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June 25, 2003

Scientist Gap?

Nick Thompson says that the Republicans have a science problem-as much political & cultural as it is technical. One thing Nick overlooks is that most "scientists" in America today are probably engineers, not Ph.D.s in the natural sciences, and they trend Republican....

Update from Razib: Larson & Witham's surveys of Ph.D. holding natural scientists in the mid-90s indicated that 60% were non-theists. The percentages were higher in academia than they were among government & private sector scientists. Additionally, a follow-up survey of National Academy of Science members indicates that 90% are non-theists. There is a high correlation between religiosity & political affiliation-the "seculars" vote Democrat as much as the "religious right" votes Republican. This is probably the simplest explanation.

Posted by razib at 10:13 PM

would be interesting to hear godless' views on this given the people he works with

Posted by: Jason Soon at June 25, 2003 10:28 PM

I think godless goes to too good of schools and this has skewed his sampling... furthermore most scientists and engineers are not in academia and even if they started out as nominally democrat that I bet become much more republican as they get older and start paying a lot in taxes. So if you look at the all engineers in the US, I think they are majority republican. It also depends on where you draw the line between technician and engineer. The closer to technician the more the republicans win in a landslide.

Still its an interesting question why the best of the academic scientist and engineers are so much more likely to be democrats...

And although they definitely look down on religious republicans, my pet theory is that really don;t care that much, they associate democrats with more research grants and the more outspoken paternalism of democrates coincides more with their ego and sense of superiority then the less outspoken paternalism of the republicans.
The outspoken paternalism of the democrats also allows the selection of democratic presidential candiates that act in a more educated manner and for them to prescribe social programs in a problem -> solution manner that fits into the scientist/engineer view of life, ie try to solve an important problem, if you have no idea how, just try any thing that sounds reasonable, if it doesn;t work you can still publish, if it does work or you can spin it so it seems like it might have worked, then you're famous. That's the beauty of working in an "economics free" zone. Unfortunately this approach works much better with scientific problems then it does with social problems...

Posted by: -b at June 26, 2003 05:46 AM

-b -
interesting explanation, though obviously written from a Republican point of view. While Republican credentials on economics used to be much better than those of the democrats, I don't think you can make a good case for that any more. Clinton was much more pro-free-trade than Bush is, and the current deficit is rather alarming to a fiscal conservative like me. Tax cuts are nice, but I like spending cuts to go with them.
There's also a statistic I saw recently that indicated that states with Republican governors actually had bigger increases in spending these recent years than those with Democrats. This may be a case where the Republicans are using their historical reputation for fiscal responsibility as a cover for their current excesses. Or it could be a statistical artifact of better economic growth in Republican-led states - I'd have to track down the original sources to see.
The other thing is that economics is only marginally a science at all, so Democrat ignorance of its precepts is maybe not as galling to a pure scientist as the rejection of evolution and climate change on the Republican side. As regards race, the mainstream Republicans have to stay within the bounds of acceptable discourse as much as the Democrats do, so it's really kind of a wash.

Posted by: bbartlog at June 26, 2003 07:58 AM

Scientists are dumb.
therefore they vote democrat:)


Posted by: David at June 26, 2003 09:52 AM

Engineers are scientists! Next you'll be telling me plumbers are scientists. They've got good problem solving skills too!

(And economics is certainly not a science.)

Posted by: Ikram Saeed at June 26, 2003 10:31 AM

"Theism" usually means "belief in divine creation and conduct of the universe without denial of revelation as in deism"

While "deism" is"belief in the existence of a god arising from conviction rather than revelation or dogma".

Locke and Hume could be described as deists. Jean-Jaques Rousseau was a confessed theist, like Voltaire.

Razib, when you write "non-theist", do you mean "deist" or "atheist"?

Posted by: eufrenio at June 26, 2003 03:07 PM

i used the world "non-theist" specifically for those reasons-larson & witham's survey asked about belief in a personal god that intervenes in the universe and answers prayer and stuff, theism. the people that did not agree with the theistic position might have been deists, pantheists, atheists, etc.

