Man, have I been avoiding this topic. But I think it's time. Slate recently published this piece on the political affiliations of scientists, with the provocative sub-head: "Most scientists in this country are Democrats. That's a problem."
Is it? Is that even true? The piece is based on this survey by the Pew Foundation, which was conducted in 2009 by surveying over 2000 members of the AAAS. Now, I'm trying to come up with the figures, but my strong impression is that the organization skews pretty strongly academic, which might account for some of the numbers. (Science, for example, runs articles like this one, explaining the mysterious world of industry to job-seekers.
So I'm not sure if the Pew numbers are accurate. Still. . .for what it's worth, they come out like this: for self-described party affiliation, Dem/Rep/Ind, the general public was 35/23/34, and the sample of scientists was 55/6/32. And in more philosophical terms, as self-identified liberal/moderate/conservative, the general public was 20/38/37, and the scientists were 52/35/9. Those are some pretty stark differences - correcting for sample bias would probably even things out some, but I can't imagine it would be enough to take care of a gap that large.
The Slate piece says that this is indeed a problem:
During the Bush administration, Democrats discovered that they could score political points by accusing Bush of being anti-science. In the process, they seem to have convinced themselves that they are the keepers of the Enlightenment spirit, and that those who disagree with them on issues like climate change are fundamentally irrational. Meanwhile, many Republicans have come to believe that mainstream science is corrupted by ideology and amounts to no more than politics by another name. Attracted to fringe scientists like the small and vocal group of climate skeptics, Republicans appear to be alienated from a mainstream scientific community that by and large doesn't share their political beliefs. The climate debacle is only the most conspicuous example of these debilitating tendencies, which play out in issues as diverse as nuclear waste disposal, protection of endangered species, and regulation of pharmaceuticals.
I think that's a reasonable summary, especially if you're the sort of person who thinks about politics all the time. But that's a key consideration: not everyone does. It's hard to remember this if you're interested in politics yourself, and if you spend a lot of time following current events and world affairs. Politics, and political ideology, is just one template people use to view the world. Everything can be fit into it one way or another, and it's fun to keep score. I imagine the point-totaling sound as being like a pre-digital pinball machine: chunk-chunk-chunk-ding! This side scores, that side scores.
But how much of this overlaps with what goes on in the labs? The examples in the quoted paragraph certainly do, but there are many less politically contentious issues that are scientifically important. It's hard to fit disagreements over dark matter or RNA's role in early life forms into a left/right framework, much less intramural spats like the structure of the norbornyl cation, the usefulness of total synthesis, or how much palladium you really need to do a metal-catalyzed coupling.
In the end, I think the "it's a problem" conclusion of the Slate article should be amended to "it's a problem if you measure everything by politics". That's a temptation that should be avoided, as far as I'm concerned. Orwell was right to consider a world where everything was subordinate to political concerns as a nightmare. And while I have strong political opinions myself, and follow the whole business much more than I follow any traditional sport, I still would like to have some areas free of it.