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Scientific bias in politics February 10, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in Uncategorized.

Here we go again.  A while ago, I posted about an article in Slate claiming that scientists are keeping republicans out of their ranks.  Yesterday, I came across a similar line of thinking: Jonathan Haidt is claiming social psychologists are excluding conservatives.

I won’t go into the same arguments I made before.  I think that Haidt is being more thoughtful about his approach, but I still see a problem with it.  Claiming we need more conservative thinkers to provide a different approach is like claiming we need more climate denialists doing climate science.  And really…no one is crying about the lack of communists in science.  So why are conservatives getting all the attention?  And while it may be statistically improbable (or impossible) to have that high a proportion of liberals in one room, it’s also statistically improbable to have that many social psychologists in one room…yet it happens.

The problem I see is that there are a number of conservative think-tanks (such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute), and what sort of research do we see out of them?  First of all, they begin with the assumption that laissez faire capitalism is the penultimate good.  The research they do is often funded by groups who have a vested interest in a specific outcome, predetermined to contradict current scientific findings.  They most often don’t come out and say, “Our statistics indicate that so-and-so’s results need to be modified such-and-such factor.”  No, they challenge the whole thing as being out and out wrong.  And frankly, some of the research is repulsive to even basic moral values.  For this last point, I’m thinking specifically of the proposed eugenic policies suggested in The Bell Curve.  (Don’t get me wrong: the statistical analysis in The Bell Curve was fine…it was just that the policy implications didn’t necessarily follow straight from the data and certainly didn’t pass a litmus test for respecting human decency.)

The fact of the matter is that, given this is how conservatives tend to align with their science, it simply doesn’t come across as good science.  There is nothing wrong with questioning the standard theory and trying to find where it fails.  That’s good science.  Trying to throw it all out and replace it with hypotheses that are not well-supported with data, especially if doing so benefits a client of yours, is simply not science.  Scientists should be objective…not bought and paid for.

I’ve talked before about how engineers tend to be more conservative.  (I’m still totally fascinated with the “Engineers of Jihad” study.)  While I would certainly like for engineering to be more liberal, I think it’s obvious that the approach to the profession is inherently attractive to those personality types.  I think the same is true for science, just in the opposite direction.  I agree groupthink is not a good thing, but neither is wasting one’s time chasing down ideas that really don’t qualify as science.



1. Fluxor - February 10, 2011

Can you give a few examples of how engineering can be more “liberal”?


2. mareserinitatis - February 10, 2011

Less creationists to start.


mareserinitatis - February 10, 2011

Sorry…that was a snarky answer. The reality is that I see a lot of engineers who really don’t care about what the evidence or data says outside of their engineering. And, honestly, I’ve run into sexism more from engineers than scientists.


3. Fluxor - February 10, 2011

Ah, so you meant you prefer engineers to be more liberal rather than engineering.


mareserinitatis - February 10, 2011

Yes and no. I’ve noticed that some of the engineers that are more liberal are also more creative in their approaches, more willing to try new things. Of course, this also correlates with age, so maybe that has something to do with it.


Fluxor - February 10, 2011

I wrote something along those lines in my blog, how my idea was greeted with hostility by other design group due to its “new-ness”. Still, conservatism (not in the political sense, btw) serves engineering well, because engineered products must be safe and robust. As you know, even a 0.3% defect rate is of great concern here at FluxCorp. That’s why the tried-and-true approach will always be the first approach and anything new must and should be viewed through a very skeptical lense.

In the end, it’s all about risk management. Older, established approaches are low risk. Newer, potentially better approaches are higher risk. Engineers practice risk management a lot more often than scientists and in general, have a lot more at stake, both in terms on dollars and in terms of public safety.

Having said that, I’ve never personally found a strong correlation between engineering creativity and religiosity or political tendency.


mareserinitatis - February 11, 2011

I think it depends what kind of engineering you’re doing. I agree that a conservative approach in industry can be helpful when introducing a product. But you need to be able to come up with new product ideas. Engineers who like to stay within constraints and be given things to do aren’t going to be the ones to do that, despite the fact that they may be fantastic engineers in the sense that they are hard-working and reliable.

In research, having a non-creative, conservative approach is the death knell.


Fluxor - February 11, 2011

I agree. But the research side of engineering is the minority while the design and implementation side of engineering is the majority. That’s why as a whole, engineering is necessarily more conservative than science. A product idea is only a tiny sliver of what’s required to get a product out the door.


4. Charles J Gervasi - February 11, 2011

My impression is engineers are more conservative in the sense of being cautious, risk-averse, and focused on efficiency. I don’t see us as “conservative”/”regressive”/rightwing in the political sense. It’s unfortunate that conservative can mean rightwing b/c as the bumper sticker says, “What exactly are conservatives conserving?” Conservatives (at least the neo-con variety) want to take risks with military adventures, just hope that climate change won’t be too costly human society, just hope that alternative energy sources/media will be found before a crisis occurs, and so on. Maybe those risks will play out in our favor, but it’s bizarre that calling for taking those risks happens to be called “conservative”.

I see engineers as more libertarian. I can’t speak for all engineers, but I’m libertarian b/c I see politicians as using poor models. They pick one that sounds kind of okay to the greatest number of people, rather than by testing their model with various inputs and comparing the outputs to things that have happened in the real world. They’re not evil. They just want something that sounds okay to most people, as a way of representing us. I would rather they use rigorously tested models or just take no action.


mareserinitatis - February 11, 2011

I do kind of wonder if some of that is limited exposure. When teaching lower level engineering courses, it was easy to tell which ones were going into certain subfields based on personality, and those personalities correlate with political ideology in many cases. I can tell you that very few engineers I know are libertarian. At least, I think some of them identify with a very liberal social policy and minimal government, but they are more pragmatic than those who affiliate with the libertarian party.

And as I said to Fluxor, a good engineer isn’t always a creative one…but in research, you need creative ones.


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