The Left Tail of the Distribution

Ginny’s post got me to thinking about a topic I muse over every once in a while. I have two firm beliefs about scientists. One is that they do not need to be as much of a bunch of egotistical buggers as they tend to be. (I have devoted multiple posts on my blog to that effect.) The other is that the natural political state of the scientist (and of most engineers) should be libertarian / conservative, because the core non-technical skill required for scientific work above the B.Sc. level is the ready acceptance of personal responsibility.

I’ll let Derek Lowe explain that last one:

Today’s law is: You are in real trouble if someone knows more about your project than you do. That’s a realization that hits people at some point in their graduate school career – preferably not much past the midpoint. It marks the transition from being a student to being a working scientist. After all, when you’re still a student, other people are expected to know more about what you’re doing than you do yourself; you’re supposed to be learning from them.

But that has to change at some point. It’s not that you suddenly get as smart or as experienced as the better grad students or post-docs in the group, let alone your PhD advisor. More talented people might be better at your project than you if they devoted all their time to it, but they’re not doing that: you are. No, you get to where you know the ins and outs of your own project, your corner of the research world, better than anyone else. With that comes the realization that no one else is going to get your project done for you, and no one else is going to get you out of grad school. If you don’t reach that level of involvement and expertise, something has gone wrong, and things will continue to go wrong for you.

That’s because you need that experience if you go on to a further career in research. If you’re going to be any good at your work, you have to be willing to become the expert on what you’re doing, and not rely on others to have things figured out. Because what if they don’t? This happens rather often, which is another valuable lesson that grad school is supposed to teach you.


Preach it, Brother Lowe. However, as Ginny pointed out, most Engineering and Science departments skew left. I have some views on why that is, and it’s related to this line of Ginny’s:

the academic life puts off adulthood, perhaps so long that we pass the Piaget stage where we can actually become ones.

Being in school for so long insulates most scientists from the real world. Being buried in research for the first 10 years of our adult life means that most of us only come into contact with the real world in short episodic interactions, and our contact with the gen pop is usually confined to teaching not-so-motivated undergrads.

Oftentimes, socially, a scientist is the smartest person in a room, math-wise, and most other times he or she is playing “whose is bigger” with a narrow cohort of very smart people. From this many scientists develop arrogance. This leads directly to the leftism of the elitist. Many scientists really do think that they are not only smarter, they are better human beings than you. Which automatically means that they aren’t. Based on the field scientists my dad worked with, and the idealized notions I had about the value of higher education, when I went into grad school, I really did expect scientists to be a better class of people than your average Joe. Don’t laugh.

I mean it, stop snickering.

Problem is, as a new grad student, I didn’t have enough experience with human control systems to see how separating people from the gen pop, having them spend most of their day inside their own heads, and indulging them based on their technical talents, all the while ignoring their social development – and on top of this, taking the applicants for this special pool from a group of humans who were probably teased or excluded from dominant social groups during their formative years – I didn’t see that this was a perfect recipe for generating an awful lot of perfect a**holes.

Related to this is that scientists have usually mastered a field that lay people are always telling them is so difficult, that the lay person could never do what the scientist does. This leads an over-developed sense of their own abilities outside their particular fields, and an extreme unease when forced to operate outside of their comfort zones. I remember attending a business meeting with an academic who wanted to build and sell instrumentation to industry. Instrumentation that was touchy, high-maintenance, and suited to only a few applications. At half a mil a pop back in the early 90s. When the economic incentives (or dis-incentives) were explained, first of all the scientist retreated into making a remark about “this can’t be as difficult as solving for the of the wave function of a many-bodied system”. Unfortunately for this scientist, the tech transfer guy from his university was a former physicist, who was able to produce a rejoinder. Second, even after the economics were clear, the scientist continued to insist that corporate purchasers were short-sighted if they didn’t want this wonderful new instrument that was going to revolutionize analysis. Hah. Six years later and the prototypes to that instrument lay unused in that lab, and a newer, lower-maintenance, cheaper design is being used – by that very same scientist – that might actually have some economic potential. Just as the business types had surmised.

When the average scientist is faced with a situation out in society, he or she does not like, he or she assumes that the situation is caused by people not being as smart as the scientist in question. Rarely is it seen as a learning opportunity in a real sense. There is an assumption that if the scientist were in charge of things, the whole machine would be run rationally (i.e. in a way that favors the scientists needs / biases), and that complex systems can be run rationally from the top down (Hayek notwithstanding).

