Robert D. Mather, Ph.D.

TheConservativeSocialPsychologist.com Blog
President Trump's Record on Science


In October of 2020, I did an interview with Christoph Drosser for a German radio show about President Trump’s record on science. It was part of a very interesting episode with all other perspectives being from liberal scientists. Most of what I said in the interview didn’t make it into the program due to time constraints of a radio show. I enjoyed the full episode and if you get a chance, listen to it here by following this link. The episode is in German (a German voice over for my part), but there is an article that accompanies it with a summary. Here is the full transcript of my interview.

 

CD: Do you feel like an exotic animal in the intellectual landscape of American universities?

RM: That’s funny! Yes, I do often feel like an exotic animal as a conservative in academia. When I was asked by an editor at Psychology Today to write a blog for them, I needed a title that I knew would be unique. At the time Jonathan Haidt was conducting empirical studies in search of conservatives in social psychology and finding none. So I outed myself and became “The Conservative Social Psychologist.” It was a terrifying experience in the beginning, and now I get e-mails from people all across the world either telling me that I’m great or that I’m terrible. Fortunately, being a scientist means that I am well-prepared to defend my ideas. If you’ve been to a scientific conference and see how we attack each other’s ideas, you will know what I mean. But yes, I do feel like a curiosity at times and I miss just doing science and teaching classes without politics being involved.

 

CD: Faculty in higher education in the US is predominantly liberal, especially in the humanities and social sciences, you are quoting a lot of studies that prove this. What do you think are the main reasons?

RM: I don’t think it is deliberate. I have been on and chaired many faculty hiring committees and politics are never evaluated. I know that there are studies that show faculty would discriminate against conservatives and many probably would. But I suspect it’s more of the principle of similarity. Once the academy tipped to be overwhelmingly liberal, the people drawn to it and hiring within it just had more in common with each other. I think that is the main driving force. My understanding is that 80 years ago, academia was predominantly conservative.

 

CD: Have you personally ever had bad experiences, being called out or bullied by colleagues or students for your conservative point of view?

RM: I haven’t had any experiences of being bullied or harassed. There can be occasionally awkward moments because everyone assumes I am a liberal so they speak more freely about politics around me, but nothing that has targeted me. In fact, I love working in a university. In general, faculty are actually deeply tolerant, empathetic people. People of many types are accepted at universities. Politics have become a more touchy subject lately, but what doesn’t make the news is every time a liberal professor just shrugs their shoulders when they find out a student is a conservative and says “OK.” I don’t want to diminish the negative experiences of conservative students on many campuses right now, but overall universities are wonderful places. I also receive many correspondences from students across the nation who tell me about specific examples of pro-liberal/anti-conservative classroom rhetoric from professors that has nothing to do with the curriculum. 

 

CD: In which way could a politically more balanced composition of faculty lead to “better science?"

RM: Mostly by providing different perspectives. I have always had colleagues who have me look over their work as a pre-review before submission for peer review. I now have several liberal colleagues who regularly run their work by me for my input on their hypotheses and framing of questions, specifically because I am a conservative. Working in the social sciences, it is easy to come up with a question to measure an attitude that makes sense to a liberal that doesn’t fit with a conservative’s way of thinking, or vice versa. It may be that it doesn’t get construed in the way the researcher thinks it will. It’s a new dimension to use to make sure we have reduced variance in the measure. My perspective isn’t the definitive one, but we can talk about it and it can inform their work.

 

Another way it can lead to better science is that with more balance, politics will infiltrate the classroom less where it isn’t relevant. With fewer political biases presented in class, the reputation of our universities will recover and be less politically polarizing. The overall reputation of our universities has consequences for science, since the experiences of the policy makers shape their stereotypes of scientists, affecting their willingness to listen.

 

CD: You teased me with the sentence "I am highly pleased with the President's work in most areas of his administration. I am not as pleased with the administration's support of science” – can you elaborate on that?

RM: The President’s job requires balancing many things. In no particular order, maintaining freedoms, ensuring safety for citizens, growing the economy, and fighting for American interests at all times. I will assume that as a scientist, my views on what the President has accomplished outside of the realm of science are irrelevant to this discussion, but I am pleased with most of his policies (a few include eliminating multiple regulations to add a new Federal regulation, appointment of Federal judges and Supreme Court Justices, and leveling the playing field for free trade with other countries).

 

With regard to science, I think it is short sighted to allow for harvesting natural resources from protected federal land, I oppose selling off protected federal land, and I oppose the reduction of some of the regulations on clean air and water. Federally protected wetlands should remain federally protected as well.  

 

CD: The Trump administration replaced a lot of leaders of scientific government institutions with scientists or administrators from industry and lobbying groups that were very critical of these institutions. Do you agree with this policy?

RM: I certainly agree with changing up perspectives. The focus of the administration appears to be on incentivizing science and technology. Artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, 5G and rural internet, medicine—these are all worthy investments. Prioritizing science is tricky, because scientists often find cross-disciplinary research to be crucial. Beyond that, it is short sighted to focus on applied research and ignore basic research (or vice versa). In the early 2000’s, I was highly critical of President Bush for the policy of only funding applied research. As I said then, we will need basic research to push the applied research years from now. Prioritizing resources is one thing, but abandoning support for entire fields of research is another. Historically, Republicans do not do this well. I believe that one reason for this is that there are so few Republican scientists that the GOP doesn’t have voices they will listen to. That is unfortunate, because I know plenty of liberal scientists who speak the truth about science and are not politically motivated. The GOP would be wise to listen to them. But much of it is perception.

 

CD: Regarding the President’s attitude towards science, nowhere has it arguably been more consequential than in the coronavirus pandemic. Would you agree that the president ignored scientific advice and carries a big share of the responsibility for the infections getting out of hand?

RM: I do not agree with that at all. Right now, the Republicans have been highly critical of Trump for shutting down the economy and listening to Dr. Fauci. The Democrats have been highly critical of Trump for allowing things to carefully open back up with precautions. Which is it, did he listen to the scientists too much or not enough? From March through May, President Trump stood with a panel of scientists right in front of the cameras and spoke directly to the nation every single day. For his base, the briefings were disappointing oftentimes because he yielded the floor to the scientists and he allowed them to correct him when he misspoke. He asked the scientists if he was right at times and let them take questions when he didn’t know the answer. He didn’t hide anything from the citizens. It was the most transparent I have ever seen politics and science. We all got to watch the messy process of science play out as they referred to new studies, which refuted other studies, etc. The evidence was coming in and we saw it in real time. The criticism from Republicans is that you can’t trust science, or the scientists, because they are all over the place. That’s simply not true. There wasn’t a body of scientific evidence for SARS-CoV2 from which to draw. We watched its creation in real time. That is phenomenal, and if you throw politics aside, science did a good job. We have a large, free nation and our rates of infection and death are not at the top of the leaderboard for nations. Love him or hate him, Dr. Fauci is a celebrity. Everyone knows who he is. That happened because President Trump let it happen, even encouraged it. Fauci had the leeway to say things, take them back, and go on every show in America to get direct questions. Four states make up a large number of the 200,000 tragic deaths in the U.S. Roughly 25,000 from New York, 15,000 from California, 15,000 from Florida, and 15,000 from Texas. That is roughly 1/3 of the deaths in the U. S. coming from three heavily populated states.

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