Saturday, April 2, 2011

Political Affiliation and Scientific Knowledge Levels

Previously on this blog, I've talked about differing intelligence levels and knowledge levels of different political groups. I've also decried the extreme anti-science and anti-intellectual views that have been articulated by conservative spokespersons in the United States. Thus, I was interested in some recent work which suggests that by some metrics the political right is more pro-science than the left. Audacious Epigone showed that GSS data demonstrated that, on average, Republicans are more pro-science and scientifically literate than Democrats. Epigone made no effort to control for variables, such as income, education and race.

Epigone's statement prompted Razib Kahn to do a similar, more detailed analysis focusing on science knowledge and attitudes. Kahn organized the data by political self-identification along the conservative-liberal continuum rather than by an individual's party affiliation. Razib's analysis suggests shows that conservatives and liberals are almost indistinguishable in overall knowledge level. However, when one removes the questions that discuss specific pet issues of the modern right-wing (i.e. those related to evolution and the age of the Earth), conservatives arguably pull ahead slightly in terms of scientific knowledge. At the same time, the data shows that moderates are less scientifically literate and less science-friendly than both conservatives and liberals. On all of the 19 variables that Razib examined, political moderates never come out on top. That is, for each question, sometimes conservatives perform best, and sometimes liberals, but never moderates. This is consistent with other results that show that in general moderates are less intelligent and less educated than other groups. For example, moderates have lower vocabulary scores than the general population. Razib performed additional analysis to try to control for other variables and his piece is worth reading.

This data suggests that there is a significant and underappreciated disconnect between right-wing leaders and self-identifying conservatives. If the individuals on the right right aren't statistically distinguishable from the left when it comes to science issues why do so many conservative politicans go out of their way to make anti-science remarks? There are a variety of possible explanations, but none of them are satisfactory.

First, many of these anti-science comments have been directed towards biology and matters related to biology (e.g. John McCain's remarks about bear DNA and Sarah Palin's remark about fruit fly research.) It is possible that the religious right's negative attitude towards evolution is carrying over to biology as a whole. However, this doesn't explain the remarks about other scientific areas (such as Bobby Jindal's remark about volcano monitoring). Moreover, although the human evolution question is by far the one with the most extreme difference between liberals and conservatives, (The percentages that accept human evolution according to the GSS are 69% for liberals, 52% for moderates and 39% for conservatives), the other questions suggest that conservative attitudes about evolution have not spread to other areas of biology. For example, when asked if the statement "Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria" is true or false such as understanding that antibiotics cannot harm viruses 60% of liberals answered correctly while 63% of conservatives answered correctly. (The statement is false.)

Second, right-wing leaders may understand that most conservatives are not anti-science but think that the more active conservatve base is heavily anti-science. Without more data, it is hard to test if the active conservative base is substantially more anti-science than rank-and-file conservatives. Eeven if this is the case, it seems there are more effective ways of energizing the conservative base than anti-science rhetoric.

Third, right-wing politicians mayhave erroneously bought into the false stereotypes about their own constituents. Given the prevalence of such stereotypes, this seems most likely. This hypothesis is also difficult to test because politicians aren't going to admit that they've been pandering to rubes. Unfortunately, this belief among the right-wing leaders that conservatives are anti-science could easily act as a self-fulfilling prophecy if it causes pro-science conservatives to either stop being conservative, or causes some conservatives to become more anti-science to fit their tribal allegiance. However, this possibility does have a bright side: If this explanation is correct, then right-wing politicians are likely to be more pro-science in practice than they appear to be in public. Moreover, conservative politicians may act pro-science if they can be convinced that their constituents really aren't as anti-science as the politicians them to be.