Where Are the Republican Scientists?

 

Among a sample of 2,533 scientists who took a Pew Research Center survey in July of 2009, 55% self-identified as Democrats, 32% as Independents, and a paltry 6% as Republicans.

Daniel Sarewitz writing at Slate believes these statistics indicate the growing politicization of science, a major threat to a free and democratic society.  Take the national debate over climate change, for example:

[C]ould it be that disagreements over climate change are essentially political—and that science is just carried along for the ride? For 20 years, evidence about global warming has been directly and explicitly linked to a set of policy responses demanding international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, and the redistribution of wealth. These are the sort of things that most Democrats welcome, and most Republicans hate. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science.

Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence—or causation?

Americans, by and large, tend to trust the institution of science, Sarewitz asserts, but the increasingly partisan nature of scientists could have calamitous effects on the public’s confidence down the road.

If that public confidence [in science] is lost, it would be a huge and perhaps unrecoverable loss for a democratic society…[T]he issue here is legitimacy, not literacy. A democratic society needs Republican scientists.

So how do we get more Republicans to enter scientific fields?  Before we can answer that question, we must first address why there are so few Republican scientists to begin with.  The Economist blog “Democracy in America” offers three hypotheses:

The first is that scientists are hostile towards Republicans, which scares young Republicans away from careers in science. The second is that Republicans are hostile towards science, and don’t want to go into careers in science. The third is that young people who go into the sciences tend to end up becoming Democrats, due to factors inherent in the practice of science or to peer-group identification with other scientists.

Do one or more of these hypotheses explain the phenomenon of the virtually non-existent Republican scientist, or is there something else going on here?  And what, if anything, should be done about it?  Do we need affirmative action for Republicans?

There are 65 comments.

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  1. Inactive

    For the most part scientists are funded through the government. Therefore, it would be in the scientists best interest for the government to be large and spend a lot of money on their research. A rational self-interested scientist would seek a larger government.

    I’m sure there are a fair number of scientists employed by private companies that tend to lean to the right, but are dwarfed by the number who get their money from the state. Just a theory.

    I believe I read somewhere that engineers are significantly more conservative than liberal, but I could be wrong.

    • #1
    • December 18, 2010 at 1:25 am
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  2. Inactive

    “Republicans are hostile to science”? That old canard again.

    Just because some of us think the theories of a 19th-Century gentleman naturalist should be subject to debate doesn’t mean we’re hostile to science. Nor does our skepticism with regard to the highly-politicized science of climate change.

    So scratch that argument.

    I would suggest this: though scientists may be the hard-hats of academia, they are, still , largely academics.

    So the question, then, is this: why are academics predominantly Leftists?

    • #2
    • December 18, 2010 at 1:27 am
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  3. Inactive
    Joshua Riddle, Intern: For the most part scientists are funded through the government. Therefore, it would be in the scientists best interest for the government to be large and spend a lot of money on their research. A rational self-interested scientist would seek a larger government.

    I’m sure there are a fair number of scientists employed by private companies that tend to lean to the right, but are dwarfed by the number who get their money from the state. Just a theory.

    I believe I read somewhere that engineers are significantly more conservative than liberal, but I could be wrong. · Dec 17 at 12:25pm

    Funding and peer pressure in science are the subjects of Ben Stein’s documentary, “No Intelligence Allowed”.

    Those who do not toe the line are not only de-funded, their careers are often destroyed.

    • #3
    • December 18, 2010 at 1:31 am
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  4. Inactive

    Some more thoughts to ponder:

    1. The scientists the poll surveyed were all members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. So the results should have referred to ‘members of the AAAS’ and not ‘scientists’. Nonprofit international organizations follow O’Sullivan’s Law quite consistently.

    2. Most scientists spend a lot of time on college campuses not really thinking about politics. However, the general liberal worldview dominates everything.

    3. Many scientists are nonbelievers and they are turned off by the Christian Right.

    4. What Josh said. Scientists’ interaction with government generally consists of collecting money from it. Why bite the hand that feeds you?

