Saturday, January 03, 2009

Is science left- or right-handed?

Secular Right is a relatively new blog devoted to non-religious conservatism. It appears they are censoring my comments for no very good reason, so I'm rerouting around the censorship by reposting here.

Anyway, the question was Who is pro-science, the Left or the Right?, and some data was presented to attempt to quantify this question. I replied (these comments were not censored):
These statistics are too coarse to be meaningful. The left is not unified, nor is the right. There are certain strains of anti-science and anti-technology on the left, broadly construed, but these charts won’t tell you anything interesting about it.

There is a strong undercurrent of anti-technological thinking in parts of the environmental movement, but it is not really left-wing in the strict sense. It owes more to romanticism than the Enlightenment values that drive the left, and while we tend to think of environmentalism as left-wing here and now, it could just as easily be linked to the extreme right (as it was in Nazi Germany). A preference for organic food and natural fibers does not necessarily correlate with a desire for the state to control the means of production, and in fact is more likely to be opposed to it.

As biotechnology applications becomes more widespread, I expect to see alliances between anti-science forces from the left and right sides of the spectrum. Call it the peasants-with-torches party.
Further on down the discussion, I mentioned:
I am surprised that nobody has referenced the very different science policies of Republican and Democratic administrations. Republicans have been radically anti-science: they’ve cut budgets, shut down important agencies (OTA), forced government scientists to adhere to politically-driven agendas, banned certain areas of research, promoted creationism and evidence-free faith-based programs. By contrast, the incoming administration has been naming prominent scientists to key posts, such as Steven Chu. I was at a New Year’s party with a bunch of experimental physicists and they were in ecstasy at the possibility of getting a science-friendly administration.

The two parties do not perfectly capture the essence of “left” and “right”, but it’s close enough. And it’s obvious which party is more in tune with science and scientists.
I still haven't gotten a reply to this, which leads me to think I'm wasting my time on that site, and must chalk up another failure in my quest for interesting arguments on the internet. They'd rather bitch about postmodernism in the academy, a trend which has approximately zero real-world consequences.

I later pointed out that, contrary to one commenter who said "what could be more conservative than a grounding in cold hard reality?", science departments, like almost all academic departments, skew overwhelmingly Democratic. Or, as Steven Colbert has said, "reality has a well-known liberal bias".

I'm disappointed, but not that surprised, that Secular Right is apparently going to be another right-wing circle-jerk and is not actually interested in evidence-based arguments about the real world. There are a number of obvious rejoinders to that last point (perhaps industrial scientists show less political bias; perhaps science departments are self-selecting for particular politics), but instead of making them my comment got sent to the trash heap. Oh well. I suppose I do have better things to do than pick political arguments anyway.


Friar Zero said...

Considering one of it's founding members is John Derbyshire I'm not entirely surprised.

TGGP said...

David Hume aka Razib had a post at SB:GNXP titled Is the Academy Liberal you might be interested in.

This was restricted to economists, but Daniel Klein (one of Razib's sources in that post) found that phds who worked for universities or government were more liberal than ones who worked elsewhere. He thinks that's evidence of bias, I think it's self-selection.

mtraven said...

My post already referenced the same research that the GNXP post was presenting.

TGGP said...

You do try to link to something at the Critical Review site, but your link doesn't work. It begins with and has another www after that.

mtraven said...

Oops, fixed.

raft said...

why are they censoring your comments?

do you mean they banned you?

mtraven said...

Don't know why. I am not "banned", as far as I know, but my comments aren't getting through. Their loss, in my opinion, but apparently not in theirs.

Michael said...

Self-selection is undoubtedly at work. I know three PhD chemists who work in munitions development as civilian employees of the military, two for the Navy and one for the Air Force. They are all staunch men of the right, and scornful of the gestures their employers, as branches of government, have made towards 'political correctness.' Another friend is a PhD/MD who works in the pharmaceutical industry, and he is also quite conservative, having seen misguided regulation cut his income. I am sure these men all know they would not be comfortable in academia or in non-military branches of government.

I do not think the physical sciences, at least, incline their practitioners in any particular political direction. Scientists do, however, know "which side their bread is buttered on." If they are dependent on government grants, they will favor the party that proposes to continue or even to enlarge them. If they are dependent on military appropriations, they will favor the party that wants to keep them high. If dependent on the fortunes of the private sector, they'll favor policies that foster its prosperity. On these points their behavior is no different than that of non-scientists.

From an historical point of view it should be noted that rigidly bureaucratic societies are less friendly to the development of science and technology than are those that have flexible governments and welcome free enterprise. This is illustrated not only in Europe but in China as well:

"In China the bureaucratic society which had been strengthened by the earlier dynasties was loosened in the ninth century A.D. with the massive secularization of monastic property. Thereafter, under the Sung dynasty, came a great efflorescence of science and technology. 'Wherever one follows up any specific piece of scientific or technological history in Chinese literature,' says Dr. Joseph Needham, in his 'Science and Civilisation in China' I (Cambridge, 1954), 134, 'it is always at the Sung dynasty that one finds the major focal point.' But with the Ming dynasty, the old bureaucratic structure was restored and the great Chinese inventions - including the three which, according to Francis Bacon, 'have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world,' viz., printing, gunpowder, and the compass - were followed up not in China but in Europe" (Trevor-Roper, "Religion, the Reformation, and Social Change,' 1967).