Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Political bias and science

Update: a very similar article to mine, containing the very same points (the anti-science acts of the Left in the "Summers controversy", their tendency to reduce the political diversity on campus, but also some other topics such as the "Sokal affair") - was written by Prof. James D. Miller. I admit that his article is better than mine.

Sean Carroll from The Preposterous Universe asked the question why academics tend to be left-wing. His answers (to be discussed at the end of this article) do not seem terribly deep to me: they're the kind of cheap stuff for the simple readers who need to be assured that their being left-wing is good enough for being a great people - but let's try to answer his question anyway, in a slightly more reasonable way. So why is the Academia so pre-dominantly left-wing?

Different departments

First of all, the large concentration of left-wing scholars is especially the case of humanities and some social sciences. In some examples, it cannot be surprising. Some of the fields at these departments are left-wing almost by definition. For example, what can the political opinions of a professor of (feminist) gender studies look like? Many jobs - and probably many departments at many universities - have been deliberately created to support a certain type of political thinking and suppress the opposite type of thinking. Perhaps, the motivation may have been good in some cases, whatever it means. Therefore, the question "why there are so many people in some fields" may be reduced to the question "why were these departments created in the first place and why do the taxpayers and others continue to fund them?".

You might think that these fields could also attract right-wingers. But it's just true that the right-wingers will typically prefer a job that produces something useful, instead of a position in which they are fed by the society. This right-wing virtue, namely the habit to rely on himself or herself and his or her work as opposed to the work of others, together with the rather usual right-wing links to material values also explain why the percentage of conservatives among the scientists (and physicists in particular) as well as economics (especially business) and of course military tend to be higher than in philosophy, literature, and related fields, as a reader correctly and quickly pointed out.

Nevertheless, the proportion of the left-wing people is disproportionally high even among the natural scientists, at least in the U.S. (I was told that not so much in the U.K., for example). David Horowitz argues that it is partially a result of osmosis (or infection). I believe that there are other, perhaps more important reasons. But let me first look at one popular myth.

A myth: science is inherently left-wing

There unfortunately exist many left-wing scientists who believe that politics is correlated with science. More precisely, they believe that the more "liberal" a hypothesis is, the more likely it is correct. Well, this approach is not confined to the left wing. Many Christians believe that the more Christian a given conjecture is, the more likely it is right. The historical justification for the left-wing bias goes back to renaissance - although most of the educated people were believers in one way or another, the "heretics" were those who brought us some important paradigm shifts.

But if we forget about a few anecdotes from the 16th century, who is right? Is the scientific truth expected to come from the left wing, or the right wing? Incidentally, history does not paint a clear picture. Many key scientists have been Christians - like Isaac Newton - or hardcore conservatives - like Carl-Friedrich Gauss. The co-father of quantum mechanics (its most quantum version) and the father of the uncertainty principle Werner Heisenberg preferred NSDAP among the German political parties. John Wheeler has been a staunch supporter of the Star Wars, among many other things. I could continue for a long time, and trust me that historical statistics of the political opinions of physicists are very different from the statistics showing the underrepresentation of women. And of course, on the other hand, there are so many great left-wing scientists that I don't need to enumerate them.

Can we ask once again: is the truth in physics left-wing or right-wing?

The readers who know me well can guess what is my moderate opinion about these two approaches. Well, my opinion is balanced - these two approaches are equally unscientific. In fact, they're mirror images of each other. They are two different forms of religion - although for purely historical reasons, we usually use the word "religion" for one of these cases only. However: the truth in science does not care about politics. Scientific findings can often support the position of a liberal, but they can also support a position of a conservative. Whoever thinks that the right answer may be determined using the political key, is doing politics not science - and she or he is doing it in an unscientific way.

Let me mention one example of these beliefs from each side.

Many Christians believe that the Bible must be kind of correct, including its description of the origins of the Universe and the origin of species. The Universe was created 6,000 years ago and the species were constructed by God one by one. Be sure that 10 years ago or so, I had had some heated discussions about these topics and as you might guess, I was certainly not advocating creationism. ;-)

On the other hand, many left-wing people believe that biology must work in such a way that it strengthens the ideas of egalitarianism and political correctness. They believe that there can't be any correlations between the gender and the abilities to do various things. They believe that poverty is an artificial consequence of the Evil and that the natural state of affairs is the universal and uniform wealth. They believe that the global climate must be approaching a catastrophe because this also helps to show that capitalism and corporations are evil.

The obvious question that a balanced person like me and many readers of mine may ask is: which of these two approaches is more incorrect? As I have indicated, they are comparably flawed. Is one of them more obviously wrong than the other?

