why politics and science still don’t mix
In American politics, scientists have two choices: a party that actively hates them and a party that merely pays lip service to their work.
We’re back to the Slate for today’s post, not to take a look at another one of Carl Zimmer’s reliably superb and thorough examples of how to do proper science writing, but to illustrate once again how trying to jam politics into science and vice versa simply doesn’t work, and how political commentators suggesting we try just don’t seem to get it. The article in question laments how many scientists identify themselves as either Democrats or giving no preference to any political affiliation, and goes on about the need to engage more Republicans in science and scientific matters, implying that failure to do so renders science politically biased. Personally, I’m curious if the author was paying attention to current events. Republicans in Congress today are not interested in science or basic engineering unless it has something to do with the military and they view scientists as an excellent, reliable target for populist fury whenever they manage to run out of people to call “liberal elitists.”
When today’s most prominent Republicans see that a slight majority of scientists tends to prefer Democrats, they’ll simply use the stat to bash them as “elitists who support far left radicals” because that’s what they tend to do to get votes. They start fights and declare anyone to the left of them on any issue whatsoever as being a nefarious agent of some left wing conspiracy to destroy the nation, then as the perpetually outraged partisan faithful grab the torches and pitchforks, they urge them not to forget to go to the polls and vote for those whose strategy to stay in power is to help stoke anti-intellectualism and populist rage even further. It’s not so much a contest between Democrats and Republicans to implement their own visions for the future of science in this country because, as I explained earlier, neither party actually cares about STEM research and education at all because their priorities lie elsewhere, but a setup in which Democrats pay some lip service to how good science is for the country while the Republicans decry it as an exercise in wasting public funds by atheists on the warpath against religion. And then we get an article wondering why scientists would rather vote Democrat than for those whose leaders and devout followers hurl constant abuse at them? Really?
Here’s a very clear example of how partisan politics, especially on the right, poison discourse about science and research in general. When the Discovery Channel announced that President Obama was going to be on an episode of Mythbusters, the comment sections across the web lit up with furious outrage from wanna-be Tea Party activists demanding to know how dare Discovery stain their reputation by daring to give their most hated political figure a smidgen of airtime, and declaring that never again would they watch the channel. Just like the outrage over the idea of Obama making a televised speech to kids going back to school urging them to get a good education and do their homework, it was partisan hatred blinding rational thinking. So what if a nation’s president wants to try and spend a minute or two telling kids that education is good and that we need more scientists, researchers, and engineers? Is that really a bad thing? (Though I can’t help but notice that at the time of President Bush’s reign, he didn’t seem very keen on even paying lip service to education beyond a passing reference to making more job training programs available to adults.) When you insist on seeing the entire world through a black and white partisan lens, you’re not going to draw rational conclusions.
So in the dual spirit of making bad choices based on partisan anger and stoking populist hatred to win a few cheap political points, we not only get scientific witch hunts, and religious fundamentalists taking over the education of millions of students, but absolutely asinine anti-science campaigns like Eric Cantor’s urging a population that already hates scientists to review the funding given to them by the NSF and report everything they think is wasteful research. You know, because the country needs to cut its expenses, especially slivers of a vast bureaucracy that amount to around 1% of its entire budget, kind of like not buying coffee makes your debilitating credit card debt and compulsive shopping habit ten times smaller and much more manageable. And this is the party we’re supposed to be steering towards an appreciation of science and engineering? The party that displays a searing hatred for higher education, dismisses scientists as a worthless waste of cash, and panders to foaming-at-the-mouth fundamentalists who dream of a theocracy in which the nation could be forcibly indoctrinated into their beliefs and scientists can once again be tried as heretics? Scientists don’t just lean to the Democratic side of the political divide because they’re all so liberal, but because their other option is to be pelted with insults, audits, and abuse from people who hate them with a primal passion. It’s like the proverbial girl decidinging to begrudgingly settle on her limp-wristed and shy friend rather than deal with her abusive and demeaning ex-boyfriend who thinks insulting her makes him more of a man.