Science and Party Lines; Neither Coincident nor Parallel

March 25th, 2009

Posted by: admin

There’s plenty to find fault with about the “War on Science” meme.  One problem is that it presumes – or at least lends itself to the assumption – that one party or political philosophy is naturally pro-science and others are naturally anti-science.  It’s just not that simple.  This isn’t exactly news, especially if you’ve been reading this blog for a while.  But it’s worth repeating because the reverse has currency in other circles.  Aside from the battle cries against the former President, there are those in conservative circles that suggest science is an anti-democratic force, and Democrats its unwitting allies.  A prime example of this argument is found in Yuval Levin’s recent book Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy.  I’ll defer to Erik Perens’ review of the book and deconstruction of the argument as to why Levin suffers from the same general problem of soldiers in the recent “War on Science.”

While some may note the closeness in time of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment as supporting a particular political orientation to science, the attempt at a parallel ignores the nature of the political shift during that time.  Several political philosophies either originated or undertook significant shifts during this time.  Traditional liberalism and conservatism (in the theory sense, not the political label sense) both emerged during this frame, so it’s not necessarily so that science must support one over the other.

Much as they do in Perens’ review, issues related to biology are rich with examples of how fractured direct mapping of politics and science can be.  Such issues are often the bread and butter of articles at The New Atlantis, a conservative journal of science and technology.  But they are also the concern of other groups, like the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, which maps out the various political perspectives of different groups in what they call biopolitics.  None of them are strictly pro- or anti-technology, much as environmental groups aren’t all pro- or anti-technology.

I have no particular takeaway for readers, other than a repetition of a general principle – science knows no particular party or ideology, or rather it knows many parties and ideologies.

12 Responses to “Science and Party Lines; Neither Coincident nor Parallel”

  1. gwilliamthomas Says:

    Appeals to the Enlightenment/Scientific Revolution may not suggest one or another political party is for or against “science”, but the rhetorical strategy of casting one’s opponent as for or against science and reason is directly linked to the period.

    Hobbes’ Leviathan begins with an extended theory of knowledge, and he himself was a proponent of Cartesian mechanical philosophy (Leviathan and the Air Pump really is a must-read). John Locke wrote Essay Concerning Human Understanding as well as Two Treatises on Government, and was a proponent for Newton against Leibniz. Leibniz’s philosophical suggestion that we live in the “Best of All Possible Worlds” was famously mocked by Voltaire. Enlightenment political philosophers routinely invoked Newton as someone who upset Scholastic doctrines, taking inspiration that politics, too, could be founded upon reason rather than the proclamations of authority. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, especially, casting one’s opponent as entranced by rationality itself became a common form of political argument.

    That conversation has since divided and rearranged itself continuously in discussions about political economy/economics, expert advisers, participatory democracy, technology as a path to economic vitality, government as a defender of social values—you name it. But, while science, technology, expertise, and economics have all, necessarily, become central to governance from the left or right, it is still sometimes found convenient to cast one’s opponent as simply against, uncommitted to, or entranced by science and reason.

    It is worth understanding the depth of these traditions of argumentation, the reasons for their endurance, and their malleability through history.

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  3. Will Thomas Says:

    Didn’t mean to post under my login name.

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  5. JoshD Says:

    I think some believe that science is anti-democratic because of the way “scientific consensus” is implemented. In the US science is all too frequently implemented by unelected “experts” either through the courts or the regulatory process.

    CO2 regulation is a prime example. There have been three key developments in regulating climate change in recent years. (1) Supreme Court ruling that CO2 (a byproduct of human respiration) is a pollutant that should be regulated under the clean air act; (2) That Polar Bears are endangered due to the habitat reduction PREDICTED by computer models; and (3) the EPA now under Obama announced they will draw up plans to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act.

    None of these decisions was made by elected officials through the democratic process. These decisions were made by unelected judges and appointed bureaucrats who are frequently predisposed to a certain outcome. The President proposed a cap-and-trade system which looks like it won’t even start through the democratic process because elected officials. even of the President’s own party, balked at the idea right now. However, even as this is happening the EPA is exploring a strict regulatory regime of their own and legally they are empowered to set whatever caps they wish.

    Placing huge new regulatory burdens on business and the public through judicial decision or regulation based primarily on the “word of experts” IS undemocratic. If there is a belief that we should regulate CO2 then a bill should be proposed in Congress and our elected officials should go on the record and vote. The Clean Air Act specifically did not include CO2 as a criteria pollutant and yet the court and EPA are adding it in there.

    We have a robust democratic system; we should use it.

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  7. David Bruggeman Says:

    Scientific consensus is not the same thing as what you describe as its implementation. Scientific consensus is a scientific community decision about what conclusions are accepted, through peer review and the repeatability of results. What you’re describing as the implementation of science is really the implementation of policy decisions informed by scientific data, models and predictions, and done by politicians and policymakers. And no particular party or political persuasion is reluctant to do this.

