Science versus Scientism
That, anyway, is the latest question making the rounds in the science wars. The simplistic answer, the one de rigueur on campuses and newsrooms, is “Yes.” Why, we even heard from President Obama this week that Republicans, because of their hostility towards science, are going to cause weather satellites to plummet to the Earth. And then, boy, just see who is attacked by tornadoes!
The “science” on everybody’s mind when you ask them if they are “for” or “against” science is global warming. But that, except for cogitations on the equations of motion and thermodynamics, isn’t a science at all; instead, it is a roiling political matter. Further, everybody knows this. We are told, are we not?, that the science is settled, that the sky is reaching a tipping point, and that the only thing which will stave off this calumny is massive injections of money into the atmosphere.
I belabor this argument to make the obvious point that if you were to ask somebody their innermost feelings (for what counts more than that?) about science, you might have thought you were inquiring about model parameterizations, but you are instead getting answers about the growing suspicion of the motivations of politicians.
Chris Mooney, for example, never understood this distinction. He devoted an entire book, The Republican War on Science, based on this category fallacy. His major mistake was to assume everybody defined contentious words in just the same way he did. He also, like many science watchers, is unable to separate scientism from science. Science tells us how things work. Scientism is the fallacious belief that science has all the answers.
For example, a person is under the sway of scientism when he says because science tells us that the Earth’s sensitivity to global warming is some X, plus or minus some Y, than we should institute a global carbon tax. That should is a moral question, not a scientific one, even assuming X and Y were true (values which for global warming, nobody knows with certainty).
A person belongs to the cult of scientism when he, upon hearing somebody question a scientific result or its moral consequences, reacts with rank indignation, snarky wonderment, or raw hate. James Wanliss’s article “The virtue of questioning ‘science’” is worth reading on this.
Conservatives Distrust Science?
Gordon Gauchat, an academic at the Sheps Center for Health Services Research, University of North Carolina, was taken by Mooney’s hypothesis that Republicans were not as trusting of “science”—I always put this in quotes when that word means both physics, chemistry, etc. or politics—as were Enlightened Democrats. He was so keen on the idea that he created a mugombo-sized statistical model to test the idea. He published his peer-reviewed results in the American Sociological Review in the paper “Politicization of Science in the Public Sphere: A Study of Public Trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010.”
Gauchat, as do many academics, put the General Social Survey to use, in this case to track attitudes towards “science.” His main claim:
Results show that group differences in trust in science are largely stable over the period, except for respondents identifying as conservative. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest.
Right away, before reading another word, the suspicion is, if these results are right, it is likely because of the increasing confluence of science with politics and the rise of scientism, especially on the left. If more conservatives are really saying they trust “science” less, it’s likely because of their distrust of the political motivations of the uses science is put. Did Gauchat account for this?
He did not. He opens and closes his paper with quotes from Scientist in Chief, Barack Obama. The opener: “We have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas.” One cannot but agree, of course, but perhaps not in the way Gauchat hoped.
The suspicion the reader will have, seeing that Gauchat bookends his article with words from only one side of the political spectrum, is that he is biased. Why doesn’t he quote, for example, George W. Bush? Well, President Bush appears, but only to allow Gauchat to say that Bush “was widely seen as unfriendly toward the scientific community. As a consequence, many scientific organizations and advocacy groups became concerned that political and ideological interests were threatening the cultural authority of science.” The phrase “cultural authority of science” is redolent of scientism.
Like any good academic, Gauchat offers several theories of why people could be so bold as to question science. Most of these are not of interest to us today, though each allows for a certain amount of harmless fun. Let’s instead examine only Mooney’s (must resist temptation to rhyme…).
