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Science Versus the Right
Pew Poll shows great dichotomy

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
July 10, 2009

The demographic breakdown among the general population of the United States is generally well-known. Eighty seven percent of Americans believe in some sort of God or another, usually the Biblical variety. About 37% of Americans self-identify as conservative, 20% liberal, and the largest chunk, 38%, as moderates. The GOP has fallen on hard times, with only 23% of voters identifying themselves as Republican, and 35% Democratic. Independents are now the largest bloc, at 36%. The world is always amazed at the ignorance of the American public, and the polls bear that out: only a third believe that evolution is a natural process, and less than half (49%) believe global warming is man-caused. These types of numbers usually are only seen in countries so poor they have no public school system, wild-eyed religious governments, or both. As far as anyone can tell, America is the only nation in the world where that level of ignorance is voluntary.

About twenty eight years ago there was a poll taken of journalists, supposedly, that right wingers howled showed a “librul bias” on the part of the media. The poll, taken mostly of editors and publishers and commissioned by the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, revealed such horrors as “'U.S. exploits Third World, causes poverty' (56%) and 'U.S. use of resources immoral' (57%)”.

Yes, you read that right. Slightly over half of newspaper people agreed with that, and almost thirty years later, the right still hasn't gotten over it. They're still howling, and I see the poll cited as “proof” that journalists are just a pack of liberals, communists and Democrats.

So I'm waiting to see how loud the howling gets over the latest Pew Survey, which interviewed about 240 American scientists and gathered their opinions on religion, politics, personal philosophy, and, oddly enough, science.

On science, it came as no surprise that 87% of the scientists were of the opinion that evolution was a natural process. Another 9% believed they discerned the hand of God working behind the scenes to create exactly the same process. Two percent didn't believe in evolution at all.

Similarly, on global warming, there is strong consensus. Again, 87% of the scientists surveyed believe unequivocally that climate change is being caused by human activities. Eleven percent think the jury is still out on that, but say the planet is warming. Two percent didn't believe in global warming at all.

Well, in any group you're going to get that two percent who just don't seem to fit in. It has been said that Hitler got 3% of the Jewish vote in 1934. Two percent, you're really kissing the lip of the bell-shaped curve.

There's nothing surprising about these numbers. The evidence for both evolution and global warming is overwhelming, and outside the cults of the fundamentalists of the far right, the public accepts the validity of both.

On religion, while a majority of scientists believe in “a god or some other higher power,” only 38% believe in the Biblical God, and 41% don't believe in higher powers.

OK, I admit that I'm firmly in the knowledge-trumps-religion camp, but I was surprised by that finding. In nearly all societies, atheists make up between 13 and 15% of the general population, regardless of the levels of religious fervor any given society imposes. There's another 30-40% of the population that will go with the flow: in a religious society, they'll go to church. In a more secular society, they'll watch football instead. And people have an absolute genius, when it comes to dovetailing their religion with their surroundings, for compartmentalizing and rationalizing everything. So if you had asked me before the poll was taken, I might have guessed that 25% of scientists would stipulate no belief in a higher being at all. Certainly religionists can have just as keen an intelligence as a physicist or a microbiologist, so I can only conclude that there is a different TYPE of intelligence functioning between scientists and the control group, the general population, and while the type of intelligence can traverse the two groups, it reveals a proclivity.

It's in the realm of politics where the results are the most interesting, and this is where the decades-long chorus of screams from the right will begin.

It shouldn't surprise readers to know that only six percent of scientists identify themselves as Republican. While the public at large remains unaware of it, in the scientific community the Republican hostility to science is keenly felt, and a majority of scientists were aware of and alarmed by the willingness of the Bush administration to suppress, edit, and alter scientific findings for political purposes. Nearly all of the political posturing and vilification of the scientific community comes from the Republican party, so it's not very surprising that few scientists support it, just as very few blacks support the GOP, or very few liberals, or very few gays. The GOP likes to piss on groups of people for purposes of expediency and demagoguery, and then wonders why they don't get any support from their victims. Slightly over half of the scientists surveyed (55%) were Democratic, with the balance describing themselves as independents.

The GOP has positioned itself as the party of creationism, against stem cell research, and for putting disclaimers in biology texts saying that evolution is “just a theory.” Few self-respecting scientists are going to want to identify with that bunch, no matter what their opinions on federalism or the budget might be.

A larger surprise is the breakdown of liberals vs. conservatives among scientists. According to Pew, “Slightly more than half of scientists (52%) describe their own political views as liberal, including 14% who describe themselves as very liberal.” Only 9% of scientists describe themselves as conservative.

And THAT is the finding that right wingers are going to be screaming about incessantly for the next half century or more. There's nothing they love more than discovering a Great Liberal Conspiracy, whether it was the conspiracy to cause the crash in '29 that allowed FDR to get elected, or the one where liberals convinced the GOP to make utter fools of themselves and have George W. Bush as a two-term president. Insidious and invidious bunch, us liberals. We get to scheming, and those poor dumb right wingers don't stand a chance.

I wish.

Never mind that the chances are most of the respondents didn't even consider “liberal” and “conservative” as political stances, but rather as personal worldviews and philosophies.

Part of the problem is that the same people who have so alienated the scientific community (and most other sensible people) describe themselves as conservatives. They are fascists, reactionaries, religious whack-jobs and tinhorn authoritarians, mostly not conservative in either the philosophical or political sense of the word, and their viciousness and antics have made the word “conservative” poisonous to educated people.

Part of it is that the same sort of mind that lends itself to scientific inquiry tends to be liberal. You need an open and flexible intelligence to be a good scientist, and while conservatives – actual conservatives – often possess those traits, the types of people who are loudly bellowing that THEY are the “true conservatives” do not.

So the right wingers are going to scream. After all, they spent 40 years screaming that the media was “liberal” and between intimidating reporters and simply buying up most of the media, turned America's once-mighty independent press into a mere shadow of itself. They'll try the same with the scientific community, using political stances, real and imagined, to try and rid science of “judenphysick,” or whatever the American right wing equivalent phrase will be: “atheistic lib-science,” or some such. It will be the same as “judenphysick” even if Jews aren't a target, and it would work out about as well as it did for Hitler if it were pushed through.

But I'm guessing it won't be. Right wing minds aren't capable of good science, and the results of compromised science are usually more immediate and dramatic than the results of compromised journalism, and just as poisonous in the end.

Also, the right wing has lost much of its power. The public won't be willing to watch a McCarthyist witchhunt for “librul scientists,” especially since the public recognizes the importance of science to America.

But they will scream, and scream loudly and constantly.

Personally, I'm going to enjoy watching it.

Posted: July 17, 2009

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