13 December 2010
'Democratic society needs Republican scientists'
Daniel Sarawitz doesn't make the above claim at Slate because he thinks that Republicans or political conservatives bring any special insight to scientific inquiry, or because he desires more equal representation of political viewpoints in the academy. Instead, he's simply saying in a roundabout way that more Republicans ought to be scientifically inclined. He's discovered that an alarmingly small number of scientists identify themselves as Republicans, and he worries that the stat represents a general alienation of conservatives from the sciences. There's a temptation to blame the stat on a cultural disdain for knowledge, or a preference for superstition, and Sarawitz himself suggests that a generation of conservatives too easily identify science with divisive political issues like climate change and stem-cell research. But I think that kind of negative identification can be exaggerated. Science is much more than the sum of its controversies, and some areas of science are of obvious interest to defense-oriented Republicans. So if self-identified Republicans don't seek careers in the sciences, I'm less inclined to attribute that to a cultural aversion to science itself than to Republicans' narrow entrepreneurial bent. I suspect that many Republicans would rather be the person who sells the next big discovery than the person who actually makes it, since salesmanship is where the money's made. The individual research scientist isn't seen as an entrepreneur, and since the typical Republican probably does see himself as an entrepreneur, he may be more likely to imagine himself hiring a scientist than being one himself. Nor do I assume that the Republican includes the research scientist in his imaginary cabal of evil elitists out to rule the world. Scientists wouldn't rank among the most trusted professions if that were so. The most plausible explanation for an ideological or partisan gap among scientists is that people who become scientists are plainly not interested in making the largest pile of money possible. Scientists, then, are unlikely to have the entrepreneurial mentality that's most receptive to Republican propaganda. Whether there's something about them that makes them more receptive (despite a sizable percentage of political independents in their ranks) to Democratic propaganda is a question I leave to others. But it may be that if society honored and rewarded scientists in a manner more proportionate to their contributions to civilization, more people would be scientists who might otherwise be Republicans.