    • #4
    • December 18, 2010 at 1:42 am
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  5. Member

    I agree that government funding and peer pressure are factors. Even corporate researchers must deal with federal regulators.

    Another reason may be the length of schooling. Don’t most professional scientists get Masters and Doctorates? If so, it’s that much longer they’re among liberal professors and that much more time spent in the clouds of theory. Scientists with non-research jobs, like those who form the backbone of oil companies or mix chemicals for daily use, tend to be more conservative.

    But I don’t sense that researchers are losing any legitimacy. Aside from anthropogenic global warming, the average American is aware of few other examples of bad science and completely apathetic to lab politics. Science is still held up on a pedestal as if it was immune to the failings of human nature.

    • #5
    • December 18, 2010 at 1:47 am
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  6. Member

    I think what Joshua says is true. Many scientists are dependent upon government grants, hence scientists are incentivized to endorse greater government authority. According to the Pew survey,

    “While scientists are generally upbeat about the state of their profession, they do see several obstacles to conducting high-quality basic research. As might be expected, by far the biggest impediment is a lack of funding; more than eight-in-ten say this is a very serious (46%) or a serious (41%) impediment to research.”

    The government helps finance their research.

    In a similar vein, Ludwig von Mises wrote a short book called The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality (its free) in which he explains why most intellectuals have contempt for capitalism. Mises argues in part that intellectuals and businessmen are peers: they grow up and are educated in close proximity and mingle amongst each other. Yet businessmen earn much more than intellectuals, giving intellectuals the impression that they and their work are under-appreciated. As a result, intellectuals tend to have few qualms over government regulation and supervision of businessmen.

    • #6
    • December 18, 2010 at 1:55 am
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  7. Member

    The answer really is “all of the above”. I work in academia, and our kids do as well; one is a scientist, and she is the most left-minded in the family.

    Engineers are oriented toward hard solutions in the real world. Research scientists are thinking Blue Sky,. Truth, and Beauty. The more practical mindset is attracted to the more practical pursuit, and they do work mostly for private concerns. There is also, indeed, a strong peer pressure against the Great Unwashed, and a positive bias toward turning control of the world over to credentialed Experts. And indeed AAAS is a secular leftist organization.

    But there is a lot of self-selection that goes on here. Those who get sick of the nonsense and herd mentality get out, and don’t participate in the surveys.

    My concern is that irresponsible and blatantly political behavior by scientists, particularly with regard to the green movement, peer-review, and openness in verifiable research results reporting, is inevitably going to sap the respect the public has for actual science. And then we will have to find new honest brokers.

    Popular ignorance about the philosophy of science is a major problem.

    • #7
    • December 18, 2010 at 1:57 am
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  8. Member

    Plus, as John Dietl argues, these are members of the AAAS. They are not economists, so the likelihood of these individuals being ignorant of economics is greater.

    • #8
    • December 18, 2010 at 1:57 am
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  9. Contributor
    Diane Ellis Post author

    Aaron Miller:

    But I don’t sense that researchers are losing any legitimacy. Aside from anthropogenic global warming, the average American is aware of few other examples of bad science and completely apathetic to lab politics. Science is still held up on a pedestal as if it was immune to the failings of human nature. · Dec 17 at 12:47pm

    Do you buy into Sarewitz’s argument that one-way partisanship in science is bad for democracy?

    • #9
    • December 18, 2010 at 1:58 am
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  10. Member
    Diane Ellis, Ed.
    Aaron Miller:
    Do you buy into Sarewitz’s argument that one-way partisanship in science is bad for democracy?

    It would only be bad if the arguments the scientists implicitly use to justify their democratic leanings were unsound.