Actually, I believe that the concept of evolution is a pretty difficult one (but an important one). Darwin's theory has been one of the greatest paradigm shifts in science and it was a highly non-trivial one. After millenia of ignorance in which people did not realize the relations between the different forms of life and their history, a new picture had emerged. In order to appreciate the depth and inevitability of Darwin's conclusions, one must take the long history of our planet very seriously - those billions of years in which life evolved - and perhaps also some observations about the structural similarities between the different life forms must be appreciated. It's not that easy and I am confident that many people only believe this stuff because someone else has been very successful in influencing them. In other words, the fact that 50% of Americans have not understood evolution is not much more shocking than the ignorance of most Americans about special relativity.

And yes, I think that it should be easier to understand that there are and there must be identifiable differences between male and female brains and their way of thinking. One does not have to follow hundreds of the experiments that improved our understanding of the brain - and also revealed various differences. Some amount of everyday experience and common sense is enough. Moreover, everyone who appreciates evolution must also know that the males and females have been trained for (slightly?) different activities by millions of years of evolution and natural selection, and it's therefore not reasonable to expect that they should have identical anatomy and/or abilities - and the experiments indeed show that there are many differences.

In my opinion, it should be easier to swallow such an insight that contradicts some egalitarian prejudices than it is to understand how can we share a common ancestry with our dogs and other pets. And there are many similarly political sensitive questions in social science - like economics. It seems obvious that the opinion about the elementary questions such as "where does wealth come from" is much more irrational among the people who strongly hold various left-wing beliefs. Many of these people believe that the people have always been naturally rich, and it was capitalism and imperialism that made some people poor. ;-) (Just to be sure: people were originally born/evolved poor and they had to struggle against cruel Nature to survive; they only became richer once the work and the concentration of capital became profitable and beneficial.) Well, yes, this kind of misunderstanding about the very basic things how the world worked and works seems more unscientific and more silly to me than a misunderstanding about the relations between DNA of plants and humans.

OK. Finally I want to say that it may often be really difficult to be a right-wing person in a society dominated by left-wingers. (Especially if the lunetic with the "bby" anonymous e-mail address keeps on sending these completely weird e-mails about me to the whole Harvard University.) Many people - and probably most people - around are great, but the rest is enough for the feeling of safety to evaporate. There are just too many left-wing people in the society who have totalitarian inclinations (like "bby"). It's not unexpected. Various left-wing assumptions are patently false and one needs to impose a certain degree of terror to keep these beliefs and principles alive and powerful. If everyone is free, be sure that the anti-capitalist and egalitarian dogmas will be proved false. One must use some social engineering - and power to make inconvenient people silent - to achieve certain goals.

This has been demonstrated in the recent outrageous events during the "Summers controversy". The majority of the FAS faculty decided that the Harvard's president does not even have the right to consider some ideas - whose relevance is incidentally completely obvious - not even at private conferences. Some of Summers' critics are the very same people who believe that the Church is the only force that wants to prevent the humankind from learning the truth about biology, the people and the society.

Finally, let me respond to particular comments by Sean Carroll and Paul Krugman.

  • Paul Krugman states the obvious: one reason why academics tend to be liberals is that modern conservatism has become increasingly anti-reason and anti-intellectual.
Well, Paul Krugman shows that he's not quite able to concentrate on rational thinking and to avoid his political bias. He does not know how to separate rational thinking from political prejudices. If he looked more carefully or if he read this blog of mine, he may be able to realize that anti-reason approaches appear evenly on both sides of the political spectrum.
  • Scientific American may think that evolution is supported by mountains of evidence, but President Bush declares that "the jury is still out."
Well, George Bush is a born-again Christian. Of course that I think that he is not quite right about the evolution, but on the other hand, he is - unlike Paul Krugman - completely right if he thinks that something does not have to be correct just because it was printed in Scientific American.
  • Senator James Inhofe dismisses the vast body of research supporting the scientific consensus on climate change as a "gigantic hoax."
Well, James Inhofe sees the "consensus" in this way, because the generic results about the so-called "global warming" are not a well done research. For a politician, James Inhofe has demonstrated rather remarkable abilities to learn some scientific issues. Once again, the differences between male and female brains are definitely much more well-established than the climate and weather in 2100 and its socio-economical consequences.
  • And conservative pundits like George Will write approvingly about Michael Crichton's anti-environmentalist fantasies.
Very interesting book. Is it anti-reason just because it is anti-environmentalist? The average environmentalists' understanding of science and reasoning is pretty poor. Sean Carroll continues:
  • The tendency of academics to be liberal runs much deeper than a reaction against the current wave of know-nothingism in the Republican party. ...
  • In the truest sense of the word, to be "conservative" is to cherish certain established verities, while a good academic is always questioning accepted ideas, and approaching alternatives in a spirit of open-mindedness.
This is a very funny comment, especially one month after the left-wing academics proved that they don't want anyone to question their naive 19th century unscientific dogmas, not even Lawrence Summers who is also a Democrat. I wonder whether Sean Carroll really believes that some people are more rational because they are left-wing. Linguistics and "truest sense of words" could indicate that conservatives should have a harder time to learn and/or analyze certain things, but reality is something different than linguistics and "truest sens of words".

