Skip to main content

Conservative and liberal political attitudes toward science

The polarization of thought in American political discourse has wide-ranging consequences, perhaps most catastrophically through the actions of government, which if planned responsibly ought to require grounding in an honest comprehension of causes and effects, and sustainable value.

I feel as though extremes of political thought derive most of their extremity from their lack of realism. However, in our two-party system, the extreme poles tend to frame the debates. So let's spend a moment considering them.

One might regard liberalism and conservatism as both having a significant and opposed orientation to competitive measures of success and well-being between groups of people. Liberalism might be concerned with fairness and opportunity, disliking dramatic differences in success between groups as evidence of ill-gotten gains for some groups of people, at the expense of others. Conservatism might be concerned with authority and judgment, favoring dramatic differences in success between groups of people as evidence of the superiority of some and the inferiority of others.

If these are the ways that political groups orient themselves toward interactions with others, how does this affect their attitudes toward science?

Conservative objections toward the findings of science are frequent and emphatic. They include patently unscientific claims about evolution, cosmology, the nature of human blastocysts, global climate change, the effectiveness of torture and the death penalty, and the psychology of criminal behavior. All such objections to the weight of evidence may share a common urge to authorize certain asymmetric power relationships in our society.

Perhaps less well known are liberal objections to scientific findings, or their use. These include an aversion to understanding how human genetic differences may be responsible for intelligence, or for violent behavior, because these might seem 'eugenic'. Liberal attitudes may also fail to stand up for objectivity wherever long-held cultural biases, oppression, or disadvantage come into play, perhaps most ironically seen in an apologetic tolerance for invasions of non-science into public dialogue about scientific matters on the basis of race, religion, tribal culture, gender, sexuality, and so on.

Are conservatives too concerned with 'winning', and liberals too worried about who might 'lose', for them to understand what science is for? 

The author's affiliation with The MITRE Corporation is provided for identification purposes only, and is not intended to convey or imply MITRE's concurrence with, or support for, the positions, opinions or viewpoints expressed by the author.

Blog Name