    • #10
    • December 18, 2010 at 2:05 am
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  11. Inactive
    Diane Ellis, Ed.
    Aaron Miller:

    But I don’t sense that researchers are losing any legitimacy. Aside from anthropogenic global warming, the average American is aware of few other examples of bad science and completely apathetic to lab politics. Science is still held up on a pedestal as if it was immune to the failings of human nature. · Dec 17 at 12:47pm

    Do you buy into Sarewitz’s argument that one-way partisanship in science is bad for democracy? · Dec 17 at 12:58pm

    When the science in question starts raising political and/or moral questions, then yes that one-way partisanship is bad. When we’re talking about cloning, climate change, embryonic stem cells, having the vast majority of the scientists in question be Democrats makes it difficult for the laymen who are supposed to be making informed political decisions on these issues to have access to opposing arguments.

    On the other hand, when the science in question is astrophysics I don’t think it matters what the political leanings of the academics are.

    • #11
    • December 18, 2010 at 2:11 am
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  12. Inactive

    Let’s ask Larry Summers.

    • #12
    • December 18, 2010 at 2:16 am
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  13. Inactive

    I just spent a few minutes perusing the website for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Their positions appear to be largely left of center, and they’ve published a particularly hotheaded statement about Michael Mann (of Penn State, Hockey Stick guy) being investigated because of his involvement in the Climategate scandal.That should really tell you all you need to know about this ‘scientific’ organization.

    It’s axiomatic that organizations that are not explicitly conservative tend to either start off as left-wing or become left-wing over time. What we appear to have here is a lefty organization with a sciency-sounding name and mission statement. And, son of a gun, most of them are Democrats.

    Just think about it for a second; six percent? Does that really seem plausible? It sounds ridiculous to me.

    • #13
    • December 18, 2010 at 2:26 am
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  14. Member
    Diane Ellis, Ed.

    Do you buy into Sarewitz’s argument that one-way partisanship in science is bad for democracy?

    Two considerations come immediately to mind. First, does an ideological imbalance often prevent valid research from being conducted? Second, what is the impact on the availability and quality of peer reviews for research that is conducted?

    Communicating scientific findings to the non-scientific community seems like a separate problem. Popular media can distort findings, regardless.

    I’ll let Ricochet’s scientists have the last word on that, but my inclination is to say it’s roughly equivalent to the Left’s domination of the arts throughout history and throughout the world. Certainly, that dominance has serious political and cultural implications, but is it a temporary or universal (probably irreversible) trend?

    Like artists, researchers are attracted by the Left’s libertine take on exploration and invention. In other words, the easier path is the one with no moral limits or practical constraints.

    There are many scientists in my extended family. Those involved in research are/were less conservative.

    • #14
    • December 18, 2010 at 2:31 am
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  15. Inactive

    I agree that they probably tend to be leftists because that’s their bread and butter – government grants. Also, for some reason scientists tend to be more secular or atheist, which also lends itself to the left.

    But the article is dead-on: The increasing politicization of science is going to ruin it. Until recently, people trusted science because, by its very nature (empirical evidence, etc) it is non-partisan. Nowadays, though, leftist climate researchers trot out computer models and claim that is science to prove their point. They are willing to do this because on the left, it’s okay to lie in pursuit of the greater good.

    They do the same thing with second-hand smoke. They take a biased view of some data, extrapolate out some gigantically large number and call those deaths “secondhand-smoke-related,” regardless of the real truth of it, including other contributing factors. Again, that’s not science, in truth.

    Real science created an alternative to embryonic stem cell research a year or two ago, solving the moral problem of killing embryos. Yet they STILL call for killing embryos because their true agenda is elsewhere.

    They use science however it benefits them.

    • #15
    • December 18, 2010 at 2:35 am
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  16. Member

    As both the “anonymous” and “academic” parts of my handle indicate, this is an issue I take seriously. Since this most recent round of discussion has focused on the STEM (ie, hard science) fields, it leaves out the telling fact that, bad as they are, STEM fields are much less ideologically uniform than the humanities and social sciences, most of which are about 20:1 in analyses of party registration data. This implies that it’s something about academia rather than something specifically about science since the hard science fields experience the disparity less intensely.

