Left, Right, and Science: Liberals and Conservatives Alike Wrap Groupthink in the Cloak of Science Whenever Convenient. the Results Are Seldom Good

By Clausen, Christopher | The Wilson Quarterly, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Left, Right, and Science: Liberals and Conservatives Alike Wrap Groupthink in the Cloak of Science Whenever Convenient. the Results Are Seldom Good


Clausen, Christopher, The Wilson Quarterly


WHEN BARACK OBAMA PROMISED IN HIS 2009 inaugural address that "we will restore science to its rightful place," he invoked not so much a debate as a set of widely shared assumptions. According to conventional wisdom, liberals and Democrats are the party of reason and science; conservatives and Republicans are the party of religion and patriotic symbols. As Drew Westen, a psychotherapist, recently expressed it in a New York Times op-ed, "Whereas Democrats have carried forward the belief in the role of science and knowledge in improving our lives, Republicans have moved in increasingly anti-intellectual directions." This way of stating the division, needless to say, is itself liberal and Democratic. While many conservatives (with notable exceptions) agree that religion is an important source of beliefs and public policies, probably few consider themselves anti-intellectual. Yet the impression that the physical and social sciences are to liberalism what religion is to conservatism goes mostly unquestioned on either side. Conservatives complain about a liberal war on Christian values and faith in general, Democrats about a Republican war on science.

Whether or not science inherently conduces toward liberalism, there is little question that American scientists tend to be liberals. In 2009 the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), released an exhaustive survey of attitudes toward science among scientists and the general public. About half the scientists were in biology or medicine; the rest were divided among other "hard" sciences. Fifty-five percent of the scientists identified themselves as Democrats, a level 20 points above that of the nonscientists. (When "leaners" are included, 81 percent of the scientists fall into the Democratic camp.) More than half of the scientists described themselves as liberals, while only a fifth of the general public did. Only nine percent of the scientists said they were conservatives, while 37 percent of the public did. Do scientific habits of evaluating evidence and looking at the world lead their practitioners to become liberals, or are scientists simply following the dominant influences in environments such as universities? After all, professors of English are also leftward in their political sympathies, though hardly anyone would claim that the study of language and literature is responsible.

If God is not a Republican, however, as a familiar bumper sticker proclaims, neither is nature a Democrat. Consider evolution. One of the anomalies of contemporary thought is that acceptance of Darwin's theory, which posits a brutally competitive, amoral, and goalless process of natural selection, has come to be identified with liberal political beliefs, while traditional Christianity, with its New Testament teachings about brotherhood, serving the poor, and turning the other cheek, is equated with conservatism. The emphasis on cooperative elements in social development by many evolutionary biologists today is partly an attempt to make the theory more compatible with aspirations to a more harmonious world. When William Jennings Bryan helped prosecute John Scopes in the famous 1925 Tennessee case that defined the battle lines between fundamentalists and evolutionists, part of his motivation was a concern about the brutalizing effects of Darwinian thinking on social theory. Bryan, who was the Democratic candidate for president in 1896, 1900, and 1908, had been perhaps the farthest-left presidential nominee in U.S. history at a time when social Darwinism--the application of an exaggerated version of natural selection to economic and social relations--was an influential force in American life and right-wing thought. If the South had not been simultaneously more religious and more conservative (for unrelated reasons) than the rest of the country when these controversies came to a head, Christian belief might easily have been more often identified with liberal politics and evolution with the Right. …

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