If most scientists were really self-aware, they would think much harder about how science is published versus how it is conducted. Oftentimes, a serendipitous observation leads to experiments that did not follow the original research plan. Afterwards, a theory is constructed that puts everything into perspective and makes a coherent, predictive story. When the research is written up, the peregrinations in the lab are not reported. The theory is presented first, and the experiments are outlined in such a way as to make it seem as if all the experiments were designed at the outset to prove the theory, when in fact the theory was bootstrapped by making a new set of hypotheses from each experiment. Describing all of the blind alleys in a publication would make the scientific literature more copious and burdensome than it already is, so the system makes sense as it stands. But working in the sausage factory ought to make most scientists more sympathetic to Darwinian capitalism. Ought to, that is, if most scientists were self-aware enough to give more than superficial thought to how they did things, as well as the technical aspects of what they are doing.

Lack of self-awareness also allows the scientist to prattle on about topics he or she knows less than nothing about. I have not-so-generously termed this phenomenon in scientists “Idiot Savants Without the Savant” , and it seems I am not the only one who’s noticed:

Read the literature, for God’s (or Darwin’s) sake. It will prove to you that even graduates of MIT and Harvard do not know simple scientific facts that are irrelevant to their work, such as why the Earth experiences winter and summer*, despite having been explicitly taught such facts several times during their education. This amazing ignorance does not affect their performance as scientists. I do not know a single materials scientist or engineer whose technical work would be affected by their beliefs about evolution/ID. My advice: relax. It can do very little harm. Ham-fisted efforts will simply alienate much larger numbers of people from the rest of science.

As to the suggestion that scientists should “offer some constructive thoughts of their own”: beware of the ignorance, nay illiteracy, of many scientists on matters of social and political concern.

Another theme of my blog is how few scientists apply the scientific method to their entire lives, including their political lives. This comes, I think, from arrogance, but also from the myopia that graduate study induces: other disciplines are seen as less important and less worthy of serious thought (time is an academic scientist’s most precious resource). Other disciplines are also assumed to be populated with less intelligent people. This is a major reason why so few Ph.D.s make good managers.

Elitism and lack of respect for the evolutionary process of societal development that comes out of the dispersion of knowledge and experience in the population leads directly to leftism and an affinity for top-down control. One can readily observe this in they way that most advisors run their research groups.

Another reason for academic leftism in the sciences also stems from this fact that most scientists do not apply the scientific method or give much serious thought to matters outside their own disciplines – thought they would be loath to admit it, that habit leads to a reliance on authority in non-technical matters. Since Academia is a leftist milieu, many scientists absorb this by osmosis. Add to this an undergraduate career that was probably tainted by leftist professors, and was the last time that the scientist gave any serious attention to social matters, and you get the leftward skew in most departments.

The final term in my model of scientific leftism is the funding system. I’ll let Lowell Ponte, someone much more knowledgeable than I, explain that one. His experience matches my observations, as well:

Science, you need to understand, is in America today a mostly-socialist institution – and one of the most “politicized” realms in our society. Most science is now done with government grants or at government institutions such as state universities.

The overriding agenda of nearly all science is to make government bigger and its spending on science more lavish. Any President who aims to cut taxes and reduce the size of government is, therefore, by definition the enemy of our scientific establishment.
To understand science and scientists in America today, you need to think of them as existing in the now-extinct Soviet Union. This was first brought home to me many years ago, when I was a climate specialist about to deliver a paper at the First International Conference on Iceberg Utilization.

After listening for several minutes to an obviously-illogical discourse by another speaker, I turned to my seatmate and asked how many of our colleagues would correct the last point the speaker made. “Nobody will correct him,” the scientist replied grimly, “because that’s the man who controls who gets all the National Science Foundation grants in this field.”              


There you have it – most of the major terms terms in my mental model for leftism in the scientific academy.                         


*Hint – it has nothing to do with the Earth’s distance from the sun.

13 thoughts on “The Left Tail of the Distribution”

  1. Many scientists really do think that they are not only smarter, they are better human beings than you.

    One need only see any TIAA-CREF advertisement to be convinced of the truth of this statement. Retirement investment “for the greater good.” They have identified the liberal amour-propre of their target demographic and are on it like a wet cat.

