Why Liberals And Conservatives Have Different Views About The Value Of Science

A new study sheds light on why liberals lobby for more science funding while conservatives want to slash it


(The Canadian Press)

(The Canadian Press)

Almost everybody loves science, right? Surveys consistently show that the public sees scientists as trusted authority figures and generally likes the concept of doing actual research. This comes with many, many caveats and asterisks, but when it comes to the question of whether people care about science and what it has to say, the answer is, broadly, yes. But if this is the case, how can liberals and conservatives be so at odds when it comes to what the science says and debates about how to fund it?

Well, a recent study might hold the answer. A team of researchers analyzed 1.3 million book purchases on Amazon and a subsequent 26 million purchases to establish whether the person making the purchase is more liberal or conservative using a well-known and tested technique for doing so. The study’s results indicate that while both sides of the political spectrum like science, they focus on completely different types of science.

Liberals tend to gravitate towards basic sciences (think biology, astronomy, and sociology) and conservatives tend to go for applied sciences (medicine, engineering, and pharmacology). But so what, you might say, science is science, isn’t it? If they both appreciate it, where’s the disconnect? Well this seemingly subtle disconnect is more like a chasm when it comes to questions about the effects of basic scientific research and its funding.

Basic research is meant to figure out the basic building blocks of how nature works. When doing this type of science, you’re wondering how something is put together and why. You’re not necessarily looking to do anything with this knowledge, you’re just trying to answer a speculative question. When Newton formalized our first general understanding of gravity, he was merely wondering why things fall and how.

But when basic research is handed to someone in the applied field, they can harness all that general knowledge to do things. For example, the mechanics of gravity were included into ballistics, the offshoot of physics that gave us reliable, long-range projectile weapons. The applied scientists didn’t care so much why things fell, but knowing how they fall allowed them to figure out how much energy to use for a projectile to reach its intended target.

And here we get to the heart of the problem. If conservatives are focusing on applied sciences, as this study suggests, they’re focusing on the kind of very targeted research often done by militaries and corporations to turn abstract concepts into practical things like medicine, computers, and basic artificial intelligence that eliminates paperwork and saves money. They’re missing the years and years of research that happened before those abstract concepts were fleshed out fully enough to be of use to applied scientists.

Of course it makes sense for a conservative science fan to cut funding to biomedical research that doesn’t specifically focus on curing a disease, for instance. Everything they read says that corporations can do this kind of science on their own. This attitude is clearly seen in proposals which try to drastically slash basic science in favor of the applied sciences conservatives care about. Why pay government scientists study AI when Google is already doing it, they reason.

But the wildly complex software able to do the work of a dozen people in minutes is the end product of centuries of specialized, abstract mathematics, running on a system originally built to share research data between public universities doing basic science, and a user-friendly façade created to more easily share and understand data from a particle collider researching what atoms are made of solely for the sake of knowing what atoms are made of and what that could tell us.

Without familiarizing yourself with the origins of things like the Standard Model, or the Church-Turing Thesis, or ARPANET, you could get the mistaken impression that IBM, Compuserve, Xerox, Apple, and Microsoft created the modern computing industry from scratch, while in reality, they were commercializing decades of mathematics and electrical engineering used for processing volumes of data humans could no longer be expected to accurately parse on their own.

That said, it’s terrific that they were able to do that and we have entire new industries with millions of jobs generating trillions in economic activity thanks to this applied science. By no means are their efforts to turn basic science into gadgets and gizmos we use every day for almost everything while making a hefty profit something we shouldn’t encourage.

But if we ignore the many years of abstract, curiosity-driven research for the sake of knowledge behind this economic paradigm shift still playing itself out, we risk cutting funds to the next wave of abstract knowledge that could be just as transformative, and not even know it.

If they’re focusing on basic sciences for the sake of knowledge and cross-pollinating ideas as the study says, liberals are in a position to understand the leap from “hmm, I wonder why these particles decay the way they do” to “these particles can be precisely aimed to kill a cancerous tumor” which has absolutely happened, and will advocate for more basic science funds so more broad questions can be turned into the next cancer treatment, or computer, or a weapon to reliably knock an incoming ICBM out of the sky, hopefully preventing doomsday for someone out there.

This may be why so many scientists tend to support more liberal candidates for office. They know their work will be taken seriously and graded by its scientific merit, not based on an ROI formula by a venture capitalist asking what has this research done for him lately. Conservatives, on the other hand, seem uninterested in scientific subjects if they don’t see an immediate benefit for themselves, much less want to fund them even though a lack of basic science funding is detrimental to the economy at large.

Ultimately, this study can help us from an counterargument to lawmakers in a hurry to cut budgets to research they don’t see as beneficial; that they’re not seeing the big picture, that today’s “useless tinkering” can be tomorrow’s Next Big Thing, and they need to stop being so worried what’s in it for them and think of what may be in it for their children and grandchildren.

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Politech // Politics / Science / Tech