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  9. bend Says:

    I agree with your point entirely. However, I don’t think that many (not even “thinking” scientists) will be easily persuaded. When significant factions of the Republican party support the teaching of unscientific ID in science classrooms, it is easy to stigmatize them as science-hostile. Never mind the significant factions of the Democrat party who believe in the therapeutic value of homeopathic “medicine.” A little more justifiable (but still anti-science by my reasoning) is their opposition to GMO technology and the constant call for more regulation of new medicines. No party has perfect integrity when it comes to scientific view, but then again neither do most scientists.
    I was confused, however, by your terminology of “traditional liberalism” and “conservatism.” “Traditional” and “classical” liberalism refers to what we now consider “libertarians,” who many observers would say share more with conservatives than with contemporary liberals. As a matter of fact, many conservatives consider themselves philosophical kin of the classic liberals. Of course most libertarians would disown either party, but the “traditional liberal” and “conservative” at the very least are not in general opposition.

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  11. Maurice Garoutte Says:

    This thread seems to assume that science and policy are independent attributes assigned to different people.

    The underlying assumptions break down in a world where policy wonks establish and fund scientific research. When the resulting science is used to justify the policies of the funding government it is natural that people who disagree with the policy will oppose the science as biased.

    The end will be when leading scientists turn into activists and lead rallies of hippies to advocate a policy. Oh wait.

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  13. David Bruggeman Says:

    The persuasion will be difficult, but given that the scientists will likely think they are acting scientifically when they are really acting politically, it’s a Sisyphean labor that needs to continue.

    Stigmatizing creationists as science-hostile is distinct from characterizing Republicans as science-hostile. And I’m not as convinced about the homeopathy battles, certainly about them being particular to a specific party or not. (and please, the adjectival form of both Democrat and democrat is democratic)

    My shorthand for liberal and conservative. Liberal – Hume and Locke. Conservative – Burke. Arguably neither tradition survives in that form today, but the larger point was in the emergence of those trends and the scientific revolution as being contemporary. In short, they all emerged as some way to struggle with approaching the world through reason, and aren’t necessarily oppositional. I would submit – and I think you agree – that their descendants aren’t necessarily oppositional to science either.

    Libertarians have many stripes, but generally – to me, at least – seem to think liberalism and conservatism didn’t go far enough.

    How is the refusal to use a particular thing anti-science?

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  15. bend Says:

    Thank you for your response. Let me apologize for using “Democrat” when referring to the Democratic Party. I know it can be a touchy subject. I’m a registered Democrat myself, but referring to the party as “Democrat” is an old habit.
    Your explanation of liberal=Hume+Locke and conservative=Burke was helpful too (though I confess I had always seen Locke as a major positive influence and predecessor of Smith who was in close agreement with Burke on economic issues).
    And regarding your doubts on Democrats and homeopathy, your point is well taken. I made a generalization for which I don’t have rigorous statistical data. I’ll defend my generalization, nevertheless. It is Democratic members of Congress that created the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicines which funds research for homeopathic and other unproven and disproven alternative therapy.
    While not a direct measurement, heaviliy Democratic Boulder yellow pages have more listings for homeopathy than do the yellow pages of Republican Edmond Oklahoma, which is roughly similar in terms of population. I do not doubt that there are Republicans who believe in the benefits of homeopathy, just as I am aware of Democrats who want to teach ID in science class.
    In any case, these were just examples to illustrate that we Democrats are not collectively without sin when it comes to Science and so we should be careful with how we (mis)characterize others.

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  17. David Bruggeman Says:

    “Democrats are not collectively without sin when it comes to Science and so we should be careful with how we (mis)characterize others.”

    A point which I fully agree with.

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  19. docpine Says:

    David- I was intrigued by your statement “Scientific consensus is a scientific community decision about what conclusions are accepted, through peer review and the repeatability of results.”

    I would like to propose a hypothesis, which would be ” the more important and complex the issue the less likely there will be a scientific consensus”

    * the more complex the issue, the more disciplines are involved and the higher the likelihood that someone would see something differently.

    * actually there was a paper (hopefully someone out there remembers the authors) that said the hotter the issue, the less likely there is scientific agreement.

    Finally, not all science (remember the “post-normal science” idea) has the traditional kind of “repeatable results”, including, say, science that models future events, such as climate change science.

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  21. David Bruggeman Says:


    You’re right. I made the statement in a contrast with the making of policy decisions informed by science. Those decisions can be complicated by the lack of consensus, whether actual or perceived (in the latter case, something can be framed/presented as a lack of consensus, when it’s really the lack of unanimity).

    How would we test the hypothesis, or would this fall into that space of propositions that lack the potential for repeatable results?

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  23. michel Says:

    As a foreign observer of the US political scene, the accusation that the Republican Party is somehow anti-science strikes one as pure marketing. Both parties in the US seem to have an unfortunate habit of attempting to tag the other with positions they do not in fact hold, so as to produce guilt by association. The effect is to transform scientific issues into political ones.

    The classic example is AGW, where proponents have insisted so hard that support for the hypothesis is Democratic and opposition to it Republican, that the public has come to believe them, and so it has become a party political issue, to the great detriment of public understanding of the real pros and cons of the thing as scientific hypothesis.