Incidentally, this difference between reality and words is another point that especially the left-wing people often misunderstand. For example, many of them believe that we will encounter a lot of progress if we are "progressive" - even though the obvious main goal of "progressivism" is to return the society to the stinky and flawed 19th century ideas of Marxism.
  • That's why you'll always find universities to be mostly liberal, even in the hard sciences (where even the most paranoid conservatives don't think that faculty are hired on the basis of their political views).
The main purpose of the universities - the search for the truth - is indeed correlated with the people's willingness to question the majority beliefs and common sense. However, many current events have shown that the left-wing people in average are pretty bad at these things. They have certain beliefs, much like the Christians have some other beliefs. And they can behave very inappropriately when they try to "defend" these beliefs against a rational analysis.
  • None of the legislation that David Horowitz tries to get passed will ever change that.
It will not change the purpose of the universities - to search for the truth - but it may reduce the political bias at the universities. The amoung of bias today is huge - it's so huge that when people like Krugman or Carroll write silly articles in which they argue that the truth is determined by politics, there is almost no one who tells them that they are being silly, and why they are being silly.

Except for the Reference Frame.


  1. Actually, the science departments tend to be more conservative/less liberal than the humanities departments and among the science departments, physics departments are among the most conservative. There are many conservative physicists out there. This is true in my American university.

    An interesting question is why are physics departments conservative?

  2. To be honest, the economics and business departments are more conservative. And so are the military departments.

    Why is that, eh, Lubos?

  3. Surprisingly, many professors in the religious departments aren't all that conservative and you might be surprised at the number of people in seminaries who are (get this!) agnostics and atheists! They were believers when they joined, but then...

  4. "On the other hand, many left-wing people believe that biology must work in such a way that it strengthens the ideas of egalitarianism and political correctness. They believe that there can't be any correlations between the gender and the abilities to do various things. They believe that poverty is an artificial consequence of the Evil and that the natural state of affairs is the universal and uniform wealth. They believe that the global climate must be approaching a catastrophe because this also helps to show that capitalism and corporations are evil."

    -- Liberals know that Darwinism is very much a winner-takes-all kind of proposition. Liberals (and for that matter conservatives) don't believe that nature is an appropriate model for human society. Human society is an invention, just like automobiles and differential equations, and does not have to resemble anything found in nature.

    -- Liberals don't believe that there cannot be any correlations between abilities and gender. Quite the contrary. But they are also very aware of all the myriads of past failed attempts to use science to claim superiority of one type of human over the other. They are also aware of the slippery slope one is on, once one starts accepting the proposition that some humans are inferior to others. So they demand a very high standard of proof.

    -- No-one, except in Lubos's imagination believes that uniform wealth is the natural state of affairs. What many do question is why is the natural state of affairs that which is appropriate to human society? There are no police, no roads, no schools, no courts, no corner-food stores in the natural state; everyone of these is a non-obvious invention. A degree of equality among all humans is also an invention, and it is an invention of high utility, by the way (argument for another day).

    -- Capitalism and corporations are evil, and because of this belief, liberals must postulate a global climate catastrophe. We shall return to capitalism another day, and likewise climate change; but regarding corporations - igreat concentrations of power always pose a threat to liberty, and this creation of the law with virtual immortality does sometimes become more powerful than many governments, and can be dangerous. Only the vigilant will keep their liberties.

  5. Arun said: "There are no police, no roads, no schools, no courts, no corner-food stores in the natural state; everyone of these is a non-obvious invention. A degree of equality among all humans is also an invention,"

    There is a great difference between *inventions* and *fictions*. The idea that society should be organized in accordance with an admitted falsehood is pretty shocking. But at least you admit that egalitarianism is false...

  6. Arun said: "...don't believe that nature is an appropriate model for human society. Human society is an invention, just like automobiles and differential equations, and does not have to resemble anything found in nature."

