Science and Politics: Why Conservatives Don’t Get Science

13 12 2010

Only 6% of scientists self-identify as Republican. Six per cent! And there are five times as many who don’t even have a partisan affiliation. And only 9% self-identify as conservative. Fascinating.

But not entirely unexpected.

These numbers, uncovered by the PEW Research Center, have been the topic of much discussion, sparked by this piece on Slate by Daniel Sarewitz, followed up by a number in The Economist’s Democracy in America blog. Both express concern about the implications of so few conservatives in science. And both speculate as to the cause, first Sarewitz:

It doesn’t seem plausible that the dearth of Republican scientists has the same causes as the under-representation of women or minorities in science. I doubt that teachers are telling young Republicans that math is too hard for them, as they sometimes do with girls; or that socioeconomic factors are making it difficult for Republican students to succeed in science, as is the case for some ethnic minority groups. The idea of mentorship programs for Republican science students, or scholarship programs to attract Republican students to scientific fields, seems laughable, if delightfully ironic.

And The Economist:

I can think of three testable hypotheses they might look into. The first is that scientists are hostile towards Republicans, which scares young Republicans away from careers in science. The second is that Republicans are hostile towards science, and don’t want to go into careers in science. The third is that young people who go into the sciences tend to end up becoming Democrats, due to factors inherent in the practice of science or to peer-group identification with other scientists.

I’d like to advance a fourth hypothesis: the same psychological proclivities that predispose individuals towards conservatism and the Republican party are the same psychological proclivities that predispose those individuals to not have a strong interest in science.

Contrary to the popular view that political attitudes and ideological commitments are the product of environmental factors, such as family upbringing, socio-economic conditions, or rational reflection, in fact it’s psychology that plays a dominant role in influencing an individual’s political leanings. And career choices.

Political Psychology

Some of these key psychological features are:

  1. Openness to experience (Mondak, 2010)
  2. Integrative Complexity (Tetlock, 1983)
  3. Tolerance of Ambiguity (Jost et al., 2007)
  4. Uncertainty Avoidance (Jost et al., 2003)

In turn: 1) Openness to experience, which is one of the Big Five personality traits, is often defined in terms of curiosity, novelty seeking, and even intelligence in general. Openness is sometimes drawn in terms of contrasts between inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious dispositions.

And studies show that high Openness is significantly negatively correlated with conservatism and self-identification with the Republican party (Monday, 2010, page 133).

People who seek new experiences and question the world around them tend to have politically liberal attitudes and affiliations, and those who seek stability, resist new experiences and are less inclined to curiosity tend to have conservative attitudes and affiliations.

It’s also not hard to see that high Openness is desirable for a career in science; a closed minded, uncurious individual is unlikely to go far in their high school science class, let alone in an academic environment, no matter how intelligent they are otherwise.

2) Integrative Complexity is a ‘cognitive style’ rather than a personality trait, as such. IC refers to a propensity for an individual to integrate multiple  streams of information in their thinking – i.e. it’s the opposite of dogmatism and black-and-white thinking.

A paragon case in politics was the 2004 US Presidential election between George W. Bush (black-and-white, good/evil, quick gut decisions = low IC) and John Kerry (complex thinker, slow deliberator, nuanced worldview, changed opinions based on new information, flip flopper = high IC).

Tetlock (1983) found that Democrat Senators exhibited a significantly high IC than their Republican colleagues.

Again, not surprisingly, low IC individuals are not likely to be drawn to science, where one is forced to integrate streams of information and come to non-binding conclusions by virtue of the very scientific method itself. Dogmatism isn’t entirely absent from scientific culture, but it’s a rarity.

3) Tolerance of Ambiguity is related to Integrative Complexity, and refers to an individual’s comfort with ambiguity rather than certainty; probabilistic thinking rather than black-and-white assessments; gradual scales rather than discrete scales etc.

Again, low Tolerance of Ambiguity is strongly correlated with conservatism, and high Tolerance correlates with liberal attitudes.

And again, scientists, by virtue of their profession, are constantly bombarded by ambiguities, uncertainties, probabilities and they’re encouraged to hold scientific beliefs with only as much strength as the evidence lends them – which is never 100%. Someone with a low Tolerance of Ambiguity is unlikely to enjoy this environment, and is more likely to find their occupation somewhere else, regardless of their intelligence or potential scientific aptitude.

The research on 4) Uncertainty Avoidance unfolds much like the above, and there are many other measures of personality and cognitive style that run along similar lines (Jost et al., 2003).