Mooney proposes that in the first two decades after World War II, political parties and ideologies were largely neutral and even deferential toward the scientific community. According to this account, the political neutrality of science began to unravel in the 1970s with the emergence of the new right (NR)—a group skeptical of organized science and the intellectual establishment in colleges and universities (see also Hofstadter 1970). The NR is often closely aligned with the religious right and promotes limited government, strong national defense, and protection of traditional values against what they view as encroachments of a permissive and often chaotic modern society
Besides the caricature of the right (none is offered of the left; Gauchat appears not to understand he is offering a one-sided story), note the use of “deferential”, a word which would only occur to those in thrall to scientism. Anyway, “Mooney identifies two cultural shifts in public trust in science in the United States. The first occurred with Reagan’s presidential election in 1980. The second shift occurred with the election of President George W. Bush in 2000, which Mooney marks as the start of the conservative ‘war on science.’”
But enough of this. What do the data say? Pay attention: Here is the question that was asked in the GSS (all markings original):
“I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them [the Scientific Community]?” Respondents were then given the choice to respond “a great deal,” “only some,” or “hardly any” (they could also choose “don’t know” or “refuse”).
Before reading further, go back and read the title of Gauchat’s article; also note what the press is saying about it. Back? Did you see it? Are you as shocked as I?
Yes, dear reader, the question is about the people running scientific institutions: the question is not about science itself. In other words—in true words—the GSS question wants to know people’s opinion of scientists not science. And not just scientists, but those in positions of leadership, which automatically entails politics of some kind.
So we have a sloppy beginning and poor writing, particularly in those who have summarized this article. Can Gauchat save himself through the use of multivariable statistical models?
He cannot. His (main) model, which he calls incorrectly “Predicting Public Confidence in Science”, is, in statistical terms, a kludge. It has (so-called) “Public Confidence in Science” predicted by: time, sex, non-white indicator, education in years, high school indicator, bachelor indicator, graduate indicator, live in the south indicator, church attendance indicator, family income, age, age-squared (why not?), independent, Republican, moderate, and conservative indicators, post Reagan indicator, Bush indicator, moderate times time, conservative times time, post-Regan times moderate, Bush time moderate, post-Reagan times conservative, Bush times conservative, plus random cohort effects.
I showed them all so that the reader could appreciate how complex this model is. Now, his sample size is 30,802, which practically guarantees, in frequentist statistics, publishable p-values even for false hypotheses. He should have satisfied himself by just plotting the means (which he did) and some indication of range (which he did not) for all three political ideologies (conservative, moderate, and liberal).
He interprets his model: “Underprivileged groups show lower levels of confidence in science: women, non-whites, and individuals with lower family incomes all report lower levels of trust.” So why didn’t the press and he trumpet something like “Women distrust science more than men” or “Blacks increasingly skeptical of science”, “Trust in Science ends: Women, the poor, and minorities hardest hit!”? Why just mention conservatives? All he claimed was that his model provided “strong evidence for a key claim of [Mooney's] politicization thesis.”
The data is one thing, but no academic can stop there. Enter the theorizing:
[O]ne interpretation of these findings is that conservatism in the United States has become a cultural domain that generates its own knowledge base that is often in conflict with the cultural authority of science. For example, on fundamental ontological questions about who we are and how we got here, conservatives are far more likely to doubt scientific theories of origins, including theories of natural selection and the Big Bang
More scientism here. Science has no “cultural authority”. That a neutrino does or does not have mass has no bearing on the lives of the vast, vast majority of human beings. And not one word about how the irreligious are far more likely to doubt theological arguments of origins and how these arguments are are compatible with science (and even how science confirms some of these arguments).
Gauchat cannot see his own scientistic biases, which is not surprising. But what is shocking is his ignorance that the actual GSS question has distinct political overtones. The most natural explanation for any change, if the change is real, is the increasing politicization of some sciences, like global warming. But not all science: ask citizens about quarks or protein folding and the respect they have for those who direct research programs into them and you will surely get very different responses. Gauchat’s failure to account for these differences (and his one-sided examples) is actually more evidence that some science is politicized: namely, his own.
But he’s not finished:
Simply, if conservatives as a group are less educated than they once were, this might account for the decline in trust in the scientific community.
