threats to science are coming from the Right. Look in the other direction—or in the mirror., which stifled research into what could have been a second Green Revolution to feed Africa.
  2. Second, there’s the campaign by animal-rights activists against medical researchers, whose work has already been hampered and would be devastated if the activists succeeded in banning animal experimentation.
  3. Third, there’s the resistance in academia to studying the genetic underpinnings of human behavior, which has cut off many social scientists from the recent revolutions in genetics and neuroscience.

Each of these abuses is far more significant than anything done by conservatives, and there are plenty of others. The only successful war on science is the one waged by the Left.

… two huge threats to science are peculiar to the Left—and they’re getting worse.

The first threat is confirmation bias, the well-documented tendency of people to seek out and accept information that confirms their beliefs and prejudices. In a classic study of peer review, 75 psychologists were asked to referee a paper about the mental health of left-wing student activists. Some referees saw a version of the paper showing that the student activists’ mental health was above normal; others saw different data, showing it to be below normal. Sure enough, the more liberal referees were more likely to recommend publishing the paper favorable to the left-wing activists. When the conclusion went the other way, they quickly found problems with its methodology.

Scientists try to avoid confirmation bias by exposing their work to peer review by critics with different views, but it’s increasingly difficult for liberals to find such critics. Academics have traditionally leaned left politically, and many fields have essentially become monocultures, especially in the social sciences, where Democrats now outnumber Republicans by at least 8 to 1. (In sociology, where the ratio is 44 to 1, a student is much likelier to be taught by a Marxist than by a Republican.) The lopsided ratio has led to another well-documented phenomenon: people’s beliefs become more extreme when they’re surrounded by like-minded colleagues. They come to assume that their opinions are not only the norm but also the truth.

Groupthink has become so routine that many scientists aren’t even aware of it. Social psychologists, who have extensively studied conscious and unconscious biases against out-groups, are quick to blame these biases for the underrepresentation of women or minorities in the business world and other institutions. But they’ve been mostly oblivious to their own diversity problem, which is vastly larger. Democrats outnumber Republicans at least 12 to 1 (perhaps 40 to 1) in social psychology, creating what Jonathan Haidt calls a “tribal-moral community” with its own “sacred values” about what’s worth studying and what’s taboo.

The narrative that Republicans are antiscience has been fed by well-publicized studies reporting that conservatives are more close-minded and dogmatic than liberals are. But these conclusions have been based on questions asking people how strongly they cling to traditional morality and religion—dogmas that matter a lot more to conservatives than to liberals.

A few other studies—not well-publicized—have shown that liberals can be just as close-minded when their own beliefs, such as their feelings about the environment or Barack Obama, are challenged.

Social psychologists have often reported that conservatives are more prejudiced against other social groups than liberals are. But one of Haidt’s coauthors, Jarret Crawford of the College of New Jersey, recently noted a glaring problem with these studies: they typically involve attitudes toward groups that lean left, like African-Americans and communists. When Crawford (who is a liberal) did his own study involving a wider range of groups, he found that prejudice is bipartisan. Liberals display strong prejudice against religious Christians and other groups they perceive as right of center.

the second great threat from the Left: its long tradition of mixing science and politics. To conservatives, the fundamental problem with the Left is what Friedrich Hayek called the fatal conceit: the delusion that experts are wise enough to redesign society. Conservatives distrust central planners, preferring to rely on traditional institutions that protect individuals’ “natural rights” against the power of the state. Leftists have much more confidence in experts and the state.

… The Right cited scientific work when useful, but it didn’t enlist science to remake society—it still preferred guidance from traditional moralists and clerics. The Left saw scientists as the new high priests, offering them prestige, money, and power. The power too often corrupted. Over and over, scientists yielded to the temptation to exaggerate their expertise and moral authority, sometimes for horrendous purposes.

These same sneer-and-smear techniques predominate in the debate over climate change. President Obama promotes his green agenda by announcing that “the debate is settled,” and he denounces “climate deniers” by claiming that 97 percent of scientists believe that global warming is dangerous. His statements are false.

While the greenhouse effect is undeniably real, and while most scientists agree that there has been a rise in global temperatures caused in some part by human emissions of carbon dioxide, no one knows how much more warming will occur this century or whether it will be dangerous. How could the science be settled when there have been dozens of computer models of how carbon dioxide affects the climate? And when most of the models overestimated how much warming should have occurred by now? These failed predictions, as well as recent research into the effects of water vapor on temperatures, have caused many scientists to lower their projections of future warming. Some “luke-warmists” suggest that future temperature increases will be relatively modest and prove to be a net benefit, at least in the short term.

The most vocal critics of climate dogma are a half-dozen think tanks that together spend less than $15 million annually on environmental issues. The half-dozen major green groups spend more than $500 million, and the federal government spends $10 billion on climate research and technology to reduce emissions.

Add it up, and it’s clear that scientists face tremendous pressure to support the “consensus” on reducing carbon emissions, as Judith Curry, a climatologist at Georgia Tech, testified last year at a Senate hearing.

“This pressure comes not only from politicians but also from federal funding agencies, universities and professional societies, and scientists themselves who are green activists,” Curry said. “This advocacy extends to the professional societies that publish journals and organize conferences. Policy advocacy, combined with understating the uncertainties, risks destroying science’s reputation for honesty and objectivity—without which scientists become regarded as merely another lobbyist group.”

To preserve their integrity, scientists should avoid politics and embrace the skeptical rigor that their profession requires. They need to start welcoming conservatives and others who will spot their biases and violate their taboos. Making these changes won’t be easy, but the first step is simple: stop pretending that the threats to science are coming from the Right. Look in the other direction—or in the mirror.


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