Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why Are Scientists Liberal?

The Pew Research Center has released data from a survey of scientists and the general public on perceptions of science in America. You can find the press release here, which contains a number of interesting items. One particularly interesting tidbit was data on political affiliations of the general public and of scientists. Not surprisingly, scientists tend to be liberal and democrats while the public is much more evenly divided.

As the graph on the right shows, the public is about 1/3 democrats, 1/3 independents, and 1/4 republicans while scientists are over half democrats, a third independents, and only 6% republicans. Similarly, when they looked at political ideology nearly two-fifths of the general population said they were conservative, the same amount said they were moderates, and one-fifth called themselves liberals. Over half of scientists, however, called themselves liberal, a third moderate and only a tenth said they were conservative.

There are some pretty clear tends here: scientists tend to be liberal democrats while the public is divided pretty evenly among the various party affiliations and ideological monikers. But the question that has always puzzled me is why? Is there something about science that corresponds to a liberal worldview and democratic politics? Or is it a secondary effect where being a scientist correlates with something and that something also correlates with being liberal? I'm interested in your thoughts.

Here's my take: as a conservative, a republican, and a scientist, I would prefer to think that there is nothing incompatible with science and my political views, however there are several direct links between science and liberal politics. First, republican politics since Ronald Regan have tended to focus on the business elite and the suburban/rural lower to middle class while democrats have gone with the intellectual elite and the urban middle to lower class. Since science is generally not done by businesses, republicans have less appreciation for science and have made it less of a priority. Second, many political conservatives are "anti-elitist". They seem to think that common, traditional beliefs and values are the best. Science is very much an elitist system where the best and brightest are valued far more than the average and innovation and newness are valued over tradition.

I think there are also a number of secondary effects. One is that scientists tend to be less religious than the general public and religion correlates well with conservative politics. Another is that there is a correlation between educational attainment and liberal politics and an anti-correlation between income and liberal politics, and since scientists are highly-educated and poorly paid, they tend to be democrats.

So what do you think? Why are scientists overwhelmingly liberal democrats when the population isn't?


  1. I honestly think it has everything to do with how the brain is wired. Numerous studies I could quote have come to the same conclusion as this one published in Nature:

    "In a simple experiment reported today in the journal Nature Neuroscience, scientists at New York University and UCLA show that political orientation is related to differences in how the brain processes information.

    Previous psychological studies have found that conservatives tend to be more structured and persistent in their judgments whereas liberals are more open to new experiences. The latest study found those traits are not confined to political situations but also influence everyday decisions."

    Now, you can criticize the above study, but there are several coming to the same conclusion.

    I believe your genetics, how you were raised, and various life experiences in an actual sense structure how your neurons are wired and operate and this has direct ties to liberal/conservative beliefs.

    I think this is directly related to how people see the world. For example, I was convinced that conservatives were doing X, Y and Z terrible things during the campaign and most of my friends and family couldn't see it to the point they thought I was either brain washed or making it up. (My family is extremely conservative, so you could be moderate, as I think I am, and have this problem. Lots of moderates like Colin Powel had major issues what the Republican Party was doing.)

    They on the other hand said things about Obama that I thought were coming from a Neverland World. I couldn't believe what I was hearing.

    In all honesty I am convinced it is because in many respects our brains literally perceive the world differently. I can't think of anything else to really explain it.

    Liberals have brains more open to new ideas which is good for academic settings like science. Conservatives are more "structured and persistent", liberals call this being closed minded :)(sorry I had to throw in a joke), which has its virtues in various contexts as well.

    As for Religion, I believe this is not a cause but an effect from the same cause. Religion or lack thereof is not making people conservative or liberal, but how brains are structured is altering religious belief and political convictions.

    I have tried to not be offensive in my remarks but I know this is an impossible topic to discuss without making people mad.

    Now it is more complex then this, but I believe how your brain is structured effects political belief, religious belief and ultimately how you view the world more than anything else.

    Furthermore, I don't think "open mindedness" is all that is different in liberal/consrvative brains, but one of many differences that affect things.

    And finally, I think both types of "brains" are important to have in this world so I am glad there are both liberals and conservatives running around.

  2. By the way I want to emphasize I am not trying to badmouth or accuse anybody of being better or worse.

    I'm just trying to point out there are real physical differences between conservatives and liberals that causes them to see and interact in the world in very different ways.

    These differences are as much to do with genetics and life experiences that mold your brain as to decisions you make with free agency.

    You wanted to know why scientists are liberal: because these physical differences are helpful in academic settings.

    This doesn't make them good or bad, it's just how they are.

  3. Just to remind everyone this is a statistics games, not all conservatives and liberals follow this claims exactly, it's just statistical.

  4. I don't know if I would say genetics are responsible - I don't think the data can show yet that people's brains work a certain way due to genetics vs. experiences - but I do agree that people see the world differently in fundamental ways. I would argue, however, that it is just as likely that people's political or religious convictions alter their brain function as vice-versa.

    That being said, I do think that there are a number of secondary causes for liberal scientists, like those I mentioned in my post, that can account for much of the effect.

  5. I do agree there are secondary effects, I don't deny that at all. Almost all of life's issues, like a Taylor series, have an almost infinite number of contributing factors, but usually a few are dominant.

    I just want to emphasize I personally believe there is a lot of evidence that the main contributing factor is how the brain processes information. Not how smart the brain is but just how it processes information: analyzes it, stores it, recalls it, matches it to patterns, etc...

    To speak in a more LDS friendly way: we've all been told that people usually don't convert to religions unless they have "a change of heart". Scroll through the Church archives and you will find constant references to people possessing things like "the believing blood."

    My claim is, though these are good observations, the blood and heart is the wrong organ: it's the brain. *To first order* Having the "believing blood" is having a brain that processes information in a way where religion "speaks to them" and is appealing. Having a change of heart is literally a restructuring of neurons and the brain therefore processing the information differently.

    We have learned that it is possible to build and change neurological paths and processes in our brain. This is a processes that gets harder with age, but always still possible. This is probably why it is easier for older people to be "set in their ways." Older people like to think the reason they become so set in their ways is they have so much wisdom. Though this is partially true, it's also true that is is becoming harder for their neurons to forge new paths.

    I said genetics, maybe it isn't, but it is biological whatever it is. Life experiences as you know shape people's brain functions a lot. Children with traumatic experiences seem to have a lot more physiological issues for this reason. *It's whatever is shaping your brain*.

    Now, this isn't just related to religion but politics as well. This is why religion and politics seem to have the same effect over people.

    Now, why are scientists, academics and even those money savvy economists liberal? Because, statistically, the neurological processes conducive with liberal processing and analysis are also conducive to academic environments.


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