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Is reality liberal biased? Are liberals reality biased?

Last updated on 18 Sep 2017

Josh Rosenau has a piece up on Chris Mooney’s latest article on the Republican war on science in the US. Conservative bodies around the western world seem to resist science when it conflicts with policy (usually driven by PR from large corporations), so the point is more than simply American politics.

One often hears of the “reality based community” or that “reality has a liberal bias” and Mooney discusses the fact that expertise has a largely liberal slant in the US (ignoring for the moment that “liberal” in the rest of the world means something different from what it means in the US, where it basically applies to “liberal democratic” views shared by nearly all, including conservatives). In the course of his post, Josh asks why it is that Republicans are so opposed to science, dismissing (rightly IMO) Lakoffian paternalism psychological accounts as too glib.

Now it is not the case that conservative views in themselves are antiscience. In the 1950s and even much later conservatives would accept expertise and act on that basis. In part this is why environmental laws and agencies were set up under conservative governments. And it is also not the fact that the left are less inclined to allow their ideology to interpose itself into policy decisions that rely upon expertise – I have seen too many examples of that, both in history and in my own life, to believe it.

So why are most academics left-leaning? I think there are several reasons, one major and a number of minor. The minor has to do with the way the intellectual world framed itself back in the 1930s under the influence of the Russian revolution, setting up a tradition of left thinking in universities that persisted the way traditions usually do, by self-reinforcing. Moreover, the opening of universities after WW2 to middle class and later working class students (which is now being wound back) allowed political views to diversify away from the politics of privilege.

But the main reason why academe is left leaning has to do with how the conservative movement has allowed itself to become the effective mouthpiece for interests that are not representative of the conservative constituency. Why do conservatives defend tax cuts for the rich when only a vanishingly small fraction of them will ever benefit? Why do they defend the rights of mining companies, oil companies, and medical corporations? What is in it for them?

Nothing much. They give all kinds of justifications in conversation, like employment figures (even as employment is reducing under the very policies they defend), but it is obviously ad hoc rationalisation. A political philosophy based on self-interest should insulate conservatives from defending these companies. Why doesn’t it? The answer is what I have previously called the biggest single tragedy in a century of tragedies: public relations.

The use of PR, and its predecessor propaganda, to manipulate the minds of the populace in general (and conservatives in particular) to accept and even defend policies that are clearly against their interests is undermining the viability of democracies, and always has. That it undermines conservatives – real conservatives who would recognise Burke as a founding influence, not Randroids or Reaganites – it a byproduct of the creeping corporatism of the west. Politics is not about the economy, stupid, nor is it about moral standards or the institutions of our society (preserving or reforming them as you see fit). Politics is about corporations (including large unions and even political parties) getting a free hand to do as they want.

The recent decision to give corporations the “rights” of individuals to fund political campaigns by the US Supreme Court is the latest in a sequence of corporatist corruptions of democracy. Academics more than most classes of people must employ critical thinking, and PR does not survive more than the most cursory of investigations. It is the marshmallow of intellectual discourse – a little fire and it melts into a gooey mess. So long as we run society by untrammelled PR, thinkers will tend to reject the views of those who pay for it. Given that we have a false dichotomy between left and right (progressive and conservative), this means most thinkers will move to the left.

I would rather see more options. For example, I am not leftist nor rightist. On some issues I take a classically progressive view (which these days the leftist party in Australia seems not to, on issues like gay marriage), and on others a classically rightist view (in my view, nuclear power is the only option, although not the uranium cycle). On others I tend to anarchism (you want to marry your bicycle? Feel free – it harms nobody). Of course this has the added benefit that everybody hates you, so it isn’t a stable equilibrium, but it sure is fun.


  1. Phyllograptus Phyllograptus

    I don’t know if Liberals are Reality biased, but I do know that Mooney is biased. He states several times that the calculations around proving climate change are so simple that they can be shown ” on the back of an envelope”. The first commenter on his blog asks “Chris, can you show us this “back of an envelope” calculation please? Thanks” to which Chris responds, “This is a warning, your comments are verging on hectoring at this point”
    I truly find Mooney’s comment “non” reality based. Here he is trying to make a point calling for belief in science and scientific methods and then when asked politely to provide the factual documentation of his point, he immediately resorts a dogmatic stance of in essence, “How dare you question what I tell you, I know, you don’t, accept what I say !”. I’d say there is some lapse in reality here

    • TheBigOne TheBigOne

      I’ve notice BOTH sides have good views but wrong attitudes. We are being played with here and it’s only going to end in ruin! We cannot keep hating each other like this and pretend no consequences will come from it.

  2. So why are most academics left-leaning? I think there are several reasons, one major and a number of minor. The minor has to do with the way the intellectual world framed itself back in the 1930s under the influence of the Russian revolution, setting up a tradition of left thinking in universities that persisted the way traditions usually do, by self-reinforcing.

