The cause of the conservative turn against science

In yesterday’s post, I discussed how the changing demographics of the US threaten the future of the Republican party. While I focused largely on ethnicity, there is one other demographic where the party is getting trounced and that is among scientists. In an article titled Why Conservatives Turned Against Science Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes lay out the figures.

A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center found that only 9 percent of scientists self-identified as conservative, while 52 percent called themselves liberals. Only 6 percent of American scientists self-identified as Republicans.

Of course the numbers of scientists is minuscule so this does not matter in terms of actual votes. But this alienation of scientists from the GOP points to a deeper problem and that is the extraordinary extent to which anti-science forces have taken over the Republican party. Ideas that are now part of the scientific consensus such as evolution, climate change, and the age of the Earth are not only controversial within the party, they are even seen as false ideas that are being deliberately foisted on the public in an attempt to hoodwink them and hence rejected as being a devious plot by the scientific community, part of some larger nefarious agenda. This has threatened to split the conservative movement, with those who are reality-based wondering how to remain within a political party that has so resolutely turned its face against science.

Conway and Oreskes remind us that it was not always thus.

In the 1968 election, Richard Nixon won the votes of 31 percent of physicists, 42 percent of biologists, 52 percent of geologists, and 62 percent of agricultural scientists (compared with 43.4 percent of the popular vote). While these data do not include party affiliation, they suggest that the scientific community of the late 1960s was much more evenly divided between the two major parties than it is now, and, with the exception of physicists, slightly more conservative than the American voting public at large.

They point out that it was during Richard Nixon’s administration that we saw the passage of sweeping environmental legislation such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. They add:

It seems hard to believe today, but environmental protection used to be a bipartisan affair. In the early half of the 20th century, Republican and Democratic administrations pursued conservation, setting aside land as national forests and parks but leaving pollution control to local and state governments. By the 1950s, however, pollution became a national issue.

The authors pose the question: Why have scientists fled the Republican Party? The obvious answer is that it is because the Republican Party has turned its back on science. But what caused that to happen? One plausible answer might be that as religious fundamentalists, spurred by the issue of abortion, gained increasing sway within the GOP, those scientific issues that directly threatened religious beliefs, such as evolution and the age of the Earth, had to be rejected. Climate change was rejected for an indirect religious reason, because of the belief that god would not allow the destruction of the planet that he had specially brought into being for those created in his image.

But the authors suggest a different cause, that it was the shift in emphasis in environmental concerns from “aesthetic environmentalism” devoted largely to protecting areas of national beauty (which did not require a lot of science or expansion of federal authority) to pollution control (which did require both) that was the trigger for the schism. As science and scientists became more visibly involved in assessing environmental threats and recommending solutions that required government regulations, they became perceived as being part of the growing regulatory state and this coincided with the rise of Reaganism and the counter-attack by the business community on what they felt was excessive government intrusion into the marketplace that had hitherto given them considerable freedom to exploit natural resources as they wished.

In 1972 a group of scientists published the book Limits to Growth that argued that there were limits to the ability of the Earth to provide raw materials and its ability to absorb waste, and thus controls needed to be put in place to deal with those twin problems. This view was anathema to those who felt that human ingenuity and technological innovation, constrained only by market forces and unfettered by the government regulations, would be able to overcome these challenges. Wealthy business interests, conservative intellectuals, and think tanks led this counterattack and conservative politicians dutifully fell in line.

The Reagan administration also rejected the idea of limits, seeing technological innovation as the best solution to pollution. Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, set out to reduce or eliminate the regulatory burden on industry by rolling back regulations, preventing future ones, definancing enforcement agencies, and devolving enforcement to the states (which were generally less willing or able to regulate large industries and often lacked the scientific capability to do so). The Reagan administration’s ideological assault on regulatory agencies left their staffs disorganized and demoralized. Budget cuts also deprived them of expertise, as specialists moved to positions outside government.

Reagan later replaced his most extreme cabinet members, but the antiregulatory, antilimits ideology did not fade away; it remained embedded in the New Right’s network of think tanks, law firms, and foundations. It was now orthodoxy in the Republican Party, and when the Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, soon making Gingrich speaker of the House of Representatives, Republicans passed bills curtailing environmental laws.

It is with the issue of climate change that the issue came to a head as over time conservative attacks on science became steadily more strident as they fought to roll back environmental protections.

Confirmation of global warming activated a new phase in the conservative assault on environmental protection: Conservatives began to attack individual scientists and to deny the legitimacy of climate science, and sometimes even of the concept of publicly financed science.

In this view, religious fundamentalists, rather than being the instigators of this struggle, play the role of natural allies who were recruited by big business as foot soldiers in this anti-science movement. The net result is that big business interests and religious fundamentalists, the backbone of the modern Republican party, have become the new face of conservatism and stridently anti-science.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that natural scientists have fled the GOP. Scientific research, with its basis in observation and experience of the natural world, is rooted in the fundamental premise that when the results of our investigations tell us something, we pay heed.

So there we have it. Science itself has become seen as having a liberal bias.

How long can the Republican party persist with its anti-science attitudes? Their defeat in the recent elections has caused considerable soul-searching, with some suggesting that the party needs to shed its image as being so dominated by the crazies that it is tempting people with any shred of intellectual self-respect to defect.

