The Sciences

The Left-Right Expertise Gap: Considering the Data

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJun 14, 2011 8:08 PM


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This is the first of several posts elaborating on my recent American Prospect magazine article entitled "The Reality Gap: Now more than Ever, Republicans and Democrats are separated by expertise--and by facts."

Perhaps the first thing you have to understand, in determining how America became so "truthy"--i.e., unable to agree on what reality even is on contested issues--is the changing political alignment of academics, scientists, and postgraduates in general over the last several decades. Here are the data, and they are really striking (although how to interpret them is a different matter). As reported in my Prospect piece:

In one of the most comprehensive surveys of American professors, sociologists Neil Gross of the University of British Columbia and Solon Simmons of George Mason found that 51 percent described themselves as Democrats, and 35.3 percent described themselves as independents--with the bulk of those independents distinctly Democrat-leaning, rather than straddling the center. Just 13.7 percent were Republicans. Academia has long been a liberal bastion, but it hasn’t always been this lopsided. According to Gross, professors have been drifting to the left since the late 1960s, gradually carrying us into today’s very unbalanced expertise environment. Gross and Simmons’ findings parallel the results of surveys on two overlapping groups: scientists and those with graduate degrees (whether or not they stay in academe)... A 2009 survey of American Association for the Advancement of Science members found they were overwhelmingly more Democratic, and more likely to describe themselves as liberal, than the general public. Fifty-five percent were Democrats, 32 percent were independents, and just 6 percent were Republicans. Then there are all the folks with letters after their names. Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress has shown that Americans with a post-graduate level of education have been trending more and more strongly Democratic in the past three presidential cycles. They supported Al Gore by a margin of 52 percent to 44 percent in 2000, John Kerry by 55 percent to 44 percent in 2004, and Barack Obama by 58 percent to 40 percent in 2008. The Democratic Party has thus become the chosen party of what you might call “empirical professionals” and Americans with advanced degrees. According to research Gross conducted with Ethan Fosse of Harvard University and Jeremy Freese of Northwestern University, nearly 15 percent of U.S. liberals now hold one, more than double the percentage that did in the 1970s. The percentage of moderates and conservatives with advanced degrees has also increased but lags far behind the saturation levels of expertise among liberals. Indeed, conservatives are about where liberals were back in the 1970s. As a result, the researchers write, “more so than ever before the highly educated comprise a key constituency for American liberalism and the Democratic Party, one that may have surpassed a crucial threshold level in size.”

Please note--I am not arguing that Democrats or liberals are "smarter," or that conservatives don't have any expertise. Rather, I'm pointing out that the expertise gap, overall, has grown quite vast--and that this has become closely tied up with party identity. This is not a good thing--it's a very divisive thing--but it is nevertheless a truth about America today.And if you want to know why we can't agree about the facts any longer, and have lost any sense of a shared reality, it's a crucial ingredient in the explanation. But it is only one ingredient, and I'll soon discuss others. We have to start on this foundation, though. For more elaboration, see my Prospect piece, or stand by for further posts.

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