    My colleagues are mostly well to the right of those 1930 positions, and even to the right of what counted as the political left in the 1960s.

    The reason that academics are seen as left-leaning, is that so many people have moved so far to the right that the academics seem leftish by comparison.

    I do agree with your comments about the role of PR.

  3. Agreed, PR is part of it. But it’s probably both a driver and a response. Changes in infrastructure (greater integration), communications technology, ideology, and breakdown of traditional social structures are also implicated in one big endogenous mess. So what you have left are entreprenuerial special interests that demagogue to the lowest common denominator.

  4. bob koepp bob koepp

    “Why do conservatives defend tax cuts for the rich when only a vanishingly small fraction of them will ever benefit? Why do they defend the rights of mining companies, oil companies, and medical corporations? What is in it for them?”

    Well, I think at least some conservatives understand that a political theory based on self-interest must protect the interests of other selves as well as their own. There’s my-self, and your-self, and myriad other-selfs who are all part of the body-politic. And some benighted folk even think there are corporate-selfs.

  5. I’m not at all convinced that the difference on the left and right about science is nearly as large as people make it out to be. In the US the left has attitudes about some science issues that are about as bad as some of those on the right (anti-vaccination has until very recently been a generally left-wing thing. Opposition to nuclear power is very left-wing also). Moreover, if one looks at the actual numbers, self-identified conservatives and self-identified liberals have very similar levels of scientific knowledge. See . What seems to be more the case is that leaders of the right-wing are more vocally anti-science than those on the left.

    • I wonder why you think that being opposed to nuclear power is being anti-scientific. I am opposed on scientific grounds.

      • Two reasons: if we need the amount of power we now use, let alone what we will be using in ten years, and at the same time we need to reduce our carbon emission, we need nuclear power, as nothing else is able to provide it.

        The other reason is that if you don’t use a uranium cycle, but a thorium cycle, you do not need to produce the nasty byproducts or cause the environmental damage uranium mining causes.

        • Tam Hunt Tam Hunt

          John, renewable energy is my main area of expertise and it is patently not the case that nuclear power is a necessary low carbon solution. As evidenced by Germany, Italy, Switzerland and Japan (largely) recently choosing to phase out their nuclear facilities in favor of increased efficiency and renewables, we are well on our way to a renewable energy-dominated world. See my recent article on why climate change doesn’t matter anymore as an issue (the short answer: energy efficiency and renewable energy trends have sufficient momentum now that we are well on our way down the right path away from fossil fuels):

        • Renewable energy is rate limited by the amount of energy from the sun, excluding gravitational sources like tides (which are not widely available at present).

          Since that is roughly on average 198 W/m^2 for around 8 hours a day, and we use around 7600 W per person in Australia (more in the US), that means every person would need to use all the energy from around 38 m^2 at full efficiency, much more in realistic terms through inefficiencies of conversion. There are 22 million people in Australia. So we’d need to cover 836,000,000 m^2 and up. The area of Australia (a very big nation) is 7,617,930, so we could do it easily, but then you have the carbon cost of installing, maintaining and manufacturing those capture systems, and the loss of transporting power from desert locations (which are sensitive environments).

          Compare this with the thorium nuclear power cycle, which involves little mining and refining, leaves few toxic byproducts, and can be recycled many times. Sure, uranium sources suck, but they are not the only alternative. So far we have been tied into the uranium cycle because of military exigencies. If we abandon that, and use thorium (already the byproduct of rare earth mining anyway), we can generate the power relatively safely (more safely than any of the renewable sources and orders of magnitude more safely than coal and gas) and reduce carbon emissions to almost zero (though we may then have a heat source problem).

  6. Mitchell Coffey Mitchell Coffey

    Responding to Joshua Zelinsky: I think it’s an important general point that while some liberals express anti-science irrationalisms, with the partial exception of the nuclear power issue, they are not required positions to win a party nomination. Creationism and climate denial must be genuflected toward to be nominated to high office in the modern Republican Party; this is not balanced by left anti-vaccination crazies and the like, who are generally marginal figures, who do not represent required policy positions within the Democratic Party. (And, yes, I know the Democratic Party hardly counts as “left” – but that only underlines the marginality of the views in question.)

  7. Bill Morse Bill Morse

    As to why most academics are left leaning, I think the answer may be fairly simple. Academics spend a lot of their time interacting with young people, and young people are left leaning. Why are young people left leaning? Because for the most part they don’t have money, so they are much more likely to support the left agenda of sharing resources. Old people tend to have more money, and are much more likely to support the conservative agenda of individual control of resources. Academics probably self-select for sympathy with the views of young people. So we get left-leaning academics.