    Similarly, argumentum ad NIH/NSF misses the fact that Libertarians are as common in some disciplines as Republicans. Since Libertarians are very rare in the general population, it implies that social issues, not fiscal issues drive academia to the left.

    I also have to say that when I see conservatives tying the issue to pseudo-science like ID I see this is not only innacurate (plenty of pretty conservative scientists understand why the neo-Darwinian synthesis is a very solid paradigm) as a losing position because when you equate conservatism with know-nothingism you are not making a case for greater inclusion, but greater exclusion.

    • #16
    • December 18, 2010 at 2:37 am
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  17. Member

    ps, the issue of the ideological position of well-educated professionals is a well-mined area in sociology where it’s often known as “new class theory.”

    for instance, see some work by Steve Brint

    New Class and Cumulative trend Explanations of the Liberal Political Attitudes of Professionals

    In an Age of Experts

    and also Neil Gross

    “Why Are Professors Liberal?”

    “Explaining Professors’ Politics”

    • #17
    • December 18, 2010 at 2:43 am
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  18. Member
    Xty

    Late to the party, but I thought this too:

    Joshua Riddle, Intern: For the most part scientists are funded through the government. Therefore, it would be in the scientists best interest for the government to be large and spend a lot of money on their research…. I believe I read somewhere that engineers are significantly more conservative than liberal, but I could be wrong. · Dec 17 at 12:25pm

    Government funding, and the more individualistic scientists become doctors and engineers. Until the government takes over health-care, that is.

    • #18
    • December 18, 2010 at 2:55 am
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  19. Member

    I’ll echo what a few above have said and say that the science-oriented conservatives tend more towards engineering. Science is all about observation and testing out theories (and it’s cooler if your theory is right!). Engineering is taking what the scientists have found out, and making it work – or making good things even better. It’s hard to have that engineer’s mindset and still believe in Marxism, the welfare state, etc. But as a scientist, that doesn’t matter so much – maybe the conditions were just wrong those times – if we change this, it might work…

    But an interesting observation I made while in college (as an aerospace engineering major) – those that had the focus on the “space” part (the future rocket scientists) seemed to be more liberal than the “aero” folks like me (airplanes, helicopters). I wonder why that was.

    • #19
    • December 18, 2010 at 3:00 am
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  20. Moderator
    anon_academic: it leaves out the telling fact that, bad as they are, STEM fields are much less ideologically uniform than the humanities and social sciences, most of which are about 20:1 in analyses of party registration data. This implies that it’s something about academia rather than something specifically about science since the hard science fields experience the disparity less intensely.

    Good point.

    Similarly, argumentum ad NIH/NSF misses the fact that Libertarians are as common in some disciplines as Republicans.

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. How does “argumentum ad NIH/NSF” miss this fact?

    Do you take “argumentum ad NIH/NSF” to mean that libertarians should be too disgusted with the centralized funding of science to be scientists, and the fact that they’re apparently not is evidence that the centralized funding isn’t what disgusts people?

    Because I think people are disgusted — heck, I know full-out lefty scientists who are disgusted with the centralized funding regime. But people do funny things for love.

    If pursuing the discipline you love means whoring yourself up with federal grants, it’s hard to resist the temptation… I haven’t.

    • #20
    • December 18, 2010 at 3:01 am
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  21. Member
    anon_academic: I also have to say that when I see conservatives tying the issue to pseudo-science like ID I see this is not only innacurate (plenty of pretty conservative scientists understand why the neo-Darwinian synthesis is a very solid paradigm) as a losing position because when you equate conservatism with know-nothingism you are not making a case for greater inclusion, but greater exclusion. · Dec 17 at 1:37pm

    Oh, good grief- let’s not get into that here. Promise me, anon_acad, that you will come back and feed those lines again on a guest post interchange that Claire sets up with David Berlinski. That is partly what I was talking about regarding the ignorance- among scientists- of the philosophy of science.

    xty, it actually happens the other way, and tends to follow the increase in female participation. The AMA is already left-leaning, the AAOS is definitely to the right. Basically, “family practice” is liberal, as is pediatrics- both trending toward female dominance (supporting “single payer”). The more specialized groups usually tend to be more more economically conservative. We are a long way from the days of Code Blue (written by the a past president of AMA).

