Science and Politics — and Partisans

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation, a politician as un-Texan as any — Michael Bloomberg — endorsed Barack Obama. Bloomberg succinctly compared Obama and Mitt Romney: “One sees climate change as an urgent problem that threatens our planet; one does not. I want our president to place scientific evidence and risk management above electoral politics.”

The endorsement by arguably the most famous political independent in the country highlights a political fault line that many suspect exists, but that few have taken the time to examine more closely: the partisan division over the usefulness of science in policy-making.

In the October 2012 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, we asked our respondents a series of questions about their views on scientific contributions to policy problems and their attitudes toward science and scientists. The top line findings likely shock modern rationalist sensibilities: For example, 51 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement, “Most of the time, instinct and gut reactions are just as good as the advice of scientists.”

But diving deeper into the data reveals something just as fundamental to the political here and now. The results present clear portraits of two very different parties: One party places trust in scientists and scientific answers to policy problems; the other distrusts scientists and scientific answers to many of the major policy battles of the day.

The differences between the parties came into clear relief when we asked respondents how much policymakers should defer to scientists across a range of issues. Respondents placed themselves on a 10-point scale where “10” indicated that policymakers should defer to scientists completely, “0” indicated that policymakers should ignore scientific advice completely, and “5” indicated that the scientific advice should be weighed equally with other factors. What we found confirmed much of what some may have suspected about partisan differences in reverence for science, but the consistency was rather surprising. In each of the 13 areas that we surveyed (stem cell research, global warming, abortion, space exploration, childhood obesity, AIDS, birth control, legalizing drug use, health care coverage, natural disaster preparedness, nuclear power, coal production and gun control) the mean response for Democrats was always greater than 6 (i.e., listen to science) and in every case greater than the mean response for Republicans. More importantly, in six of the 13 policy areas, the mean placement for Republican respondents was below 5 (global warming, abortion, birth control, health care coverage, coal production and gun control), indicating a preference for ignoring scientific evidence in these areas.

Those results could provide some room for optimism. The issue areas where Republicans’ distrust of science is greatest are those areas that have been highly politicized (e.g., global warming, birth control, coal production, etc.). One could interpret this to mean that, yes, Republicans are skeptical of scientific answers, but only in those areas where they have been led to feel this way by elites. If this is the case, what explains these differences is not so much a deep hostility to science as it is a viewing of scientific controversies through a partisan lens.

However, we also asked a series of questions that were meant to directly assess attitudes towards scientists, the scientific method, and the value of science in policy debates, and the responses to these questions provide a more pessimistic outlook.

Respondents were instructed to “tell us whether you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree” with a series of statements about science and scientists. Broadly speaking, these questions tapped into notions about the perceived ideological agenda of experts, the potential for conflict between faith and science and the value of science in the policy sphere.

One set of statements was meant to assess the potential conflict between ideology and scientific evidence:

When faced with a difficult decision, politicians should follow the advice of relevant experts, even if it means going against their ideology.

and the value of science compared with gut instinct:

Most of the time, instinct and gut reactions are just as good as the advice of scientists.

Again, respondents were asked the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the following statements. For ease of presentation, I will combine those who “somewhat” and “strongly” agreed or disagreed into a single agree or disagree category (you can see the full results here).

While 66 percent of respondents agreed that policymakers should follow the advice of scientists over their own ideology, a 22-point gap exists between Democrats and Republicans. While 76 percent of Democrats agreed that scientific evidence should trump ideology, only 54 percent of Republicans believed this to be correct. Put another way, while only 24 percent of Democrats believe that ideology should be maintained over scientific evidence, 46 percent of Republicans feel that ideology is the proper path to follow in a policy debate.

With respect to instinct and gut reactions, fully 51 percent of respondents believed that these were as good as the advice of experts. While less than a majority of Democrats agreed with this view (45 percent), 62 percent of Republicans agreed that instinct and gut reactions were the equal of scientific advice.

Why the hostility? Two plausible explanations revolve around the role of bias (those damn liberal professors!) and the role of faith. With respect to bias, we presented respondents with three different targets: professors, economists and scientists. We played to the common conception that professors are liberal, economists are conservative, and scientists, (based on — largely — Republican hostility to climate change science) are also liberal. Respondents were presented and asked to agree or disagree with the following three statements:

Most university professors are liberals who are trying to push an ideological agenda with their research.

Most economists are conservatives who are trying to push an ideological agenda with their research.

Most scientists are liberals who are trying to push an ideological agenda with their research.

Overall, 58 percent agreed that professors are liberal, 39 percent that economists are conservative, and 51 percent that scientists writ large are liberal. Among the partisans, Republicans overwhelmingly agreed that professors and scientists are liberals who are trying to push an ideological agenda — 86 percent and 74 percent respectively, compared with 28 percent and 33 percent of Democrats who agreed with these statements. Economists came off somewhat better, but the partisan gap still persists. While only 30 percent of Republicans think economists are pursuing an ideological agenda, 49 percent of Democrats agree that this is the case.

So while suspicions of ideological bias may explain why Republicans resist being railroaded by scientific advice, another aspect of these findings may lie in the role of faith. In order to assess whether perceptions of conflict between faith and science currently exist (as they have since the time of Galileo), we presented respondents with the following three statements:

Faith is a better guide than scientific evidence on most important questions.

Scientists and academics are NOT hostile to people of faith.

Scientists and academics are not concerned about the moral implications of their research.

Overall, 51 percent of respondents agreed that faith is a better guide than science on most important questions. Among Democrats, only 29 percent agreed that faith was a better guide than scientific evidence; among Republicans, 61 percent agreed that faith was the better guide. Since the second statement is set up in reverse of the other statements, people who disagree with the statement are the ones who believe that scientists and academics are hostile to people of faith. While only 25 percent of Democrats disagreed with the statement, 68 percent of Republicans disagreed. Therefore, almost 70 percent of Republicans agree with the notion that scientists and academics are hostile towards the faithful. Finally, we asked whether scientists and academics were concerned about the moral implications of their research. While 55 percent of respondents agreed that they were not concerned about moral implications, 68 percent of Republicans agreed with this statement compared with 41 percent of Democrats.

By delving into the partisan gap in these responses, my goal is not to make a normative argument. While perceptions of bias or religious hostility in experts is problematic if it blinds the holder of that perception to good solutions to some of our biggest problems, an over-reliance on science can also lead to bad outcomes for society — especially in cases where moral implications are given short shrift. However, given the frequency with which candidates of one party must tack to the ideological extremes in the hopes of nomination, questions about the underlying attitudes that lead to this state of affairs are worth examining.

Republicans don’t seem to believe that science should be ignored on all issues (e.g., stem cell research and space exploration). Yet these results strongly suggest that underlying attitudes towards science and scientists reflect the politicization of certain issues. While there may be good reasons to express skepticism toward experts — and ironically, the spirit of skepticism is what animates good science — cynicism towards scientific advice housed in political judgments bodes ill for judiciously using science to produce sound political decisions.

Joshua Blank is a research assistant for the University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. He is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Government at UT-Austin.

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