  2. I am the child of two Academics. Two libertarian academics who were registed Republicans in a Berkley-esque University. They were pariahs. I was so disgusted by the hypocricy of Academia that I rejected that path myself.

    There is a strong propensity to assign to themselves to the new the status of nomenklatura. Perhaps that’s one of the attractions to Socialism and Communist Russia we observed before the fall of Communism.

    Based on my parents’ and my expericence, I couldn’t possibly agree with your post more.

  3. Is it just me, or is moveable type extremely buggy today? After a save it double-prints lines, eliminates paragraph spacing, and reformats bolding ot italics.

  4. Did you mean the right tail? As in +3 sigma?

    Bang-on accurate, and love the subtleties on the seasons…

    Glenn Cordua

  5. John,

    There is a problem with the software. It might be a bug, or a conflict with one of the plugins I’ve installed. I’m trying to figure it out.

  6. Leave it to a conservative notion to tell others what they should BE. In Schools of Business, most faculty are conservative. In PE, also; in the arts and humanities, liberals…now doesn’t that suggest some inner drives? Science people are egotistical? Have you chatted with the people in so many other areas? They too are this way. As for living a life of rationality because they are scientists and therefore ought not be leaning leftward” there are emtion s and there is the reason..and they are separate, often. How many science people do you know that cheat on wives, have terrible marriages etc ? What that tells us is simply that scientists are HUMANS.
    As for Libertarians, they are in one of two places: ezither they vote for some 3rd paqrty person and toss away a vote or they end up voting as most do for whatever the GOP servbes up.

  7. John,

    I really enjoyed this and thanks for teaching me something about how the fields work – of course, it is different in many ways but not too dissimilar from the humanities.

    I appreciate your quote; I suspect that scientists were more often nerds while humanities were more likely early (but always cynical) versions of Goths. Science people usually get through faster (government funding makes one difference – humanities people tend to teach all the lower level language & comp courses – and the relative “hardness” of your discipline means you aren’t as likely to wander around as we). I think you’re saying, they still don’t get through fast enough. And then you all have a lot more post-docs, which is another way of not getting out in the world.

    Your field, however, has retained enough authority that as humanities people lost it, they tried to clothe themselves with science’s authority. (A local presentation was done by two women in lab coats – to emphasize the “scientific” nature of their humanities lecture. And then there’s the whole Sokal thing.)

    The whole area of funding, to an outsider like me, is hard to maneuver. While tobacco companies probably don’t develop the most trustworthy evidence about tobacco use, institutes whose main reason for being is to find problems with smoking should meet a pretty high standard of objectivity when dealing, say, with second hand smoke.

  8. This article was very interesting; I don’t know if it was right, but it was interesting.

    In the interests of seeing how useful the hypotheses outlined above are, can y’all come up with any useful social explanations of how the whole dark matter/dark energy situation came about?

  9. The color of the blood of a child from Chile is the same as the color of the blood of an american child?

  10. I guess this is nonsequitor day in the comments section here

    That’s the usual side effect of the Left’s participation.

  11. I agree with the parent post in almost every regard and I will go even further.

    I think the pattern is: The more isolated success in a field is from testing against the natural world, the more likely it is that members of the field will be Leftist. Stated from another perspective: the more success in a field depends on the mere opinions of other humans, the more likely the members of the field will be Leftist.

    Success in the Humanities results solely from getting the approval of peers and superiors. Natural factors play almost no role whatsoever. As a result, the Humanities are dominated by Leftist. In other fields such as business, science or engineering, you find more diversity because success comes less from the approval of peers and superiors and more from measurements of non-human factors. As a result, more political diversity exist in the more nature dominated fields.

    I would point out that even within any given field of science, theoretical scientists are more likely to be Leftist than experimental scientist. When you look at rosters of Leftist science activist organizations like The Union of Concerned Scientist you see a lot of theorist and not a lot of people who have actually run experiments. Theorist attain success by churning out theories that interest other scientist. Years may pass before their theories face testing. Experimentalist by contrast only get rewarded by producing concrete results. Theorist live in an environment much more like that of the humanities whereas experimentalist live in an environment more like engineers.

    (A similar dichotomy exist in business: People in marketing are more likely to be Leftist than people in general management or logistics.)

    I think we project the limited environment of our own special little subculture onto our models of the greater world. Modern subcultures arise from economic speciality.

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