Yet, these measures also correlate with other conservative attitudes, such as authoritarianism, tolerance of inequality, a tendency to believe in internal motivation (the belief that people direct their behaviour based on their will and intention rather than being steered by environmental forces and circumstance), higher perception of threat, higher fear of death and others that link into the broad conservative worldview.

If this picture of the psychology that underlies political attitudes is correct – and there’s very strong evidence to suggest that it is – then we have a potential explanation for why there are so few Republican scientists: people who are inclined towards conservatism just don’t enjoy the kind of job and lifestyle that scientists have.

What To Do About It

If it’s true that conservatives are turned off science, is this a bad thing?

Yes, it is. For a few reasons.

Regardless of our psychological predispositions, it remains that science is by far the most effective tool we have for understanding the way the world is. We need people to understand science and have confidence in science. And we need them to be able to criticise science properly – challenging it from within the scientific method rather than appealing to the supernatural, pseudo-science or folk theories.

This might mean those with conservative leanings need more help in understanding science, and in making it appeal to them. Liberal leaning scientists – and liberal leaning science teachers – might (by virtue of their psychology) believe that laying down the facts and providing rational argument is sufficient to get the message across about science and its virtues. But it’s not.

We need to acknowledge that different people have different personalities and cognitive styles, and ensure we appeal to them all. Some of these psychological features will make teaching science more difficult, but we must resist simply calling those individuals stupid or dogmatists, and instead mitigate their intuitive responses in order to persuade them of the value of the scientific approach, even if they don’t want to participate in it themselves.

We also need a healthy diversity of views in the scientific world. I don’t expect we’ll ever see parity of liberal and conservative psychologies in the sciences, but we do need to make sure that science itself doesn’t get implicitly politicised by one side rather than the other.

There are plenty of ways that a certain political bent (of any persuasion) could direct research interests, and this might mean that important issues are unexplored or important debates are dismissed. Just look at your local humanities department to see a very narrow view of the way the world is, of what’s important in the world, and how not to have a fruitful debate with conservatives.

Psychology matters. So does science. And so does politics. We benefit from a rich and pluralistic values landscape, but we suffer when we allow certain innate proclivities tilt political discourse away from accepted scientific views.

It’s important we have more conservatives in science, although if there’s a real take home message from all this, it’s that it’s important we have more science in conservatism.



6 responses

13 12 2010
James Gray

Contrary to the popular view that political attitudes and ideological commitments are the product of environmental factors, such as family upbringing, socio-economic conditions, or rational reflection, in fact it’s psychology that plays a dominant role in influencing an individual’s political leanings. And career choices.

I don’t see any reason to think this isn’t influenced by environmental factors. Psychology isn’t incompatible with environmental influence.

13 12 2010

What I don’t understand is why you as an Australian living in Australia carry on as if “Conservative” means what it means in USA, “Republicans” ditto, and “scientists” are presumably American scientists.

On another topic (forgive me), I have been wanting to ask someone why Julian Assange, an Australian, could possibly be subject to to an American law, its Espionage Act of 1917, and why the US First Amendment could have anything to do with anything in the situation.

Can Australia not protect its own citizens against the ridiculous imperial assumption that the USA owns the world?

On second thoughts, it’s not such a different topic, since your post seems to make the same assumption.

Sorry if the tone of this sounds aggressive. I’m an Australian by birth, domiciled in England, anxious for your country’s sense of sovereignty and allegiances.

13 12 2010
Tim Dean


I don’t see any reason to think this isn’t influenced by environmental factors. Psychology isn’t incompatible with environmental influence.

The key word I use is “dominant”. Clearly the environment is significant, particularly the unique experiences an individual has as they grow up. But psychological predispositions flavour the way we respond to the environment to such a degree that two people with the same upbringing are more likely to have different political attitudes than two identical twins reared apart.


The vast majority of political psychology research is conducted in the US on the US population about US politics. So I tend to talk in a US political context (that’s also where most readers of this blog reside), although many of the lessons are translatable to Australia; conservative psychology is largely the same here, but its manifestations are different because of the different political history, landscape and challenges we face.

On Julian Assange: I couldn’t agree more that he should be tried under the law if he’s suspected to have broken some law. As far as I know, he hasn’t broken any laws in his actions through WikiLeaks (his Sweedish case not withstanding).

Individuals in the Australian government (such as the PM) were way out of line in suggesting that he has committed some crime and ought to have his passport cancelled.

In fact, many prominent Australians have spoken out against this (, and even Kevin Rudd has backed Assange, confirming that Australia won’t (can’t) cancel his passport, and even going so far as to offer consular support for his extradition case in the UK (

5 01 2011

But not entirely unexpected.

The understatement of the year!

19 01 2011
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