    • #21
    • December 18, 2010 at 3:14 am
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  22. Member
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Do you take “argumentum ad NIH/NSF” to mean that libertarians should be too disgusted with the centralized funding of science to be scientists, and the fact that they’re apparently not is evidence that the centralized funding isn’t what disgusts people?

    I’m thinking in terms of odds-ratios rather than raw percentages which might explain the misunderstanding.

    If the reason academics are to the left is because dependence on grants gives them a class interest in big government, this fails to explain why, relative to the party breakdown of the right in the general population, academics on the right are disproportionately fiscal conservatives rather than social conservatives. Similarly, any academic can tell you that it’s fine to be against tariffs but you can’t be against abortion or gay marriage. This is the opposite of what you’d expect from a “we know we drink from the teat of the state” model of academic ideology being the thing that drives academia to the left.

    Furthermore, NIH/NSF doesn’t explain why the humanities (who get basically no grants at all) are much further to the left than STEM (who are usually soft money).

    • #22
    • December 18, 2010 at 3:14 am
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  23. Member
    Duane Oyen

    Oh, good grief- let’s not get into that here. Promise me, anon_acad, that you will come back and feed those lines again on a guest post interchange that Claire sets up with David Berlinski. That is partly what I was talking about regarding the ignorance- among scientists- of the philosophy of science.

    I’ve read Mr. Berlinski’s essays on ID in Commentary and I thought they were completely ridiculous. As far as I can tell, his argument is that biology isn’t a science because it doesn’t differential equations. This is a serious misunderstanding both of biology (which has plenty of math) and the scientific demarcation problem.

    (ps, i wasn’t the one who brought it up. at least two or three people in this thread mentioned empirical/theoretical issues popular on the right but which are well outside the scientific consensus)

    • #23
    • December 18, 2010 at 3:21 am
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  24. Moderator

    Regarding women, specifically…

    I suppose for women with scientific aptitude, a family-oriented outlook confers certain disadvantages. As conservatives tend to be more family-oriented than liberals, it wouldn’t surprise me if fewer conservative than liberal women of comparable scientific aptitude ended up pursuing it as a career for that reason.

    To do research efficiently, you need to make time for yourself that’s free of distractions. If you’re worried about what to feed your husband for dinner, laid low by morning-sickness, distracted by mewling, puking, and pooping infants, and constantly on-call for your elderly relatives as they fall, wander off, and wet themselves, how are you ever going to be able to be able to make as much of that time as someone without those family responsibilities?

    That doesn’t mean that no woman with a full family life can succeed at science. But the time and energy of even very talented people has limits: at some point more focus on one thing forces less focus on another. So for family-oriented women, the bar to achieving in science is set higher: they have to do it while doing all these other things, too.

    • #24
    • December 18, 2010 at 3:27 am
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  25. Contributor

    Part of the story here is that scientists tend to be committed to the notion that decisions should be made by those with expertise. Their vanity virtually requires this of them, and this is true in every learned profession (at every university that I know of, the law professors — even those in a fifth-rate law school sitting alongside a second-rate college of arts and sciences — think that they should run the place). Progressivism is all about setting aside democracy and replacing it in practice with legislation by experts. Just look at the administrative agencies in the federal government. The scientists who are — or at least pretend to be — experts are drawn to this like flies to honey. In our time, when the Republican Party has begun moving away from Progressivism, they will become Democrats because it is the Democratic Party that asserts that we should let the expert (real or imagined) dictates how we should live our lives.

    • #25
    • December 18, 2010 at 3:53 am
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  26. Moderator
    anon_academic

    If the reason academics are to the left is because dependence on grants gives them a class interest in big government, this fails to explain why, relative to the party breakdown of the right in the general population, academics on the right are disproportionately fiscal conservatives rather than social conservatives.