    • lylebot lylebot

      On my campus (east coast, mid-Atlantic “blue” state), I’m far, FAR more likely to hear undergrads expressing Republican talking points than Democratic ones. The faculty (of which I am a member) is pretty liberal, but the undergrads—at least, the ones that are speak up about their positions—are not.

      And the reason is pretty obvious. The Republican talking points are simple and easy to understand. They don’t require a lot of thought, and they appeal to the simple-minded self-centered undergraduate male that is only interested in a college degree for the money he hopes it will make him after he graduates.

      • I fear you may be right. Nearly all the undergrads I have taught or talked to are conservative to the point of Teapartitude, except those over thirty. And this has been the trend for about ten years.

        But also academics seem less leftist than they used to be. A conservative in a philosophy department was an object of derision and isolation when I studied as an undergraduate in the 80s. Now they are common, although not nearly in the majority.

        I suspect that the left in general has become more conservative too. The ALP (our “socialist” party) is now the breeding ground solely of apparatchiks and functionaries. The real progressives in Australia are the Greens, the Sex Party, and the Secular Party. I of course support the Sex Party (yes, I watch Craig Ferguson).

  8. It is, in the US, somewhat unavoidably tautological to refer to academics as ‘left-leaning’. The party which declares itself to be ‘right’ has taken up, among other things, active hostility to the reality based community ((in)famous Bush administration quote for instance). And, as Mitchell observes, made it party shibboleth to hold, or at least espouse, positions which are directly opposed to reality. Those are strong veins, but not quite the tautological one.

    The tautological one is that academics value academia and learning, even if it is at the expense of making the greatest possible income. Neither part of that equation is acceptable to the ‘right’. By definition (in the US at least), believing either makes one ‘left-leaning’. Instead, one is supposed to pursue that greatest possible income, learning is not something to respect or pursue, and you should always believe you’re just a step or two from being one of the wealthy few (e.g. Joe the Plumber).

    • Tam Hunt Tam Hunt

      I think this is a big part of the answer to the question “why are academics generally left-leaning?” Academics aren’t in it for the money as the primary reward. Yes, the money can be quite good but generally it’s fairly mediocre. They’re in it, rather, to pursue learning and the life of the mind. That sounds cheesy to a lot of people but I think it is a genuine motivation for many if not most intellectuals and academics. As such, it’s not about money, and thus a worldview shaped by concerns about money and the pursuit of money as a key goal of life are often viewed with suspicion by academics. I think many academics, being smarter than the average bear, are also more apt at spotting corporatist and corrupt memes and arguments – and are, again, averse to such memes. Last, I think academics will generally have a more consistent worldview, right or left, and thus act more on principle than on ad hoc bases. Conservative arguments can be equally principled but b/c conservative movements around the world are often co-opted (at least in part) by moneyed interests, they are often less based on principle and more based on “what argument works best right now?” For example, in my training as a lawyer, we were taught to argue for clients based not on consistent positions but on whatever worked best for the client at the time.

      • Tam Hunt Tam Hunt

        I wanted to add another major reason that occurred to me: studies have reliably shown that as people gain more education they become more liberal. Why? It seems to me, though this is not provable perhaps, that learning promotes compassion and thus more liberal tendencies. The key difference between liberals and conservatives is the sphere of one’s compassion. Whereas conservatives generally reserve their compassion for those they know well and family, with a deep compassion for these entities, liberals extend their compassion far further, but more shallowly. But learning promotes this extension of compassion because as we learn more about other peoples, other places, other species, we naturally understand them better and thus experience more compassion for them. And this is the basis of the liberal worldview: a feeling that we’re all in this together and should, within reason, help others when we can.

  9. You’re right about nuclear being the only option. Thorium would be ideal, but uranium will have to do in the shorter term. I despair when well-meaning organisations like Greenpeace actively campaign against our only realistic hope.

  10. Tam Hunt Tam Hunt

    John and Richard, nuclear is not only not the only option, it’s a very bad option. It’s very expensive, based on our best projections for the costs of new plants, which is the best data we have to go on because so few actual plants have been built in recent decades that no one really knows the actual costs.

    Wind, solar and geothermal, combined with aggressive energy efficiency programs and price-induced conservation (which will occur naturally as prices for all commodities and energy rise higher in coming years due to a structural imbalance between consumption and production), can do far more, more cheaply, and in a far shorter time frame.

    Australia is strangely lagging on solar power but is doing fairy well on wind power. According to the EIA (the US Energy Information Administration), wind power has grown an average 70% rate in the last decade per year in Australia. But solar hasn’t fared so well.

    Either way, it’s clear that Australia has the resources for a renewable energy revolution. What appears to be lacking is the political will at this time.

    Here’s another recent article of mine describing how Spain and Portugal have transformed their energy consumption in under a decade through aggressive renewable energy policies that have helped them to create entire new industies.

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