Sunday, May 6, 2012

Are Republicans Stupid?

One of my favorite things about blogging is it's potential to actually change the way I personally think about things.  I don't mean just through the comments section, though that is immensely helpful, but more so through the process of researching, writing, posting and following up.  A few posts on one topic, and suddenly I find myself passionate on topics that had previously been mere blips on my radar.  God bless the internet.

All that is to say, a month ago I didn't really care what people said about politics and science.  Sure, in my own blog rules, rule number 2 said I would stay non-partisan:
I will attempt to remain non-partisan. I have political opinions.  Lots of them.  But really, I'm not here to try to go after one party or another.  They both fall victim to bad data, and lots of people do it outside of politics too.  Lots of smart people have political blogs, and I like reading them...I just don't feel I'd be a good person to run one.  My point is not to change people's minds about issues, but to at least trip the warning light that they may be supporting themselves with crap. 
Even so, if someone had casually made the comment that Republicans were anti-science, I probably would have let it go.  After all, I spent most of my pre-adulthood years in a Baptist school that had plenty of Republican voting ignorants to color my view.

But.....then I did this post.
And this one.
And of course this one.

And now I don't feel those comments are quite as innocuous as I once did.

My feelings on this were backed up by this article from Forbes magazine (where this posts title came from), which I really really recommend if you have the time.

I'm not going back on my non-partisan premise, but as Mr Entine so eloquently posits, one party laying claim to "science" does nobody any good.  Science never fares well when put in the hands of politicians (does anything really?) and giving one party the moral upper hand in a subject as broad as "science" can cause damaging oversights.

To be honest, I don't know which party is more "pro-science".  The data required to prove that one way or the other would require compiling a complete list of scientific topics, ranking them in order of possible impact to both people and the world at large, ranking the conclusiveness of the data, and conducting public opinion polls broken down by party and controlled for race, class and gender.  That's an enormous amount of work, and nobody has done it.

Thus, until further research is done, I will stick with the following conclusions:

  1. Politicians will exploit everything they can if they think it will get them more votes
  2. Ditto for journalists (sub "readers" for "votes")
  3. Saying you're "pro-science" is not the only requirement for being "pro-science"
  4. Increasing the general level of knowledge around research methods, data gathering and statistical analysis is probably a good thing
Seriously though, read the Forbes article.  


  1. I certainly know plenty of knuckleheaded conservatives who misunderstand science. But I fail to see much harm in people who believe in 6D creationism, especially as so many of them are proud of their children for knowing so much about dinosaurs or astronomy - apparently not making the full connection there.

    The items the Forbes article lists, such as misunderstanding the science in alternative medicine, statistics, immunology, climate, food and nutrition, etc have far more practical effect. So much of these are cultural proxies for measuring whether one is truly in your tribe or not. The actual science is mostly irrelevant.

    The understanding of science seems approximately even, though I wouldn't be shocked to learn that liberals do some better. But in selectively noticing what they think is important and being blind to their own misunderstandings, liberals have been far worse in the national discussion.

    Almost no national politicians have any formal scientific training. The Republicans can put up a few doctors and a veterinarian, and used to have John Sununu in the Senate. I don't think the Democrats have anyone. All in all, a very poor record.

    1. According to this
      I counted 41 who we can presume do....only 5 of them in the Senate.
      The Senate has 2 MDs, 1 vet, 1 ophthalmologist and 1 optometrist.

      The House:
      15 MDs
      2 dentists
      1 vet
      1 ophthalmologist
      1 psychiatrist (not sure if this was counted w/MDs as well)
      2 psychologists
      6 nurses
      1 physicist
      1 chemist
      6 engineers
      1 microbiologist

      So we're at 5% of the Senate and around 9.5% of the House.

  2. To be fair, the Democrats used to have Bill Foster, a former colleague of mine. We didn't see eye to eye on politics, but that never came up until he decided to run for Rep and started asking for support. (I'm not even in Illinois...)

    1. According to this
      we still have a physicist somewhere. Only one though, which makes one fewer than the almond orchard owners...apparently we have two of those.

    2. I found it...Rush Holt (D-NJ).

      Interesting NYT article from 2008 when there were 3 of them

  3. A question to ask political candidates to see if they're anti-science: "There is evidence for the existence of a natural nuclear fission reactor on Earth two billion years ago based on the nuclear waste found in rocks of that age. Do you accept such evidence and what do you think of the implications of the fact that the waste did not move with respect to the surrounding rock (in particular, the implications for nuclear waste disposal)?"

    1. I am trying to picture that question being asked by Gwen Ifill...and frankly I think this could make debates more interesting. In fact, I'm thinking we make every candidate get through a science debate. Or better yet, a science fair. This is a whole new world of possibilities!

  4. The controversy gets shrill only when a lot of money is involved, especially taxpayer funding. I was reading an article yesterday about the philosophy of science by a fellow who very carefully tried to argue that scientists normally should stick to "how" and should be wary of slipping into "why," because when they phrased the questions (especially in cosmology) in terms of "why," they invariably found themselves dabbling in philosophical questions for which they had no special training and no unusual aptitude. He argued, therefore, that the "philosophy of science" was completely distinct from the field of science itself, pursued other aims, and wasn't meant to be helpful to science. A commenter immediately fired back with the complaint, "If it's not helpful to science, what good is it? Why should it get funding?"

    It's possible to be very interested in science and have warm, fuzzy feelings about its trustworthiness and important in human life within its own sphere, while at the same time (1) doubting that it's all there is and (2) doubting that a highly politicized version of it is credible at all times.

  5. A science fair for candidates...

    A reality show I might even buy a TV for. It would have to be a cameras running show to keep them from cheating and getting their parents - I'm sorry, a staffer - to do it for them. A congressional version of "Are you smarter than a 5th grader?"

    I'm not thinking psychologist should count under scientific training. Some, but not most.

    Break it out by medical versus all other science.

    1. I actually got to the reality TV idea with that too...and then was thinking with California slowly sinking in to a financial hole, this may actually be more likely to happen than you would think.

      I debated about the psychologists. The only reason I included them was because they at least take stats classes and research methods classes, and thus I wouldn't allow them to claim ignorance.

      Breaking it out would put 5 medical in the Senate, no other science and 32 medical in the house, 9 other science. Go engineers!

  6. I find this phrase causes a bit of cognitive dissonance:

    "one party the moral upper hand in a subject as broad as "science"

    Since "Science" claims to eschew morality as a category outside it's purview, what upper hand could they claim (or be given)?