The Real War on Science

John Tierney, City Journal, August 2016

My liberal friends sometimes ask me why I don’t devote more of my science journalism to the sins of the Right. It’s fine to expose pseudoscience on the left, they say, but why aren’t you an equal-opportunity debunker? Why not write about conservatives’ threat to science?

My friends don’t like my answer: because there isn’t much to write about. Conservatives just don’t have that much impact on science. I know that sounds strange to Democrats who decry Republican creationists and call themselves the “party of science.” But I’ve done my homework. I’ve read the Left’s indictments, including Chris Mooney’s bestseller, The Republican War on Science. I finished it with the same question about this war that I had at the outset: Where are the casualties?

Where are the scientists who lost their jobs or their funding? What vital research has been corrupted or suppressed? What scientific debate has been silenced? Yes, the book reveals that Republican creationists exist, but they don’t affect the biologists or anthropologists studying evolution. Yes, George W. Bush refused federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, but that hardly put a stop to it (and not much changed after Barack Obama reversed the policy).

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But two huge threats to science are peculiar to the Left—and they’re getting worse.

The first threat is confirmation bias, the well-documented tendency of people to seek out and accept information that confirms their beliefs and prejudices. In a classic study of peer review, 75 psychologists were asked to referee a paper about the mental health of left-wing student activists. Some referees saw a version of the paper showing that the student activists’ mental health was above normal; others saw different data, showing it to be below normal. Sure enough, the more liberal referees were more likely to recommend publishing the paper favorable to the left-wing activists. When the conclusion went the other way, they quickly found problems with its methodology.

Scientists try to avoid confirmation bias by exposing their work to peer review by critics with different views, but it’s increasingly difficult for liberals to find such critics. Academics have traditionally leaned left politically, and many fields have essentially become monocultures, especially in the social sciences, where Democrats now outnumber Republicans by at least 8 to 1. (In sociology, where the ratio is 44 to 1, a student is much likelier to be taught by a Marxist than by a Republican.) The lopsided ratio has led to another well-documented phenomenon: people’s beliefs become more extreme when they’re surrounded by like-minded colleagues. They come to assume that their opinions are not only the norm but also the truth.

Groupthink has become so routine that many scientists aren’t even aware of it. Social psychologists, who have extensively studied conscious and unconscious biases against out-groups, are quick to blame these biases for the underrepresentation of women or minorities in the business world and other institutions. But they’ve been mostly oblivious to their own diversity problem, which is vastly larger. Democrats outnumber Republicans at least 12 to 1 (perhaps 40 to 1) in social psychology, creating what Jonathan Haidt calls a “tribal-moral community” with its own “sacred values” about what’s worth studying and what’s taboo.

“Morality binds and blinds,” says Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. “Having common values makes a group cohesive, which can be quite useful, but it’s the last thing that should happen to a scientific field. Progressivism, especially anti-racism, has become a fundamentalist religion, complete with anti-blasphemy laws.”

Last year, one of the leading scientific journals, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, published an article by Haidt and five colleagues documenting their profession’s lack of ideological diversity. It was accompanied by commentaries from 63 other social scientists, virtually all of whom, even the harshest critics, accepted the authors’ conclusion that the lack of political diversity has harmed the science of social psychology. The authors and the commentators pointed to example after example of how the absence of conservatives has blinded researchers to flaws in their work, particularly when studying people’s ideology and morality.

The narrative that Republicans are antiscience has been fed by well-publicized studies reporting that conservatives are more close-minded and dogmatic than liberals are. But these conclusions have been based on questions asking people how strongly they cling to traditional morality and religion—dogmas that matter a lot more to conservatives than to liberals. A few other studies—not well-publicized—have shown that liberals can be just as close-minded when their own beliefs, such as their feelings about the environment or Barack Obama, are challenged.

Social psychologists have often reported that conservatives are more prejudiced against other social groups than liberals are. But one of Haidt’s coauthors, Jarret Crawford of the College of New Jersey, recently noted a glaring problem with these studies: they typically involve attitudes toward groups that lean left, like African-Americans and communists. When Crawford (who is a liberal) did his own study involving a wider range of groups, he found that prejudice is bipartisan. Liberals display strong prejudice against religious Christians and other groups they perceive as right of center.

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To combat these biases, more than 150 social scientists have joined Heterodox Academy, a group formed by Haidt and his coauthors to promote ideological diversity among scholars. That’s a good start, but they’re nowhere close to solving the problem. Even if social-science departments added a few conservatives, they’d still be immersed in progressive academic communities becoming less tolerant of debate because of pressure from campus activists and federal bureaucrats enforcing an ever-expanding interpretation of Title IX. And their work would still be filtered to the public by reporters who lean left, too—that’s why the press has promoted the Republican-war-on-science myth. When Obama diplomatically ducked a question on the campaign trail about the age of the Earth (“I don’t presume to know”), the press paid no attention. When Marco Rubio later did the same thing (“I’m not a scientist”), he was lambasted as a typical Republican ignoramus determined to bring back the Dark Ages.

The combination of all these pressures from the Left has repeatedly skewed science over the past half-century. In 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan published a paper presciently warning of the dangers for black children growing up in single-parent homes, it was greeted with such hostility—he was blaming the victim, critics said—that the topic became off-limits among liberals, stymying public discussion and research for decades into one of the most pressing problems facing minority children. Similarly, liberal advocates have worked to suppress reporting on the problems of children raised by gay parents or on any drawbacks of putting young children in day care. In 1991, a leading family psychologist, Louise Silverstein, published an article in the American Psychologist urging her colleagues to “refuse to undertake any more research that looks for the negative consequences of other-than-mother-care.”

