Why Scientists Are Overwhelmingly Liberal

National Review: Smarter than ThouThis morning, Paul Krugman wrote, Anti-Intellectualism That Dares Not Speak Its Name. It’s about the anti-intellectual bent of the modern conservative movement. In particular, he’s interested in National Review‘s really offensive cover story, “Smarter than Thou.” The subtitle is, “Neil deGrasse Tyson and America’s Nerd Problem. Of all sources, it is particularly sad coming from National Review, because whatever else you can say about its founder, William F Buckley Jr was not anti-intellectual. But while I would agree that in terms of dog whistle racial appeals, this is your father’s Republican Party—in terms of facts, this is not your father’s Republican Party. It is now a postmodern party where things like facts and competence don’t matter and reality is whatever we (they) say it is.

Krugman pointed me to a 2009 Pew Research poll of the politics of scientists. And they found that as a group, scientists are quite liberal. The report says:

Most scientists identify as Democrats (55%), while 32% identify as independents and just 6% say they are Republicans. When the leanings of independents are considered, fully 81% identify as Democrats or lean to the Democratic Party, compared with 12% who either identify as Republicans or lean toward the GOP. Among the public, there are far fewer self-described Democrats (35%) and far more Republicans (23%). Overall, 52% of the public identifies as Democratic or leans Democratic, while 35% identifies as Republican or leans Republican.

Majorities of scientists working in academia (60%), for non-profits (55%) and in government (52%) call themselves Democrats, as do nearly half of those working in private industry (47%).

That’s very interesting in a number of ways. One is that the “independents” break 81% (26÷32) to the Democrats. Also: this isn’t just a question of scientists working in academia or government. The numbers for scientists working in private industry are 47% Democrat, 10% Republican, and 37% independent. If we assume the overall partitioning of private industry scientists is the same as it is for the independents (as it was for scientists overall), the independents break 80 percentage points (87%) for the Democrats. That gives a total of private industry scientists of 82% Democrats and 16% Republicans.[1] So no matter how you slice it, scientists are overwhelmingly Democratic.

The question is why this would be. Krugman offers, “One simple explanation would be that current Republican doctrine really is anti-science and anti-intellectual, and that scientists are responding to that.” But I actually think this is only a small part of it. Everyone knows the John Stuart Mill quote, “I did not mean that conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any honorable gentleman will question it.” This implies what we see in the polling data. Scientists are on average smarter and given that the overall population breaks about 50-50 conservative-liberal, scientists would break liberal.

But I think it is even more fundamental than that. It’s about the way that scientists (and for that matter, artists) look at the world. They are, in the broadest sense of the word, liberal. They are open to new ideas. They want to be able to see things from different perspectives and this makes them value empathy if not making them actually empathic. On a policy level there isn’t that much difference between Democrats and Republicans. What is really different is the way the two parties talk about the world and the Democratic way is far more open minded and empathic.

Regardless, if I were a conservative, I would be embarrassed about this. I wouldn’t be mocking scientists. And of course, in the past, they have not. It is just that now, the conservative movement is utterly dependent on conservative Christians—so dependent that they wouldn’t even be as competitive as the Green Party without them. And, of course, the conservative movement is now committed to denying the well establish facts of climate science. So I guess they feel the need to lash out at science. But like most acts of the conservative movement generally and the Republican Party in particular, what they are doing is shortsighted. Not only is it not good for themselves—it is not good for the country. Conservatives claim to be very concerned about American hegemony. But the greatest threat to it is not that taxes are too high (they aren’t) or that welfare is too generous (it isn’t). The greatest threat is their campaign to vilify the most creative forces in our country for their short-term political and economic benefit.


[1] It is just a little algebra. Assume D is the percentage of Democrats, R the percentage of Republicans, and I the percentage of independents. Furthermore, ID is the Democratic leaning independents and IR are the Republican leaning independents. Thus, we get the following equation:

(D + ID) / (D + R + I) = ID / I

Everything is known but ID, so we get:

ID = D × I / ( D + R )

Note that there is a question of percentages and percentage points. The percentage of answers actually makes the Democratic tilt look even more extreme.

11 thoughts on “Why Scientists Are Overwhelmingly Liberal

    • Anyone who doesn’t take Krugman seriously as an economist doesn’t know anything about economics.

      • No. You can’t house train them, and they rip up the curtains.

        But as you might have noticed: the comment showed no indication of having read more than the first sentence. It’s really common. I find it slightly annoying when people criticize me when they clearly haven’t read me. But in this case, he’s just criticizing Krugman. And if I had to guess, he’s probably never even read Krugman. Krugman’s just an evil character used on conservative websites to frighten the true believers.

        • Oh yes, trolls are usually long on annoyance and short on comprehension.

          Do people even have curtains these days? I thought it was just stupid pieces of plastic.

          • Interesting you should mention that! In my work room, the blinds fell down. So I have put an old curtain up using thumbtacks. That’s probably what I was thinking.

  1. That “National Review” is picking on Tyson — about the most endearing of human beings — is gross in itself.

    Buckley wasn’t that much of an intellectual. He delighted in picking on easy targets he could cower with his vocabulary and facile talking points about world events. When he faced a Chomsky or Vidal, he got his ass kicked. He was a gayer, far more literate Bill O’Reilly.

    • Being an intellectual doesn’t necessarily mean being smart, although I think that Buckley was fairly smart. We can’t define the cutoff for being smart at Chomsky and Vidal. But being an intellectual is an orientation. It’s a way of looking at the world and valuing knowledge.

      • I think Buckley was wicked smart. Far smarter than me. But he was no intellectual. In those old “Firing Line” videos he scores easy laugh lines with the audience by taking cheap shots at “liberal” colleges. If you were picking apart someone’s argument, would you damn them for where they were published? No.

        Buckley gave conservatism the glimmer of intellectualism, but he was no more a valuer of knowledge than Milton Friedman. Or Billy Graham, for that matter.

        Has there ever been a conservative who valued knowledge? None I’m aware of. Edmund Burke thought Tom Paine was a heinous threat, precisely because Paine’s clearheaded style of writing reached the Great Unwashed. When push comes to shove, conservatives despise the spread of knowledge. It gives the inferiors notions.

        But they love, oh do they love, spokespersons who can sound like intellectuals. Remember, plebes, we’re smarter than you. It’s why the Koch brothers happily fund “Nova”, and that show focuses entirely on futuristic super-science which will solve all our ills. Wow, science, who gets it? Transporters and spaceships, wow! If 99.99% of scientists warn us that climate change is a major threat to mammalian life on Earth, well, gosh, science stuff!

        No. Conservatives value knowledge the way I value chastity. As in, I pretend to consider it a virtue, while I secretly work to undermine it every chance I get.

        • I think you are being unfair to both Buckley and Friedman. Just because you uses rhetoric, doesn’t mean you aren’t an intellectual. Buckley and Burke were elitists, but still intellectuals. They might think that knowledge was a dangerous thing in the hands of the people, but that just makes them conservatives. That’s different from most conservative thought leaders today who not only think knowledge is bad for the people, they think it is bad for themselves too. Let’s not forget that even though Friedman was committed to his libertarian fantasies, he still believed in the necessity of central banks. I do wish he had lived long enough to see the 2008 financial crisis and to see that his biggest conclusion (that the Fed could have stopped the Great Depression) was wrong. I’ll bet at that age, he never would have accepted it. But the 50 year old Friedman would have known he was wrong.

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