​City Journal associate editor Matthew Hennessey and contributing editor John Tierney (formerly of the New York Times) discuss the politicization of science and how the Left's dominance in universities and the scientific community actually threatens progress.

Audio Transcript

Matthew Hennessey: In his 2009 inaugural address, President Barack Obama promised to restore science to what he called its rightful place.  The implication, of course, was that under Republican President George W. Bush, science had been forced to take a backseat.  As evidence that Republicans are allegedly anti-science, Democrats like Obama point to polls showing Conservatives harboring skepticism about man-made climate change as well as to the religious views of traditional Christians who make up a sizeable percentage of the GOP base.  The accepted narrative about anti-science Conservatives and science-loving progressives aside, who is actually holding back scientific progress today?  I’m Matthew Hennessey.  Joining me to discuss the politics of science is John Tierney.  John is a contributing editor at City Journal, and before joining us here he was a reporter and a columnist for many years at the New York Times.  His piece in the Autumn issue of City Journal was titled The Real War on Science.  John, thank you for joining me on the 10 Blocks Podcast.

John Tierney: Thanks Matt.

Matthew Hennessey: You say in your piece that while Conservatives are often accused of being anti-science, it's actually the Left that has waged a war on science.  What do you mean by that?

John Tierney: If you look at who has actually impeded scientific progress, virtually all the threats come from the Left.  Now, as Democrats like to say, there are a lot of Republican creationists.  There also happen to be a lot of Democratic creationists, too.  But they don't affect the way science is done.  I mean anthropologists and biologists you know, just do their own research and they accept the theory of evolution.  And basically, Conservatives and Republicans you know, they accept science you know, when it's useful to them the way both people do, the way both parties will use science to their own and cite it when it's convenient.  But it's really the Left that is more invested in politicizing science and using it to support their agenda.  And if you look I mean it's just very hard that if you look at books like the Republican War on Science by Chris Mooney, this bestseller that kind of helped establish this meme, if you actually read the book you can't find anything in there that Conservatives actually did that affected science.  You can find a lot of examples of Republicans who don't buy Democratic policies and don't justify those things, but if you really look into the threats on science the only ones that are in the book he cites are for instance the Left's opposition to genetically modified foods, the Left's opposition to animal research, and basically the refusal of the Left to accept the genetic basis for behavior.

Matthew Hennessey: We'll get into some of that, but let's start with some of the definitional issues.  You talk a lot in your piece about the problem of confirmation bias.  Perhaps for some of our less savvy scientific listeners you might explain what that means and how it affects scientific outcomes in research, for instance.

John Tierney: Confirmation bias is a well-known, well-documented tendency that everyone has which is to seek out and to believe things that confirm your own opinions and your own beliefs.  And scientists are just as vulnerable to it as anyone else.  The way scientists try to avoid it is you get you know, someone else to review your work, you get skeptics to look at it, people with different points of view.  The problem with science now and particularly in social science is that there are virtually no Conservatives around anymore.  That you know, in some fields it's like 12 to 1, maybe 40 to 1, Liberals you know, to Conservatives.  So it's basically Liberals reviewing their own work.  And John Haidt is a social psychologist at NYU who has done a lot of work on this and he and some other prominent social psychologists are very concerned now that their field has really been hurt by this.  And they published a sort of landmark article last year pointing out all the bad research that had gotten through because basically it was all Liberals writing about you know, Liberal beliefs and ideas and nobody was challenging it.  For instance, you know one of the ideas that has gotten circulated a lot that feeds into this you know, idea that Republicans are anti-science, there have been you know, a bunch of research suggesting that Conservatives are close-minded, that they are prejudiced, that they're irrational and cling to their beliefs you know, but it turns out when people look at that closely, they ask people about things but dogma is like religion that matter to Conservatives but not to Liberals.  And they never occur to them to ask Liberals questions that matter to them like if you ask Liberals about Barack Obama or about environmental beliefs, they are just as dogmatic and just as irrational as conservatives are.

Matthew Hennessey: What is the Heterodox Academy?

John Tierney: That is this group started by John Haidt and some other scholars who wrote this article and they now have about 150 - some very prominent social psychologists and scientists are in it.  And what they are trying to do is promote diversity and ideas.  You know it's very bizarre.  The social psychologists are the field that is obsessed with bias and obsessed with, you know, with diversity and whenever they see an industry or an institution that seems to have a shortage of women or minorities they immediately look for bias and assume that there's some problem here.  But their own problem with political diversity is far greater.  There are virtually no Liberals in social psychology.  And you know, they have a field that is now biased against that.  I mean if you are a graduate student or you are thinking about becoming a graduate student and your beliefs are conservative, people really think well why would I spend four or five years of my life and try to get tenure from a bunch of people who are going to disagree with my politics and are going to hold it against me, and so that's what has happened there.  So this is a group that is trying to encourage more open-mindedness and to get people from both sides doing research.

