The Politics of Science

By John Zogby & Zeljka Buturovic

When it comes to ideological wars, it's not all about biology anymore.

Much of the culture war during 1990s revolved around the proper role of science in society. Biology was often at the center: Whether it was evolution, cloning, stem-cell research, or genetic modification -- biology appeared to be the most divisive of all the sciences.
These days, it appears the baton has been passed to environmental and social sciences, especially psychology and sociology.

Overall, we have found Americans are very critical of social sciences. We are not only talking about Senator Tom Coburn's (R-OK) failed attempt to prohibit National Science Foundation from funding political science. We are talking about our newest survey of more than 3,000 likely voters nationwide which showed that 60% or more of Americans say that sociology, political science and economics are not sciences. Psychology fares better, with 54% believing it is a science. Environmental science is considered a science by 80%. For comparison, nearly all Americans view physics and biology as sciences.

We also found significant ideological differences. Liberals and progressives are more likely to believe that sociology, psychology and political science are sciences than are likely voters of conservative and libertarian persuasions. Consider our data for these sciences:
Do you consider these fields to be science?


The most polarizing science in our survey was environmental science:


Not only is the change in perception in this case the biggest -- it is also the sharpest. Unlike most other areas, where moderates serve as a buffer between two poles of more ideologically committed voters, when it comes to scientific value of environmental science, moderates are as far from conservatives as are liberals.

On the other hand, there are virtually no ideological differences in the perception of biology as a science.


Unlike environmental science, doubts about the scientific nature of economics are almost uniformly spread across the ideological spectrum, with progressive, libertarian and very conservative voters walking nearly hand in hand:


One might think the general reluctance of American voters to bestow scientific status on social sciences stems from a broader view of the futility of scientific endeavor and maybe academic pursuits more generally. In some academic circles it has been argued that liberal education is a waste of resources because most people are unable to master it and few of those who do will find opportunities to use it productively. Ideological differences in perception of certain fields can certainly be seen as another clash of values between what some perceive as "common-sense real America" vs. "arugula-eating coastal America."

Despite its view that social sciences are not sciences, the American public considers them to be quite useful. According to the same survey, 72% of likely voters either strongly or somewhat believe that social sciences are a useful tool in improving the human condition. For comparison, 83% think this the case for the natural sciences.

Although progressives and liberals seems to have a tad less enthusiasm for social than for natural sciences, most of the drop between the two occurs because of the changes in perceived usefulness in the minds of conservative, very conservative and libertarian voters:

Do you agree that natural sciences are a useful tool in improving human condition?

*Totals may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Do you agree that social sciences are a useful tool in improving human condition?

*Totals may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

In his failed initiative, Sen. Coburn's observed that "political science is really not science at all" and argued that NSF funding be directed towards areas that "can improve the human condition." According to our data, the public is likely to agree with the premise but not with the conclusion. Americans believe that science, including social science, is useful in principle, and, one would guess, are willing to use taxes to fund it. What they think about the validity of the actual research that their funding makes possible is a different matter.