    Human society is part of nature and certain follows nature's laws, too. If you are able to go and study an ET civilization you would find many similarities assembling the human society on earth. Communism is an attempt to "invent" a human society by design and we all know it doesn't work.

    And certain all human inventions follow the natural laws. No one is able to invent something that break physics laws yet. You can invent perpertual machines in your mind but can't put the ideas into production. So it is ridiculous to contrast human invention against the nature.

    And I do think nature provided the best model for human society. What human beings are doing laterly, is largely destroying that best model nature made for us, instead of making a better environment for the persistence of humanity. We are facing an unprecedentedly huge number of crisises all at the same time, which never happened in the past human history.


  7. There is a lot of sense in what you say here, Lubos. One of the strangest features of the scientific/academic community is the widespread equation of professional competence in a scientific discipline with neccessarily liberal views. This is quite as foolish as equating virtue and physical attractiveness. I once heard the following, a propos a non-PC utterance by an erstwhile Oxford general relativist: "How could he hold such views, he knows about twistor theory". I was more amazed than amused; this remark was made in all seriousness.

    BTW it is the publicly stated intent of the UK government to eradicate poverty (in the UK, for a start). And how is poverty defined? As a wage less than 60% of the median of the existing distribution of wages. Is this anything other than an imposition of equal remuneration all round? And does the Prime Minister's avaricious old crone of a wife realise that this is what is in store for her?

  8. Anonymous,

    Dunno about UK, but usually poverty is defined in absolute terms - e.g., unable to purchase the daily calory requirement or living on less than $2 a day or so on.


  9. Fyodor:

    Equality of opportunity is as much a fiction as a police force or a court. None of these exist in nature.


  10. In nature, the only value is that of survival and of the survival of one's offspring.

    There is no religion, there are no "natural" ethics or morality. It is an innovation that infant mortality is not 30%. It is an innovation that we believe children should have a childhood and shouldn't have to work. It is an innovation that we prohibit adult-child sex; we invented an age of consent; heck, we invented consent (only female hyenas, because of a peculiarity of their anatomy, can avoid rape). If you want to discard one human value that doesn't fit with nature, why not discard them all?

    On examination, it turns out that the human values you want to keep are those that fit your ideology and those that you want to discard don't fit. Nothing to do with being natural or unnatural, scientific or unscientific, just has to do with intellectual dishonesty.


  11. "But it's just true that the right-wingers will typically prefer a job that produces something useful, instead of a position in which they are fed by the society."

    I am happy to know that most of right-wingers are independent farmers (although the reverse can be true there in USA). Opps, perhaps it is money, no food, the thing you are thinking about. I could agree that right-wingers like to produce money.

    "The historical justification for the left-wing bias goes back to renaissance - although most of the educated people were believers in one way or another, the "heretics" were those who brought us some important paradigm shifts."

    Benjamin Farrington, "Science and Politics in the Ancient World" goes beyond renaissance on this.

    Evolution theory: it is a touchy issue, not because of the religion/science conflict, but because of the rightist/leftist interpretation conflict. I think the leftist side has a more accurate reading of Darwin.

    By the way, this same Kropotkin had some arguments about why science could benefit of a anarchocommunist society.

    My two cents about the main theme: Science is a cornerstone of the western political system, so for sure it is right-winged, almost tautologically. Now, it happens that *the scientific method* is left-winged: it is based on systematic doubting any dogma. This breach can, on one side, play a role in attracting left winged people to pure science; on another, can drive stablished scientifics to begin doubting about the political system, then drifting left.

  12. lubos, i would like to
    like to know your views on this.

    I think that many of the "leftist"
    people in academia are actually
    hipocrats. Most of their humanaterian views are about things that do not affect them,
    so they can afford to take a "sweet" stand on them. For instance bush can take any
    stance on
    " whether dinosaurs had 2 or 4
    wings " he
    can take that since it has no direct relationship to his job,
    but he has to take a hard stand
    on many things since it his job.Similarly
    to be frank iraq does not affect
    the university professor so he can
    be "all nice" about it, but if
    he has proposed a theory where
    "dinosaurs have 4 wings and NOT
    2 ", and his "TENURE" depends on it then he will not be very "liberal" about it.

    I also find it funny when
    people talk about the great thing
    they are doing by not driving
    a SUV but still have 2 cars in their family. If they really believed in all their views
    they would ride bikes.

    To be frank people enjoy
    all the comforts of life and
    living in security. It also feels good to talk about how humaneterian
    and how nice they are. After
    fullfilling ALL their needs
    ( 2 cars ), they draw the line
    ( NO SUV ) and then start showing
    that they are sensitive. And all of us must agree that it always
    feels good when we show that
    we are sensitive.

