Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Scientists, Republicans, and Others

The last week or so, there has been a blogospheric flutter about the finding, in a survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that found that, while something around half of those surveyed were willing to admit to being Democrats, the number admitting to having committed Republicanism was in the single digits, and there was a fairly large component of those calling themselves independents.* The simplified version is that hardly any scientists are Republicans. The flutter has been an attempt to find out (or opine on) why.

The simple answer is that scientists, as I've said before, have to believe that an external reality exists, and that that reality is not infinitely malleable to political preferences and general fantasy. Today's Republican Party seems to prefer the malleability thesis. Here is today's evidence on that point, now beginning to ripple through the blogosphere. And of course there is creationism, and, more subtly in Jon Kyl's and Mitt Romney's criticism of the New Start Treaty, the ignoring of the stated purposes and objectives of the treaty or the words that comprise it. Or the nihilism of Republicanism. Scientists tend to believe that what they are doing is making the world a better place, the opposite of nihilism.

Part of the reason I didn't weigh in to the flutter earlier was that I became tired as I read the blog posts. So many errors, so little time, such boring posts to refute them. And I'm talking about the ones I generally agreed with, too. If you are interested in learning something about science or scientists, please ignore what has been written on this poll and its results.

And now comes a "teachable moment," or so at least one blogger thinks. The New Yorker article on "the decline effect" largely treats experiments in psychology. The author tacks a few physics things on the end of the article, but they would have involved knowing something about physical facts and mathematics, and the psychology would be more interesting to his readers. (Or so I imagine the justification going.) That article made me tired, too. I'll just say that psychology is the science most likely to be affected by earlier results, not to mention the statistical effects that the author muddies up. "Teach the controversy," I guess. Right.

Michael Bérubé makes some very good points on how Republicans have taken over postmodernism and reminds us of the Sokal Hoax, in which a physicist served up some crow to the postmodernists in one of their very own journals. Although it doesn't seem to have been his intention, he's provided perhaps the best commentary relevant to why scientists aren't (or won't admit to being) Republicans and why we all need to be more careful, scientists and literature people, even journalists(!) of how we think and write these things out.

*It would be possible to do a lot of googling for this post and make it sparkle with links and numbers, but I doubt that that is necessary. In any case, I'm bummed out enough by this topic that I wouldn't write this post if I had to do that.


MT said...

Anti-empiricism alienates a scientist, whether progressive or conservative. Back when eugenics seemed to support racism, scientists didn't mind identifying as Nazis. Other times are for hunkering down and being PC. Especially a professional academic scientist without a tenure. You can bet Peter Duesberg had tenure before he started claiming AIDS wasn't HIV (and so there was no promising research to fund and no point alarming the heterosexual majority, as was the GOP line to the extent they addressed AIDS at all). Tenure meant he continued to get a salary for teaching, but research proposals and reports with his name on them were unlikely to impress peer reviewers ever again. He could tell himself he was a hero, of course, since that takes awhile to disprove.

MT said...

I'm having trouble reading Berube beyond where he says Kuhn taught us that science isn't "cumulative." Maybe he lost a parking space to a new Nanotech Center and isn't yet over it. Or it's Sokal pretending to be a humanties professor again.

Michael Bérubé said...

mt, I'm having trouble reading Kuhn past where he says "in recent years, however, a few historians of science have been finding it more and more difficult to fulfil the functions that the concept of development-by-accumulation assigns to them. As chroniclers of an incremental process, they discover that additional research makes it harder, not easier, to answer questions like: When was oxygen discovered? Who first conceived of energy conservation? Increasingly, a few of them suspect that these are simply the wrong sorts of questions to ask. Perhaps science does not develop by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions." Since that passage occurs on page 2 of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, I didn't read the rest of the book.

Cheryl Rofer said...

I've been thinking about that issue, too. For one example, Newtonian gravity has been superseded by Einsteinian concepts, and there are those who hope to supersede that. Those changes can be seen as Kuhnian revolutions: one concept replaced by another.

But there is another way of thinking about those changes that is closer to, but not the same as, the development-by-accumulation model. That is the method of successive approximations. So Newton described a certain kind of reality which is a part of Einstein's description. We can still use Newton's equations for a lot of what we do with and about gravity.

Einstein did reconceptualize rather than add a few details to Newton's description, but the practical change affected the details much more than the central equations.

This can be mistaken by some for development-by-accumulation, but it's not. The reconceptualization allows for additional insights, but it's not a complete turnaround from what went before, as Kuhnian revolution seems to imply.

MT said...

MB, as you've quoted Kuhn here, he's asserting only a "Perhaps," and by way of introduction rather than as the conclusion of his studies and the case he makes ("page 2"). Now I really wonder if this is Micheal Berube.