 The Left’s most rigid taboos involve the biology of race and gender, as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker chronicles in The Blank Slate. The book takes its title from Pinker’s term for the dogma that “any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences.” The dogma constricts researchers’ perspective—“No biology, please, we’re social scientists”—and discourages debate, in and out of academia. Early researchers in sociobiology faced vitriolic attacks from prominent scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, who accused them of racism and sexism for studying genetic influences on behavior.

Studying IQ has been a risky career move since the 1970s, when researchers like Arthur Jensen and Richard Herrnstein had to cancel lectures (and sometimes hire bodyguards) because of angry protesters accusing them of racism. Government funding dried up, forcing researchers in IQ and behavioral genetics to rely on private donors, who in the 1980s financed the renowned Minnesota study of twins reared apart. Leftists tried to cut off that funding in the 1990s, when the University of Delaware halted the IQ research of Linda Gottfredson and Jan Blits for two years by refusing to let them accept a foundation’s grant; the research proceeded only after an arbitrator ruled that their academic freedom had been violated.

The Blank Slate dogma has perpetuated a liberal version of creationism: the belief that there has been no evolution in modern humans since they left their ancestral homeland in Africa some 50,000 years ago. Except for a few genetic changes in skin color and other superficial qualities, humans everywhere are supposedly alike because there hasn’t been enough time for significant differences to evolve in their brains and innate behavior. This belief was plausible when biologists assumed that evolution was a slow process, but the decoding of the human genome has disproved it, as Nicholas Wade (a former colleague of mine at the New York Times) reported in his 2015 book, A Troublesome Inheritance.

“Human evolution has been recent, copious and regional,” writes Wade, noting that at least 8 percent of the human genome has changed since the departure from Africa. The new analysis has revealed five distinguishable races that evolved in response to regional conditions: Africans, East Asians, Caucasians, the natives of the Americas, and the peoples of Australia and Papua New Guinea. Yet social scientists go on denying the very existence of races. The American Anthropological Association declares race to be “a human invention” that is “about culture, not biology.” The American Sociological Association calls race a “social construct.” Even biologists and geneticists are afraid of the R-word. More than 100 of them sent a letter to the New York Times denouncing Wade’s book as inaccurate, yet they refused to provide any examples of his mistakes. They apparently hadn’t bothered to read the book because they accused Wade of linking racial variations to IQ scores—a link that his book specifically rejected.

Some genetic differences are politically acceptable on the left, such as the biological basis for homosexuality, which was deemed plausible by 70 percent of sociologists in a recent survey. But that same survey found that only 43 percent accepted a biological explanation for male-female differences in spatial skills and communication. How could the rest of the sociologists deny the role of biology? It was no coincidence that these doubters espoused the most extreme left-wing political views and the strongest commitment to a feminist perspective. To dedicated leftists and feminists, it doesn’t matter how much evidence of sexual differences is produced by developmental psychologists, primatologists, neuroscientists, and other researchers. Any disparity between the sexes—or, at least, any disparity unfavorable to women—must be blamed on discrimination and other cultural factors.

Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers found this out the hard way at an academic conference where he dared to discuss the preponderance of men among professors of mathematics and physical sciences at elite universities. While acknowledging that women faced cultural barriers, like discrimination and the pressures of family responsibilities, Summers hypothesized that there might be other factors, too, such as the greater number of men at the extreme high end in tests measuring mathematical ability and other traits. Males’ greater variability in aptitude is well established—it’s why there are more male dunces as well as geniuses—but scientific accuracy was no defense against the feminist outcry. The controversy forced Summers to apologize and ultimately contributed to his resignation. Besides violating the Blank Slate taboo, Summers had threatened an academic cottage industry kept alive by the myth that gender disparities in science are due to discrimination.

This industry, supported by more than $200 million from the National Science Foundation, persists despite overwhelming evidence—from experiments as well as extensive studies of who gets academic jobs and research grants—that a female scientist is treated as well as or better than an equally qualified male. In a rigorous set of five experiments published last year, the female candidate was preferred two-to-one over an equivalent male. The main reason for sexual disparities in some fields is a difference in interests: from an early age, more males are more interested in fields like physics and engineering, while more females are interested in fields like biology and psychology (where most doctorates go to women).

On the whole, American women are doing much better than men academically—they receive the majority of undergraduate and graduate degrees—yet education researchers and federal funders have focused for decades on the few fields in science where men predominate. It was bad enough that the National Science Foundation’s grants paid for workshops featuring a game called Gender Bias Bingo and skits in which arrogant male scientists mistreat smarter female colleagues. But then, these workshops nearly became mandatory when Democrats controlled Congress in 2010. In response to feminist lobbying, the House passed a bill (which fortunately died in the Senate) requiring federal science agencies to hold “gender equity” workshops for the recipients of research grants.

It might seem odd that the “party of science” would be dragging researchers out of the lab to be reeducated in games of Gender Bias Bingo. But politicians will always care more about pleasing constituencies than advancing science.

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That’s the ultimate casualty in the Left’s war: scientists’ reputations. Bad research can be exposed and discarded, but bad reputations endure. Social scientists are already regarded in Washington as an arm of the Democratic Party, so their research is dismissed as partisan even when it’s not, and some Republicans have tried (unsuccessfully) to cut off all social-science funding. The physical sciences still enjoy bipartisan support, but that’s being eroded by the green politicking, and climate scientists’ standing will plummet if the proclaimed consensus turns out to be wrong.

To preserve their integrity, scientists should avoid politics and embrace the skeptical rigor that their profession requires. They need to start welcoming conservatives and others who will spot their biases and violate their taboos. Making these changes won’t be easy, but the first step is simple: stop pretending that the threats to science are coming from the Right. Look in the other direction—or in the mirror.

 

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