Posted by: razib at June 26, 2003 03:26 PM

I've seen more than one engineer get bit by the entrepreneur bug, and shortly flip-flop to voting Republican after having heen a business owner, religion and god be damned.

Posted by: David Mercer at June 26, 2003 03:52 PM

Ikram, etc
Economics is certainly a science and is becoming more so lately. The perception that economics isn't a science comes from 2 things
1) that economists disagree with each other a lot;
2) that economists can't predict things.

Re 2 economics will never be able to predict things in the way that engineering does for instance because economics is the study of complex phenomena, as is climatology. Added to this, there is a historical and cumultative element to economics so it's difficult to disentangle causes. It can, like climatology only do pattern predictions and ranges. Is climatology not a science? The historical element and the difficulty of disentangling causes it shares with evolutionary biology? What does evolution predict? It allows one to make indirect inferences which can subsequently be tested, but subject to the caveat that other causes may also play a role in explaining these indirect inferences. So does economics and this explains why economists debate a lot of these things endlessly. There is a natural fit between evolutionary thinking and economic thinking - both rely on a 'maximising' metaphor in practice.

Re 1, you have to distinguish between microeconomics and macroeconomics. Most economists agree re the former. Microeconomics is a science, macro less so -this is because there remains a strong part of macro that doesn't derive its conclusions from the bottom up using an individual choice model whereas there is still a lot of macro nowadays which is based on the 'hydraulic model' - pump GDP up and look what happens elsewhere. A lot of macro is very unscientific and lacks logical rigour but this is the bit which most people associate with economics rather than micro or price theory.

A lot of economists' tool sets have found use in evolutionary biology e.g. game theory, The top of rhe economics profession is as mathematically sophisticated if not more mathematically sophisticated than some sciences like biology, and anthropology.
My other prediction is that economics will eventually be subsumed into the study of complex phenomena - for instance a number of prominent ecoinomists like Herbert Gintis and Kenneth Arrow are already associated with the Santa Fe Institute which has precisely this research agenda.

Posted by: Jason Soon at June 26, 2003 04:03 PM

"the people that did not agree with the theistic position might have been deists, pantheists, atheists, etc."
So we still don´t know what they think. "Non-theist" lumps together all kinds of people.

Posted by: eufrenio at June 26, 2003 04:08 PM

Jason S-
game theory may be considered a tool set of economics, but I would consider it a field of study in its own right and not part and parcel of economics. Certainly it was invented independent of economics (von Neumann) and advanced by non-economists (Nash). I also think economics has been rather slow to apply game theory to its problems; for example I have yet to see a good discussion of game theory applied to international trade, or to the international flow of capital.
As regards micro and macro economics, I think that microeconomics does provide valuable insights into human behavior, but to the extent that it can make predictions it's a fairly easy field of study. In areas where predictions would be more valuable you quickly run into chaotic behavior and problems in mass psychology. But more intractably, some of the economic actors in the real world will always be as smart or smarter than the economists making the models, and be acting to further their own interests.

Posted by: bbartlog at June 26, 2003 05:33 PM

Economics is more valuable in explaining than predicting imho. In fact prediction is quite boring. Microeconomics is a very rich field of study and this comes more from explaining things (why do businesses adopt particular practices) than in predicting. In fact I don't see what use prediction is to anyone - the essence of competition is that some entrepreneurs are better are 'predicting' than others - hence they are the successful ones. This is a function of the specific knowledge of the entrpreneur - economics can't ever play much of a role here and if it does in the context of marketing, etc. Explanation as opposed to prediction is far more important - e.g. in antitrust analysis (should a company be allowed to do X? will that distort competition in the market or can it lead to welfare gains). Prediction is also of little relevance to another area where economics is socially valuable - in designing auctions - unless you mean pattern predictions about how generally people will react in a given auction situation as opposed to how much they will actually bid, in which case again judging economics by predictions of the order of Joe will pay $5 or GDP will be X in year Y is invalid

