Saturday, March 14, 2015

Science & Politics

It is generally assumed that religion is a cause of political conflict.  That assumption is wrong.  Politics is the cause of political conflict.  Religious controversies drive politically controversies only when theological doctrine and religious practices become part of the self-identification of some political faction and/or, more importantly, when some faction comes to regard certain doctrines or practices as definitive of its enemies.  
Much the same thing is true when we consider the politicization of science.  The political left in the United States often accuses the right of being “anti-science” and the left is right, if you mean that conservative political views often determine what scientific evidence a conservative is willing to accept.  However, according to Erik C. Nisbet and R. Kelly Garrett.  They conducted a recent study of how political bias leads conservatives and liberals to distrust science.  The study is published in the ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and they summarize their findings in The New Republic. 
Nisbet and Garrett found that “Conservatives are no more biased about science than liberals are,” to cite the title of the TNR piece.  The authors consider two explanations for the ideological divide between conservatives and liberals over scientific issues. 
The first explanation assumes that conservatives are inherently anti-science as they tend to be more dogmatic and close-minded compared to liberals. They are therefore more “motivated” to reject scientific information that clashes with their world view and distrust its sources (in other words, scientists).
In contrast, the second thesis argues that though there are some nuanced psychological differences between liberals and conservatives, it would be a mistake to overstate them. Liberals are viewed as no less likely to respond to scientific information in biased manner than conservatives.
For instance, liberals and conservatives are equally likely to reject fact-checking messages that contradict misperceptions or believe in false political rumors about candidates they oppose.
I am inclined to accept the second explanation, whether because of brain design or because it happens to confirm my thesis, stated above.  
Unsurprisingly, we found that conservatives who read statements about climate or evolution had a stronger negative emotional experience and reported greater motivated resistance to the information as compared to liberals who read the same statements and other conservatives who read statements about geology or astronomy.
This in turn lead these conservatives to report significantly lower trust in the scientific community as compared to liberals who read the same statement or conservatives who read statements about ideologically neutral science.
Significantly, we found a similar pattern amongst liberals who read statements about nuclear power or fracking. And like conservatives who read statements about climate change or evolution, they expressed significantly lower levels of trust in the scientific community as compared to liberals who read the ideologically-neutral statements.
Biased attitudes toward scientific information and trust in the scientific community were evident among liberals and conservatives alike, and these biases varied depending on the science topic being considered.
As is the case for religious ideas, some scientific ideas are politically significant and some are not.  The former are those around which genuine political factions coalesce. 
There is probably no way to remedy this.  Religious wars in the West were ended not so much by deciding that religion was politically irrelevant as by a collective decision that politics was religiously irrelevant.  We discovered that we are not such fools as to believe that God needs us to save Him.  It will be harder to work that same strategy for science and politics.  Evolution is the right theory or not, regardless of whether a school board in Texas likes it.  Deciding what to do about climate change requires a lot of judgment calls on scientific questions and those calls must be made in political, not scholarly forums. 

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