Humorist Andy Borowitz suggests that they may be already thinking along those lines.

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, told reporters today, “We need to welcome people who believe in different things than we do, like math and science.”

Although said in jest, the Republican party should take that message seriously. Let’s see how that goes.


  1. machintelligence says

    I’m not going to hold my breath while waiting:

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

    Upton Sinclair

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    While the fiscal ideology of the Reagan-era Right may explain the GOP’s rejection of environmentalism, it doesn’t explain conservatives rejection of evolution, cosmology, and any other science that contests their mystical, human-centric view of the universe.

    THAT is largely the fault of religion.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    … it was during Richard Nixon’s administration that we saw the passage of sweeping environmental legislation such as …

    The Clean Water Act was passed by overriding Nixon’s veto. It was my impression at the time that he didn’t really agree with the environmental movement, but went along with it to some degree so as to focus his efforts on things which mattered more to him, such as maximal slaughter of brown-skinned people in SE Asia.

  4. says

    Nice revisionist history, but no.

    Nixon was no saint. But he drew down the number of troops in Vietnam.

    In 1968, the last year of the Johnson administration, troop levels were 536,000.

    In 1969, the first year of the Nixon administration, troop levels were went down to 475,00, and continued to fall every year during his first term.

    In 1972, the presidential election year, troop levels had fallen to 24,000. Doesn’t seem to be consistent with your belief that Nixon was only interested in continuing the war, does it?

    Let’s be part of the reality-based community, OK?

  5. invivoMark says

    Isn’t the simplest explanation often the best? Scientists are no longer Republican (if they ever were) because Republicans are conservative, and have become more conservative over time, and scientists are liberal. ANY conservative party is going to have a hard time attracting scientists.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    If irrelevant* apologies for a mass murderer are your idea of “reality”, I’ll stick with factual “revisionism”, thanks just the same.

    * I don’t feel like trying to look up how many Vietnamese (civilians and patriotic resistance fighters) were slaughtered by LBJ and how many by RMN, mostly because reliable numbers – to, say, the nearest hundred thousand – would be practically impossible to find. US troops levels do not correspond to the number of local people butchered (hell, even the tonnage of bombs dropped probably has little correlation to Vietnamese [and Laotian, and Cambodian] casualties), and would seem to matter only to hopeless jingos with no regard whatsoever for Indochinese lives.

  7. Bill Openthalt says

    Are scientists by definition liberal? Or is a conservative with a science degree not a scientist?

  8. Omri says

    “The Reagan administration also rejected the idea of limits, seeing technological innovation as the best solution to pollution. ”

    This is incredibly ironic. The mentality behind this right wing response to the Limits to Growth book is one that believes in mankind’s ability to trump nature by sheer will, so long as the will is rightly guided. You know who else believed that?

    Trofim Lysenko.

    The right wing’s belief in the market’s ability to trump natural limits has direct parallels in Lysenko’s belief that sheer will, guided by “scientific socialism,” will trump the difficulties the Soviets faced in farming.

  9. John Barber says

    The authors underestimate the depth of Reagan’s aversion to science and environmentalism. It’s more deep than a reaction to the regulatory demands over the use of energy.

    Reagan removed the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed on the roof of the White House. This act was a statement that conservation of energy, even by positive action, is unnecessary. It’s the attitude that there will always be energy sources to exploit, so exploit to the fullest.

    Reagan also remanded Jimmy Carter’s executive order to phase in the metric system, the international standard of measurement that is the most efficient means of measuring both by applied and pure science, among other uses. Yes, it would have meant the expense of re-tooling of our manufacturing industry, but in the end — given the way the production of parts has been internationalized — we would have become more competitive.

    I think of those actions as symptomatic of “country club” Republicans. They didn’t do well in science class, didn’t care because they were good at making money, and formed a group attitude that was dismissive of science, especially when the implications of new science would cause discomfort.

  10. Joel says

    Yeah, he drew down the number of ground troops and greatly escalated the air war, often bombing countries with which we weren’t even at war, like Cambodia. Trying to use the decrease in ground troops to claim that Nixon wasn’t interested in continuing the war is more than misleading, it’s downright disingenuous. You’re the one trying to revise history.

  11. Ravage says

    It happened before. But even Galileo muttered “Eppure, si muove,” as they forced him to repudiate his findings. I’m sure there is a Republican somewhere who is muttering something similar.

    And conservative as he was, H. L. Mencken found enough idiocy to call our voting public a “Boobocracy.” What would he say now?

    What is even more stunning than the talkers is the number of people who vote Republican, even though experience should tell them not only that they will lose, but that the anti science stance is just the kind of demand that future generations pay the price that they oppose so strongly when it comes to Social Security and Medicare.

  12. R Beigh says

    So true. My own scientist father was a very conservative man, but eventually walked away from the Republican party. He said “how in the hell can you be against facts? I don’t understand that.” But the Republican party, with its swerve into cultural conservatism and evangelicalism (which wasn’t always so dominant) under Reagan, became a place where evidence based thinking and fact based conclusions were no longer welcome. Belief became more important than thinking or knowledge, and thus the exodus. My dad was never some tree hugging hairy hippie, but he did respect facts, data, the scientific method, and rational thought. There’s little room for that in today’s belief-above-all Republican party.


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