David Frum recently published a letter sent to him by James Charles Wilson, an engineering professor at the University of Denver, on the politicization of science by Republicans. (Yesterday he added a handful of responses sent to him by other conservative-identified scientists.) Professor Wilson suggests that at one time, when he was starting out, it was possible to be a “conservative scientist,” but that today, conservatives and Republicans are undermining science for illegitimate political purposes.
But what could it mean to be a “conservative scientist”? Individual scientists might be Democrats or Republicans, might run their office in a “conservative” or “progressive” manner, but as scientists they have no politics. Any particular lab or department will have both Democrats and Republicans working in it, just like any other workplace.
It’s understandable that some scientists who are conservatives feel their political beliefs are one with their work. When they advocate for science, they think of themselves as conservatives advocating on behalf of conservatism. They think of their opponents -- “the opponents of science,” whatever that means to them -- as “liberals.” But that’s culture war thinking. Not every conflict is a liberal/conservative conflict.
Here is what matters: Which party has more sensible policies with regard to the funding of science and to science education? Which party has more respect for the findings of scientists and for the consequences of science on policy in general? Which party has the kind of leadership that can encourage popular respect for science and for education generally? Frum’s Republican correspondents all suggest that party is the Democrats.
Frum has announced his plans to leave the National Review and to start a new site, presumably taking advantage of President-Elect Obama’s promise of bipartisanship. But I have to guess Frum’s real goal is to bring the Republican Party back from the brink within a decade or two. So I’d also guess he thinks (1) the Republicans can become the party I’ve just described, and (2) people who want to vote for this party can be won over from the Democrats. Maybe he’s right, but I don’t think so.