While political partisans of all stripes have been known to take issue with research findings that contradict their positions, conservatives have come across as particularly anti-science of late. Columnist and commentator George Will, who dismisses the consensus opinion of climate-change researchers, recently expressed skepticism of the medical community's assurances that Ebola cannot be caught via airborne transmission.
Will clearly perceives scientists as untrustworthy, their conclusions skewed by self-interest and preconceived notions. While this view is obviously self-serving—he really should check out the psychological notion of projection—it raises disturbing questions about whether science has become hopelessly politicized.
So are scientists—as conservatives suspect—more likely to be liberals? Recently published research suggests they are, but—contrary to the implication left by Will and his colleagues—this is not because political progressives are more intrinsically inclined than right-wingers to choose a scientific career.
Rather, according to a research team led by Harvard University psychologist Christine Ma-Kellams, immersion in the world of science tends to shifts students' attitudes toward the left side of the political spectrum.
"Relative to those studying non-sciences, students in the sciences exhibited greater political liberalism across a variety of domains (including foreign policy, health care, and the economy) and a variety of social issues (gay marriage, affirmative action), as well as in general self-reported liberalism."
Specifically, they report adopting a scientific mindset makes one less likely to endorse a hierarchy-based ideology in which one group of people is considered superior to another—an attitude that has been strongly linked to political conservatism.
In the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Ma-Kellams and her colleagues describe four studies that support their thesis. In the first, 196 students from a New England university revealed their ideological positions by responding to 18 statements expressing political opinions.
"Across domains," the researchers report, "those who are in scientific fields exhibited greater political liberalism compared to those in non-hard-scientific fields."
Importantly, this was only found for students in their third or fourth year of college. This strongly suggests that, rather than political liberals being attracted to science, it was the hands-on study that made the difference.
The second study featured 100 undergraduates, who expressed their views on three hot-button political issues (same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and the Affordable Care Act). They also completed the Social Dominance Orientation Scale, in which they expressed their level of agreement or disagreement with such statements as "Sometimes other groups must be kept in their place," and "In getting what you want, it is sometimes necessary to use force against other groups."
Consistent with the first study, the researchers found that "for those with significant exposure to their discipline (i.e., upperclassmen), studying science is associated with more liberal political attitudes." Furthermore, they found this was due to a lower level of support for the my-group-deserves-to-dominate positions outlined above.
Additional studies featuring Canadian students and a community sample from the Boston area came to the same conclusions.
"Relative to those studying non-sciences, students in the sciences exhibited greater political liberalism across a variety of domains (including foreign policy, health care, and the economy) and a variety of social issues (gay marriage, affirmative action), as well as in general self-reported liberalism," Ma-Kellams and her colleagues write.
This, they conclude, is the result of "science's emphasis on rationality, impartiality, fairness, progress, and the idea that we are to use these rational tools for the mutual benefit of all people in society."
In one sense, these results are something of a surprise. Given the fact the social sciences involve people and politics more directly, one might think the study of these disciplines would be more likely to shape minds in a more liberal direction. But these students were no more liberal than those majoring in disciplines having nothing to do with science.
Rather, to quote Ma-Kellams and her colleagues, "the same scientific ethos that serves to guide empirical inquiries" in physics or biology leads to rejection of the notion that certain social groups are superior and deserve to be dominant.
Perhaps studying science simply drives home the notion of interdependence. Or perhaps once you have been trained to step back and look at things objectively, it's hard to hold onto the notion that your group is intrinsically special and better than the rest.