    Are you taking the human capacity for cognitive dissonance into account here? Are you relying on what people reveal by their behavior, or what they say about themselves?

    In my experience, people are plenty capable of being influenced by where the gravy’s coming from at the same time they state their general opposition to the Leviathan State. (It’s much easier for a steel engineer to call himself a fiscal conservative than it is for him to act on it by opposing protectionist steel tariffs, for example.)

    Also, as you observe, there is considerable social pressure against admitting social conservatism in academia. How many academics use “libertarian” or “fiscally conservative” as a proxy for a social conservatism that they’d rather not admit? It’s what I’d do (or do do, depending on your viewpoint).

    Behavior often reveals that money talks, even when self-description doesn’t.

    • #26
    • December 18, 2010 at 4:08 am
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  27. Inactive
    r r

    I’ve actually blogged about this topic here and Anon and I have spoken of this before. But one thing you should take into consideration is that there are many conservatives who don’t identify themselves as Republicans in academia. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘independents’ were actually conservative, making the split 55/45, which sounds more accurate.

    After all, if you’re really far left, you’re likely to identify as a Democrat these days. And, the reality is that most academics look down on the Republican party, even the conservative ones. I would bet my precious tenure that of the 32% many are conservative, and, many in the Democrat block probably identify as Democrat because they’ve been pressured to talk that way over the course of their career.

    One of my old professors, upon learning of my politics shared that he too was a conservative. He told me, “Don’t tell anyone, or I won’t get tenure.” Sad to be sure, and sadly true.

    That’s why I use Samwise Gamgee instead of my real name as well. But, I’m getting kind of tired of it and am thinking of revealing myself…

    • #27
    • December 18, 2010 at 4:28 am
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  28. Member
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Are you taking the human capacity for cognitive dissonance into account here? Are you relying on what people reveal by their behavior, or what they say about themselves?

    In my experience, people are plenty capable of being influenced by where the gravy’s coming from at the same time they state their general opposition to the Leviathan State.

    Also, as you observe, there is considerable social pressure against admitting social conservatism in academia. How many academics use “libertarian” or “fiscally conservative” as a proxy for a social conservatism that they’d rather not admit? It’s what I’d do (or do do, depending on your viewpoint).

    Behavior often reveals that money talks, even when self-description doesn’t. · Dec 17 at 3:08pm

    Yes, in general I prefer expressed preferences to self accounts. As to whether the greater hold of social liberalism than economic liberalism on the academic heart is some kind of sublimation of big state class interest, I’m gonna have to say that’s possible but not very parsimonious.

    • #28
    • December 18, 2010 at 4:29 am
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  29. Inactive
    Aaron Miller: Aside from anthropogenic global warming, the average American is aware of few other examples of bad science and completely apathetic to lab politics. · Dec 17 at 12:47pm

    The Junkman is a great source for bad science, if people aren’t already aware of him. Entertaining, too.

    • #29
    • December 18, 2010 at 4:48 am
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  30. Moderator
    Samwise Gamgee: But one thing you should take into consideration is that there are many conservatives who don’t identify themselves as Republicans in academia. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘independents’…

    Samwise has a point. “Independent” may be another proxy for “I lean conservative but would rather not admit it”.

    I’ve also met a fair number of socially-conservative Democrats in academia (measured by their confidential self-identification or their behavior). Perhaps the relative number of socially conservative Democrats and Independents in academia may be a less random estimate than relative libertarianism of how much economic vs social liberalism is going on? (I bet it’d still be too low, though: it’s just uncool to admit social conservatism.)

    It’s a game, though. You compensate for admissions of fiscal conservatism by allowing your colleagues to think of you as a libertine, whether you are or not. You compensate for a conservative social outlook by emphasizing how “compassionate” (willing to spend taxpayer money) you are. It’s admitting to both at once that really zaps you.

    Oh, and the R word. You can slip more conservatism past ’em if you say how much you hate Republicans.

    • #30
    • December 18, 2010 at 5:18 am
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