October 14, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Institutional Science as a Leftist Cabal

Something strange happens in scientific journals and reports. Whenever they talk politics, it is almost always from a leftist point of view. Why is that? Did they arrive at that position by the scientific method? Is there something about the need for government funding that drives institutions to a leftist position? Whatever the reason, it’s not hard to find evidence that the secular science media have a pronounced blue streak.

Nature is a prime example. Its latest Editorial decries “hyper-partisan fighting” but worries about what a Republican victory in Congress will mean for science.1 The editorial advocates the president’s health-care bill, cap and trade, and embryonic stem cell research – all leftist agenda items unpopular with the majority – and blames Republicans for obstruction of progress: e.g., “The current Congress has failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation designed to limit US greenhouse-gas emissions, thanks chiefly to strong Republican opposition.” No Democrats were blamed for the political “poison.” Democrats were not even named, while Republicans were mentioned three times, always in a negative light.

Nature also publishes letters to the editor designed to make conservatives look bad. In the latest issue, Richard Kool [Royal Roads U, British Columbia] claimed that science is a “threat to the far-right fringe.”2 He said, “The scorn of the US far-right ‘Tea Party’ fringe for science, particularly relating to sustainability, climate change and biodiversity, stems from a perceived threat to its idealized views of how the world should be.” By implication, leftists have no idealized views of how the world should be. He mentioned Climategate only to smear the conservatives who pointed it out, claiming they used the scandal to “discredit science as a method for understanding the world.” Compare this with a BBC News story about reforms taking place at the IPCC in the wake of the scandal.

A news story in Nature evaluated the effect the Tea Party movement may have on science funding. Ivan Semenjuk mentioned “It is difficult to predict how all this will affect scientists and the government agencies that fund them,” and worried about conservative candidates coming to Washington who “are less committed to funding science research and education, and who lack ‘the general science and technology savvy’ to make informed decisions.” By implication, only leftists and Democrats have scientific savvy and are informed. Note the contrast: “In the current Democrat-controlled Congress, science was given plenty of attention in spite of the economic crisis.”

Three other news articles in the same issue of Nature depicted Republicans as obstructionists. Jeff Tollefson, for instance, ended his article with quotes from Paul Bledsoe, whom he called a centrist: “Climate-science denial is a by-product of extreme partisanship and a kind of reactionary mode among conservatives, and I expect that this will wane,” he said. “But if large parts of the Republican Party begin to deny consensus science, then the climate community will have to confront them about it.”4. Similarly, Heidi Ledford portrayed Republicans as attackers of health-care research,5 standing in the way of the president’s health-care bill, which was actually strongly opposed by almost two thirds of American voters, and succeeded only with back-room deals and presidential arm-twisting last March even though Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. And Emily Waltz reported about unhappy scientists who are upset that Barack Obama, ranked the farthest-to-the-left Senator before he was elected President, who “promised a new era of integrity and openness for American science” after the election, has not worked faster to undo former Republican President George W. Bush’s policies.6

In each of these articles, “science” was presented as a unilateral consensus in favor of policies that many Americans, particularly conservatives, consider leftist, costly, of doubtful scientific credibility, or even immoral (in the case of embryonic stem cell research; see 01/31/2009, 09/26/2010). But that’s just Nature. Do other science publications follow this leftist political line?

New Scientist gave unrestrained print space to Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science. Mooney now claims that the “Tea Party [is] luring US into adventures in irrationality” (cf. 02/27/2010 commentary). And why is that? Because many of them doubt the consensus about man-made global warming (cf. 05/25/2010). This was enough for Mooney to launch into tirades about “patriotic extremism,” disdain for science, anti-intellectualism, paranoia, and “conspiratorial fantasy” among conservatives, even though the Tea Party includes Democrats and independents fed up with big government. The BBC News reported that scientists are calling for “defence cuts” in order to fund scientific research.

It would be hard to find any pro-Republican, pro-conservative science article in the secular news media. Pro-conservative views tend to be aired only on sites that question Darwinian evolution, such as the intelligent design blog Evolution News & Views. This clear lopsidedness in reporting indicates that there is something fundamental about world views which either embrace or criticize evolution that bleeds over into other subjects, like political philosophy, economics, and morality (07/23/2010). Another factor may be whether the spokesperson is on the giving or receiving end of the public dole (05/18/2009).

