Science and Republicans

For some time, at least certain “liberal” commentators have insisted that Republicans are scientifically “challenged” and that Republicans consistently ignore well-established science. According to some recent surveys, those commentators are only half-right. In general, those individuals who identify as Republicans are more scientifically knowledgeable than are those who identify as Democrats, yet they tend to ignore the science behind climate change, evolution, and other areas.

So why do Republican office-holders espouse so many positions at odds with established science? The most obvious answer would seem to be that such politicians are appealing to their political base, but if their base is actually more scientifically knowledgeable than Democrats, this wouldn’t seem to make much sense.

Another possibility is that Republicans are conservative in their understanding of science as well as conservative politically. In some ways, this makes more sense. Science proceeds from what is “known” to what is theorized… and then such new theories are tested against the evidence and either discarded, modified, accepted… or put on hold for lack of sufficient proof either way.

“New” theories often take a great deal of time to be proved and accepted. The idea of “continental drift” was first proposed Alfred Wegener in 1915 in the first edition of The Origin of Continents and Oceans, a theory which was viciously attacked, despite the evidence that Wegener presented, but, partly because certain parts of Wegener’s theory were wrong, it was not truly accepted until after World War II, when even more evidence was discovered about plate tectonics. Despite a huge amount of evidence, it took decades for the scientific community as a whole to accept Darwin and Wallace’s theory of evolution. Black holes were first predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, but the first black hole wasn’t discovered until 1971.

Another possibility is that Republicans simply only accept those aspects of science that they can “use,” like tools, while rejecting any aspect of science that isn’t in accord with what they wish to believe.

That may be the most likely explanation, given that, for example, liberal Democrats tend to reject aspects of science that conflict with their beliefs. For example, although human beings have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years, the term “genetic modification” is far more of an anathema to Democrats than to Republicans. Likewise, those opposing vaccination tend to be more Democrats than Republicans.

If that’s so, it’s certainly understandable, but deplorable, that what science is “acceptable” to people depends not on the facts, but upon personal beliefs.

15 thoughts on “Science and Republicans”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    It’s inaccurate to think we make rational choices at all. Rather, we pattern-match, and then attempt to construct what, within our experience and ability, approximates a rational explanation after-the-fact. Such rationalizations may however, affect subsequent pattern-matching choices.

    That might seem to primarily apply to situations requiring rapid decisions. But for situations where personally verifying data and interpretations is unfeasible (what individual has the means to independently verify weather models? or I suppose, even do a statistical analysis on risk vs benefits of vaccination, although that should be relatively much easier), it comes down to who you agree with, which is more like a snap decision than like something amenable to a planned solution.

  2. Tim says:

    On climate change and the human contribution to it, I find that Green activists are not prepared to go the extra step and campaign for legislation to restrict tax and other benefits for large families.

    They admit that more people means more pollution and so more climate effect, but are unwilling to restrict what they view to be personal rights.

  3. Wine Guy says:

    Why are we surprised when politicians amply prove that they will do whatever is necessary for them to retain/increase their power?

  4. Joe says:

    Breeding is not equivalent to inserting foreign genes into a species’ DNA, commonly referred to as genetic manipulation, more precisely referred to as transgenics.

    Fish genes would not naturally occur in tomatoes however much you argued with the fish. This is clearly very different from making two dogs mate.

    Furthermore the way in which we have been inserting genes has been to shoot them in randomly, not place them precisely. Randomly adding sentences to a novel rarely results in a better novel.

    Claiming an equivalence between these two processes seems to me either to be either ignorant or intellectually dishonest. Since the term genetic manipulation usually refers to transgenics and not breeding, misunderstanding it in that way is purposeful.

    The results of breeding and transgenics are also different. Some transgenic plants synthesize proteins that have never before occurred in nature, and are toxic to mammals, including people.

    The fundamental problem with transgenic species is that they multiply, which could upset the ecological balance. Humans have difficulties understanding exponential growth, which makes them discount it.

    Here’s a mathematical discussion of the precautionary principle, and why it’s a good idea with regard to transgenic species:

    I therefore refute the argument that people who reject the creation of transgenic species right now are “rejecting aspects of science that conflict with their beliefs”. In fact many of them are using their knowledge of science and the scientific method to determine the downsides of a new technology, and concluding that it is a very bad idea to deploy it in current circumstances.

  5. TOM says:

    From the UN Paper on Precautionary Principle:
    In summary, the PP applies when the following conditions are met:
    • there exist considerable scientific uncertainties;
    • there exist scenarios (or models) of possible harm that are scientifically reasonable (that is based on some scientifically plausible reasoning);
    • uncertainties cannot be reduced in the short term without at the same time increasing ignorance of other relevant factors by higher levels of abstraction
    and idealization;
    • the potential harm is sufficiently serious or even irreversible for p resent or future generations or otherwise morally unacceptable;
    • there is a need to act now, since effective counteraction later will be made significantly more difficult or costly at any later time.
    This seems to affirm the LE Modesitt Jr analysis of what people do with “scientic”, and for that matter all other, ‘knowledge’. Calling reasoning ‘rational’ seems ‘irrational’.

  6. Matthew Hargraves says:

    In my experience, science falls into the same confirmation bias as everything else. The left believes what supports their “humans are bad and ruining everything” philosophy while the right tends to adhere to science that says that we’re doing everything right. This is why pseudoscience like anti vaxxers and anti GMO survive on the left, regardless of the mountains of evidence supporting them and climate change is rejected on the right. The anti vaxxers and evolution deniers on the right are anomalies, based on religion more than world view. I wouldn’t even call the “anti vaxxers” on the right anti, so much as non-vaxxers.