Matthew Hennessey: Now you say the most rigid, shall we say, taboos in science, involve questions about the biology of race and gender.  Can you explain briefly what has been called the Left's blank slate theory and how it relates how to the Left's politics around science?

John Tierney: Well the Left, it has got its own sacred values.  And race and gender you know, there are these ideas that we have to defend minorities, we have to defend women, and that we can't explain any differences as being based in biology.  So, the blank slate is Steven Pinker's term for the idea that all differences between any two groups of people must be due to social factors, discrimination, cultural factors, but in fact what has been happening over the last decades is this wealth of information from studying DNA, from studying genetics, from you know, studies of twins raised apart, that there are these enormously important genetic factors but the Left simply, you know, wants to pretend that they don't exist.  It's quite bizarre.  They accept some things, like they will - you know most sociologists in one survey accepted the idea that there could be a genetic basis for homosexuality.  That's politically correct to say.  But these same sociologists deny that there are differences between male and female brains.  And you know there is this wealth of evidence, whether you study children, whether you study neuroscience, whether you look at primates, you know, other primates, that there are hormonal and structural differences in the brain, there are these very well-documented differences in behavior that you see in cultures around the world and yet to the Left that's just heresy.  So we have to pretend that there's no difference between men and women, that there's no difference between you know, genetically different people.

Matthew Hennessey: What role did the decoding of the human genome play here?  Did it disrupt certain established beliefs about human evolution and how we got where we are or has that not really mattered much?

John Tierney: It actually has.  There was a longstanding belief by the Left that there hasn't been any evolution, really, since we left Africa about 50,000 years ago.  You know, this is when humans left and the idea is that a few superficial things like skin color have changed, but otherwise there hasn't been enough time for evolution to really you know, make any important difference in the way the brain works, the way people behave.  But the decoding of DNA has shown that that's not true, that there's actually been a great deal of evolution that at least 8% of the genome has changed since we left Africa and the decoding of the genome has - it is very clear from that, you can see five distinguishable races.  But among sociologists and among other academics on the Left they you know, their official position is there is no such thing as race.

Matthew Hennessey: It's a social construct.

John Tierney: Right, it's a social construct and therefore we can't study it, we can't talk about it.  And it really hinders social scientists and their attempt to understand behavior because when you've written off this huge part of humanity, of the human body, of the human brain, then you're basically you know, left to try and explain any differences as a result of discrimination or the evil patriarchy or some other social institutions.

Matthew Hennessey: Okay, so finally let's get down to the hottest topic of them all, climate change.  It's obviously one of the most important, dearest causes to the science-loving Progressive community.  Now, leaving aside questions about the dangers that it may or may not cause, how has the Progressive Left stifled debate about climate change?

John Tierney: The problem is that they have conflated the idea that there is a greenhouse effect, that the world has been warming, and that humans have contributed to this, which you know, most scientists do accept that.  But they have conflated that and tried to use that to exploit science for basically their own political ends the way that Progressives have always done, going back to the '20s.  And basically, that if you believe that the greenhouse effect is real therefore you must accept the agenda that we have to reduce you know, greenhouse emissions, that we have to do it in certain way that the Greens want to do it with windmills and solar panels, that we have to have these international treaties, and that it basically doesn't - and they avoid two questions, which is even if the world is warming, is it dangerous?  We don't really know that.  And second, if it is warming, what is the best way to do that?  And it can be argued you know, very strongly I think, that most of these solutions proposed by the left are ineffectual, that they are enormously expensive, that they hurt poor people especially, and that they are going to do very little to combat this problem.  But it's become this you know, there's this attempt to enlist science to support their own belief in basically we want a bigger government regulating more things and if you don't accept that then you are against science.  And that's terrible for science when scientists feel they have to support a party line in order to, instead of really debating you know, how much climate change is going on and what's the best way to deal with it.

Matthew Hennessey: John Tierney, thank you for being my guest on the 10 Blocks Podcast.  Don't forget to check out John's work at the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org.  We'd also love to hear your comments about today's episode on Twitter.  We are @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks.  Lastly, if you like this podcast and you want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thank you for listening and thank you, John Tierney, for joining me.

John Tierney: Thank you Matt.

Matthew Hennessey: I am Matthew Hennessey, this has been the 10 Blocks Podcast.

Photo by Lalocracio / iStock

More from 10 Blocks