Posted by: Jason Soon at June 26, 2003 06:50 PM

PS re antitrust analysis I should explain better why deciding whether a company should do X is a matter of explanation than prediction - it is because what you think a business practice is trying to do (i.e. explaining whether the practice is motivated by attempts to economise on transaction costs) then determines whether there is any point to prohibiting that practice

incidentally Von Neumann is considered by economists as one their own - economics has incorporated contributions from a range of fields. Insofar as Von Neumann was doing economics when he came up with game theory he was an economist and certainly I see game theory as about 'doing economics'

Posted by: Jason Soon at June 26, 2003 06:54 PM

Jason S., Anthropology is not a science. The anthropology 101 class I took in college was nothing but politics and tidbits about obscure cultures: all cultures are equal, some people around Borneo practice pederasty, some Brazilian Indians have blue penises, mankind originated in Africa, old anthropologists were racists because their progression of man charts started with black skin, bonobos have bisexual orgies.

Posted by: Jon Wilkins at June 26, 2003 06:58 PM

PS the most conceptually (including mathematically)difficult part of economics is actually micro. macro tends to be more data driven but then I think a lot of what macro does is quite pointless at least given current state of knowledge

Posted by: Jason Soon at June 26, 2003 06:59 PM

Jon Wilkins: Don't judge anthropology by its Boas/Mead degeneration into a branch of the Standard Social Science model- Frankfurt School egalitarian crap. Think Darwin, Gobineau, Galton, Frazer, Malinowski even. There is a world elsewhere.

If it's really true that nine-tenths of US scientists are non-theists, no wonder those boffins who subsist in Marxist campuses (the Left's "gated communities") outside the military-industrial complex and the NWO/ZOG establishment have such a pathetically small influence on public policy.


Posted by: WJ Phillips at June 27, 2003 07:36 AM

Well, I don't have a lot to add to this argument. I got my degree in Econ and studied Athropology, and I think they're both sciences (that can be turned to political ends, but so can anything).

I just thought that I would chime in and say you can call scientists Brights now, if you want to.



A Bright's worldview is free of supernatural and mystical elements.


Posted by: Brock at June 27, 2003 02:11 PM


Glad to see you are a member of the site. I think you misunderstood my “economics free” comment; I meant it as a reference to the grant system, which fund almost all research in academia. The are some good things about it, since you can’t try to figure unknown stuff out and try to be profitable, but it definitely has a lot of waste and excess. Whether this is the best way to fund science is and an interesting question for another day. My point is that academic scientists and engineers don’t have to subject their ideas and time to the rigors of the marketplace and this I think skews their politics. They are paid to throw money at problems that people don’t know how to solve. The democrats are much more associated with the idea that social problems and the economy can be solved if the state just intervened in the right way and spent enough money. I claim that this perception is true and what happens in practice is much less relevant. Scientists and engineers in academia inherently assume if you look long and hard enough there is a solution to a problem. When applied to a scientific problem this is small and manageable, and arguably a good investment, when applied to a social problem the increase in scale is just too costly. Because of their particular situation in life the the academics just don;t realize that it is much easier and lest costly to put a man on the moon then it solve a social problem.

Posted by: -b at June 27, 2003 02:11 PM

I'm going to say this as dogmatically as I possibly can: you don't have a right to call yourself a scientist if you believe in god or gods.

Posted by: friedrich braun at June 27, 2003 11:13 PM

>> I'm going to say this as dogmatically as I possibly can: you don't have a right to call yourself a scientist if you believe in god or gods.

What was Newton?

Posted by: Dienekes at June 27, 2003 11:56 PM

What was Newton?

a natural philosopher ;)

though, to be fair to fb, some scientists, like the physical chemistry pete atkins, have made assertions in the same vein....

Posted by: razib at June 28, 2003 06:04 AM