    1. Guy Thomas says:

      Being “anti GMO” is not pseudo-science, it’s simply prudent common sense (something the human species as a whole shows little of
      ). As Joe very clearly pointed out earlier it is disengenuous to equate genetic manipulation, as in transgenics, with artificial selection.

  7. John Prigent says:

    Hmmm. Well, I’m British so not a Republican but I can’t help feeling that the scientific arguments over GM, climate change, and this, that, and the other are reminiscent of arguments between economists and bear a huge resemblance to the results of opinion pollers trying to predict election results. In other words, all sides should be accepted as frequently wrong and treated with extreme suspicion until one is actually proven to be correct. Taking climate change as an example, we hear a lot here about the loss of habitat for cold-dwelling species due to apparent warming, but very little about the spread of cold-avoiding species into the same areas. And I’m still waiting to be told how life on Earth survived the much warmer carboniferous era. There’s little or no balance in the reporting – probably because journalists ,broadcasters and self-appointed ‘experts’ on everything are all trying to get attention by generating extremist stories.

    1. Guy Thomas says:

      I think you may be conflating the arguments and reporting of scientific matters in popular media with actual science. I do not believe any scientists have put forth any assertions that we, or life in general, can not survive climate change, up to and including (shudder) a worldwide scenario even remotely resembling the Carboniferous Era.

      Peer reviewed scientific data is pointing toward current climate change/global warming being due to anthropomorphic actions. Even minor shifts in global weather patterns can create huge effects on food production areas considered as bread baskets and even the current modest documented rise in sea levels are having major, sometimes catastrophic, impacts on coastal communities worldwide.

      So, while global warming/climate change may be survivable, it will come at a great and currently unknown cost to entire world ecosystems and humanity as a whole, due largely to the ever increasing use of fossil fuels for short term gain and profit through unsustainable economic growth (and the lion’s share of the profits of which growth are ending up in pockets of only a tiny fraction of the worlds population).

      1. John Prigent says:

        Popular media, Guy? Well, yes possibly. But I wasn’t referring to the yellow press’s idea of reporting scientific matters but to academic papers, refutations and counter-refutations. Also to the number of recognised experts in various fields who have held forth on matters not in their particular expertise.

    2. Joe says:

      You are correct in saying that the Scientific method requires “suspicion”, in that new claims must repeatedly survive testing. That is how theories become trustworthy (there is no proof in Science, unlike in Mathematics, only an increasing level of trust as the predictions of the new theory are borne out by testing against the real world).

      It would however be absurd to conflate the level of rigor involved in polling or economics (none or very little) with the level required by Science (a great deal).

      Climate-change isn’t particularly new to Science. Fourier, almost 200 years ago, discovered its basic mechanism. As such, its basic predictions have been subjected to a significant number of tests, and so far it pans out.

      Unfortunately, as you point out, many people from other scientific fields believe themselves competent to comment on Climate Change, when they aren’t.

      To address your issue directly, the rate of change is such that plants are unable to move into the new warmer areas at the speed required for their survival. Logic suggests that this will lead many species to die out. The available evidence indicates that temperatures warmed much more slowly to reach the temperatures of the carboniferous period. Thus plants and animals had enough time to migrate or adapt.

      One might think animals that can move might be safe. However, bumblebees have been found also not to move far from their birthplaces, even when faced with rising temperatures. Long distance migrating birds no longer reach their summer breeding grounds on time so that their hatchlings can be fed with caterpillars, because summer starts earlier at the breeding grounds than it used to. That means long distance migrators now reproduce less well, whereas local birds do better, further increasing the competition they face.

      These non-obvious non-linear effects make it hard for anyone to predict the future. “Common sense” tends to do badly in such situations.

  8. John Prigent says:

    Thanks Joe – that’s a very good point about the rate of change causing a problem. Unfortunately it’s not one that I’ve seen addressed from either side.

  9. Devildog says:

    The reason why many conservative leaning people do not fully believe what some scientist say is that they do not trust their motivations. With regards to climate change, the solutions are fraught with potential fraud and abuse and could be another vehicle to infringe on one’s personal liberty. In my limited lifetime, we have gone form the world going into another ice age due to pollution and then the world becoming too warm. If one reads recent history, you can find a time when Greenland was green, the sea rose twice in 200 years and caused mass migrations in Europe. And one can also find a time when England could go grow grapes and make wine that rivaled that which was grown and made in France. I don’t know. Am I not educated? I read … a lot. I have a science degree. I just have questions that have not been answered>

    1. No… you have questions that have not been answered to your satisfaction. As I pointed out earlier, conservatives in general want their “proof” about anything that challenges their world-view to be iron-clad, firmly established, and irrefutable. The world’s climate is changing too rapidly for that certainty to be established before certain future events — such as sea-level rise — become inevitable and unstoppable. There is a time when “prudence” verges on idiocy. This may be one of those times in history.

      1. Devildog says:

        Perhaps you are correct. But perhaps the climate is changing just like it always has… long before the industrial revolution has its impact. The recent volcanic eruption in Iceland dumped more CO2 in the atmosphere than we have since the industrial revolution. There was an eruption in Indonesia in the early 1800’s that had it snowing in July in Ohio. If we are going to take steps that fundamentally change our lifestyle than we better be really sure that we know what we are doing and why.

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