This argument, since Mill, has been a favorite of the left. It’s falsity does not, of course, detract from its appeal (but it does hint its opposite is true). If you don’t like the stupidity hypothesis, there’s always intelligent irrationality:
This implies that educated or high-information conservatives will hold hyper-opinions about science, because they have a more sophisticated grasp about what types of knowledge will conform with or contradict their ideological positions, and they will prefer to believe what supports their ideology (see Vaisey 2009).
The left naturally is never under the sway of ideology. (Insert the fake cough “Marxism” here.) He later says that “conservatives were far more likely to define science as knowledge that should conform to common sense and religious tradition.” Silence again on how liberals define science to mean, for example, free ______ (fill in the blank).
Gauchat concludes that “Most notably,the political discontent that has manifested in the right-wing in the United States has likely already affected the relationship between organized science, private economic interests, and government.” About the only interesting thing he says, and this is against all other appeals, is that his results “suggests that scientific literacy and education are unlikely to have uniform effects on various publics, especially when ideology and identity intervene to create social ontologies in opposition to established cultures of knowledge (e.g., the scientific community, intelligentsia, and mainstream media).”
That’s the first I recall an academic not calling for more education. But he goes and spoils it by saying that the mainstream media (like NB “It was a slip of the tape” C) is an “established culture of knowledge.” And with that word of wisdom, I draw a veil.
Update As is my custom, I email authors of works I criticize to offer them a rebuttal. Gauchat responded almost immediately with this:
Ad hominem circumstantial? Also, it is so funny how people try to debunk the work. This is part of a much larger project, with so much data in support of conservative and moderate distrust in science.
Oh well, I wish I was impressed enough with your critique to respond.
I said, “You’ll pardon me if I suggest that you could not have had time to read the critique. Nor is it good science to dismiss arguments by claiming you were not ‘impressed’ (particularly when you could not have considered them). It is, however, an indication that you have a belief (an ideology?) which you do not wish to question—a claim with which you might be familiar.”
I also said he was a good sport to respond. He immediately shot back an email with one word, “Snore”, to which I retorted, “Spoken like a true ideologue.”
Update Sometime later, Gauchat had a change of heart and wrote back:
I apologize for being dismissive, but do we need to resort to name calling. I do appreciate that you read the paper and thought about it. In science, it is difficult to balance what you present as evidence when you have a lot of different experiments/survey data. I understand your concern about sample size and the individual outcome I used. But, I have a lot of other data to support these claims, as I mentioned in the discussion and conclusion. I am working on publishing these additional findings, hopefully you will convinced.
One unsettling finding is that “authoritarian dispositions” account for a lot of the relationship between conservatives and attitudes toward science. Moreover, there is evidence that conservatives have become more authoritarian over time. So, things could be more controversial. Hope you keep up with this work.
Also, thanks for informing me about your critique. I will not comment on it though.
To which I replied:
There is no name calling; except, perhaps, in calling Mr Obama “Scientist in Chief”, which I hope you’ll agree does not sting.
Science is difficult, it’s true. Which is why it is crucial to explore all plausible mechanisms which could account for your data. You explored some, but eschewed others: I imagine (hope) this was unintentional. The large sample size is only one way to be led astray; but, as I said in my criticism, you would have be better off just plotting (a modified version of) your Fig. 1. By this picture, it does seem that conservatives increasingly answered the GSS with a lower mean.
It’s the interpretation of the GSS where we run into problems. There is no way to check to see how individuals who answered that question interpreted its meaning, or that the interpretation was constant across time, or whether the interpretation varied with time and by ideology (or any of the other demographic information). At the least, the question is surely about people and not about science per se. Any speculation about what participants thought about science is unwarranted—based just on this data. Differentiating science from politics from scientism can’t be done with this question alone.
I do look forward to your future publications.
Also, thanks for taking time to answer.
Thanks to the many readers who brought this paper to my attention, including Jason Lee