A prominent fellow of the American Physical Society, Harold Lewis, illustrates something of the tension between the individual scientist and the scientific institutions. Lewis wrote an indignant letter explaining why he was resigning after 67 years (see IPCC). He felt that fund-grubbing had corrupted the society and its scientific practice so thoroughly that the APS no longer represented him or its original values. Describing the society’s response to the Climategate affair, “the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist” Lewis deplored the pompous airs of the leadership, “as if the APS were master of the universe,” he complained. “It is not, and I am embarrassed that our leaders seem to think it is. This is not fun and games, these are serious matters involving vast fractions of our national substance, and the reputation of the Society as a scientific society is at stake.” The APS responded denying the allegations. However, Lewis’s long tenure with the APS and impressive list of credentials cannot be easily dismissed. Long-time TV meteorologist Anthony Watts dissected the APS response and documented contradictions with a number of its claims to openness, integrity, and scientific rigor.

1.  Editorial, “Politics without the poison,” Nature 467, p. 751, 14 October 2010, doi:10.1038/467751a.
2.  Richard Kool, “Science as a threat to far-right fringe,” Letters to the Editor, Nature 467, p. 788, 14 October 2010, doi:10.1038/467788d.
3.  Ivan Semenjuk, “News: US midterm elections: Volatile forces shape US vote,” Nature 467, 759-760 (published online 13 October 2010), doi:10.1038/467759a.
4.  Jeff Tollefson, “News: US midterm elections: A chilly season for climate crusaders,” Nature 467, p. 762 (published online 13 October 2010), doi:10.1038/467762a.
5.  Heidi Ledford, “News: US midterm elections: Opponents battle health-care research,” Nature 467, p. 763, (published online 13 October 2010), doi:10.1038/467763b.
6.  Emily Waltz, “News Feature: Science & politics: Speaking out about science,” Nature 467, pp. 768-770 (published online 13 October 2010), doi:10.1038/467768a.

Readers are encouraged to find examples that contradict the claim that pro-Darwin, secular science writers in the mainstream media and scientific institutions are predominantly leftist. There are sure to be some, but the leftist slant is, in our experience, so predictable that exceptions prove the rule (see 05/13/2010).

So is the left really “pro-science” and the right “anti-science”? Hopefully our graduates of Baloney Detecting University are more skilled than to accept such false dichotomies, and our graduates of the history of science know better. Define science. Separate science as a concept from scientific institutions (06/25/2010). The latter often have soiled hands, being dependent either directly or indirectly on the public dole. Any institution that must fight for its survival on keeping government money flowing will necessarily promote big government and higher taxes – hallmarks of the left. Consequently they will try to portray science in terms of consensus, a monolithic entity composed of all those who stand to gain from public funding of their pet projects (cf. 09/15/2010). We speak here of the leadership, publicity and lobbying arms of such institutions; at any given institution there is undoubtedly a mix of liberals and conservatives at work.

The arrogance of some of these people is astounding. They act like they own public money, that they are entitled to it. How would they like it if other citizens of this country – say Tea Party members – walked into their houses and demanded tribute, claiming it was owed to them? Public money is a limited commodity. It needs to be collected and spent wisely by a representative government according to well thought out priorities. The case needs to be made every year for why certain projects deserve funding, and these projects must have an understandable link to public interest. Numerous commentators write about wasteful spending on science (example at Wall Street Journal). Do we want $100,000 of taxpayer money going to UC Irvine scientists to study how US and Chinese students play World of Warcraft? (see Orange County Register). Some will remember former Senator Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece Awards” for wasteful spending. SETI was a winner back in the 1980s. Its proponents have had to survive on private funds ever since, though NASA pulled in millions for Astrobiology with the Martian Meteorite “useful lie” back in the 1990s (see 01/07/2005 commentary).

Many worthwhile science projects, such as space exploration and cancer research, cannot be done by citizen scientists or private enterprise. Large research labs and universities will of necessity need foundation grants or government funds (but look how entrepreneurs are making inroads into space flight). Those paying the bill, whether the US government or foundations, have the right to decide what projects are in their interest. Oversight and scrutiny over spending should be valued, because hubris leads to fraud and abuse, which ultimately damages the reputations of scientific institutions. What if whistleblowers had not found the errors in Climategate? Contrary to what Chris Mooney thinks, he should welcome the input of conservatives as a necessary check on power. Scientists, after all, are only human (02/17/2010).

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