    Man, There is
    a lot of hipocracy.

  13. I am very worried!

    Why oh Why are yourself Lubos, and various people at techcentralstation wasting time on Social Democrats like Paul Krugman?

    I mean, most of Paul Krugman position on the dearth of conservatives in American Universities is self evidently silly. The only correct arguement he gave is renumeration!

    By wasting time on this rubbish, you bring conservative arguement down to the silly levels that Krugman (in this case) want arguement to degenerate to.

    I understand that Krugman used to be a serious commentator, but he has sold his soul since joining the NY Times!

    Stopped being fooled by these Social Democrats!

    An Amateur Mathematician


  14. Yet, funnily enough, the only professors who have faced more than verbal condemnation are those who dare voice thoughts incompatible with the right-wing orthodoxy of the US governament.

    It is not Summers, but Ward Churchill who faces being fired (and allready resigned) over something he wrote a few years back.

    It is Columbia university professors who are being asked to submit to a McCarthy style investigation that examines whether they are "biased against Israel".

    Funny, for an institution dominated by "Leftism".

  15. If physicists are more conservative in general, this can only mean one thing; physicists are morally inferior scum!

  16. Exactly, you hit it right on the head! Liberals and lefties aren't compassionate and caring at all. They only pretend to. They don't really care about others who are in difficulty. What they DO care about is appearences and their moral reputation. They want to be holier-than-thou. They want to be known as the compassionate loving tolerant liberal, but they don't really care. They are only faking it to look good. They care a lot more about pointing out and condemning the moral depravities of conservatives and others for the purpose of making themselves look morally superior. If they really cared about others, they would actually GO OUT AND DO SOMETHING which can MAKE A CHANGE FOR THE BETTER. But is that what they do? No! All they do is condemn and congratulate themselves for not being as morally depraved. Liberals are not really tolerant. Watch their comments when their guard is down in casual conversation with close friends. They only ACT "tolerant". Watch their condescending attitude while pretending to have the interests of the oppressed and exploited at heart. But it's all words and they don't really do anything about it.

    Watch how "liberal" bosses act. They act authoritarian! Watch how "liberal" professors act. They show contempt for their students and torture their students with meaningless assignments and present their lectures in an authoritation manner.

  17. Watch the "liberals" flatter each other on their morally superior views. Watch them keep each other in line whenever another "liberal" gives the APPEARENCE of stepping out of their bounds of morality. But appearence is all that matters because they don't really practice what they preach and their hearts are far more preoccupied with how others think of them then how they can help others.

  18. Have you ever noticed that the attitudes of the liberals can be Puritanical at times? I know nowadays, Puritanism is associated with sexual conservatism, but really, it was primarily a purifying social movement with the aim of purging society of corruption, immorality, etc. and they were radical reformers with an antihierarchical and egalitarian attitude (no priest, no pope, but a direct communion with God, vernacular bibles). They stressed education and were against superstition and "tradition".

  19. Is string theory something useful? If not, you are a parasite feeding off society. :)

  20. According to Prof.Motl, the statistics speak the truth and it should be accepted without
    any growl.

    **So Winston Churchill's view that the brown skinned Asians and Black Africans "scums" (sic.) are INHERENTLY inferior to Europeans must be RIGHT ; Statistics show that Europeans, despite being small in number, have more representation not just in technology, science, but every aspect of life. Do you hold this view ? Or you espouse a more "inclusive" view just because it is "politically correct" (nowadays even legally, due to anti-racist laws).

    Plainly, I consider Churchill an idiot.

    Simply bcos, he compared Asians and Africans who had little resources at hand with Europeans who had everything (thanks to colonies) and a far superior standards in every walk of life (including science)

    There are plenty of instances where statistics "lie" just because it is taken out of context, meaning, without considering the backdrop.

    ** Studies find no evidence so far to distinct a male-brain in scientific activity. But you are in a hurry to espouse ideologies.

    ** Global warming is almost completely accepted among climate specialists. Crichton or any such phony cannot wish it away by bombastic writing.
    USA pretends that it does not understand Glob warming only because it is no longer a country. It is a conglomerate of big business capital who has everything to lose if Kyoto is enforced. That's the LOGIC, and it is easier to follow LOGIC than engage in sophistry to "disprove" data on global warming.

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  23. I erased a couple of comments by lunatics who wanted to kill me (or worse things). ;-)

  24. He who lives by the sword will die by the sword.

  25. Don't you just want to strangle Lubos, beat the hell out of him, bash his head open with a club and pummel him? And then we can all gang-rape him.