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How is science like the military? They are politically extreme yet vital to the nation

I was thinking recently about two subcultures in the United States, public or quasi-public institutions that are central to our country’s power, and which politically and socially are distant both from each other and from much of the mainstream of American society.

The two institutions I’m thinking of are science and the military, both of which America excels at. We spend the most on science and do the most science in the world, we’ve developed transistors and flying cars and Stan and all sorts of other technologies that derive from the advanced science that we teach and research in the world’s best universities. As for the military, we spend more than the next umpteen countries around, and our army, navy, and air force are dominant everywhere but on the streets of Mogadishu. Neither institution is perfect—you don’t need me to give you examples of corruption, waste, and failure in science or in the armed forces—and it’s not my goal here to defend or boost either institution. I think we can all recognize that the U.S. is pre-eminent in both fields.

The other striking thing about science and the military in the United States is their distinct cultures.

When I say “distinct,” I don’t mean “completely separate.” Young people enter the army, navy, and air force for a few years and then return to civilian life. From a recent survey, we estimate that nearly half of Americans would say they know someone in active duty. And lots of Americans have had contact with scientists, whether from taking a science class in college or from informal social networks—maybe you coach Little League and your assistant coach happens to be a scientist, for example.

Both science and the military are part of American life, yet they are distinct communities with their own sets of values. And politically distinct too. Scientists tend to be liberal Democrats; armed service members tend to be conservative Republicans. These are not just correlations; they feel central to the identity of these groups. For a paradigmatic scientist, truth and tolerance and open inquiry are liberal virtues; while for a paradigmatic soldier, duty and honor and patriotism are conservative virtues. I’m sure these points could be made more carefully and with the support of survey data—and there are differences of opinion within each group, too—but I think the general point is right, that the scientific and military communities are political in a way that wasn’t so much the case, decades ago.

Politics and science, and politics and the military, have never been separate—consider, for example, the postwar unmasking of Russian spies in the scientific establishment, the conflict between the generals and the soldiers in Vietnam, and Ronald Reagan’s appointment of an anti-environmentalist to head the EPA, and the revolt against Bill Clinton’s gays-in-the-military plan—but, again, I think we’re now in a new era of heightened polarization.

It’s not about economics—much of science is government-supported, and of course the military is entirely so and has indeed been described as one of the last bastion of socialism in the world. Each group thinks of this as money well spent. And the public by and large agrees.

From a Pew survey in 2015:

– 79% of adults say that science has made life easier for most people and a majority is positive about science’s impact on the quality of health care, food and the environment.

– 54% of adults consider U.S. scientific achievements to be either the best in the world (15%) or above average (39%) compared with other industrial countries.

– 92% of AAAS scientists say scientific achievements in the U.S. are the best in the world (45%) or above average (47%).

– About seven-in-ten adults say that government investments in engineering and technology (72%) and in basic scientific research (71%) usually pay off in the long run. Some 61% say that government investment is essential for scientific progress, while 34% say private investment is enough to ensure scientific progress is made.

I kinda wonder who are the 8% who think that U.S. scientific achievements are not above average in the world . . . but I guess you can get 8% of the people to say just about anything!

What about the military? According to Gallup in 2015:

– One in three Americans say U.S. is spending “too little”

– Another third of Americans think U.S. is spending “too much”

– The U.S. has long held the distinction of having the largest military budget of any nation, and the 2014 budget nearly matched the spending of the 10 next-largest national military budgets. Twenty-nine percent of Americans feel the U.S. budget’s size is “about right.”

The Gallup report notes that there have been times in recent years when as many as 40-50% of respondents have said that we spend too much on the military—but, even then, that’s 50-60% who think we spend too little or about the right amount.

So, overall, it seems that voters feel they’re getting value for the money on our science and military spending, concerns about string theory and $600 toilet seats aside.

I don’t have any particular conclusion here. I just think this is an important topic in understanding current American politics. Other politicized institutions include journalism, education, and health care. It’s natural to consider such institutions and their subcultures one at a time, but I think much can potentially be gained by considering them together as well.

Full disclosure: My research is partially supported by government science funding, including from the Office of Naval Research and Darpa, and I’ve worked with colleagues on a survey of military personnel. I’m not currently working on any military projects but, given that they’re funding me, I have to assume that the work we are doing could well have applications in those areas.


  1. ITguy says:

    “I was thinking recently”
    Given the post scheduling , that means you were thinking a year ago?

  2. Daniel Weissman says:

    How strong is the conservative military lean once you adjust for demographics, especially gender?

    • Kyle C says:

      Why would you adjust for that, though? The people who join the military are the people who join; that’s how it is. (FWIW my take, having worked as a civilian alongside uniformed personnel, is that there are a lot more women in uniform than you might think, and a lot of them supported Trump.)

  3. jrc says:

    “Other politicized institutions include journalism, education, and health care. It’s natural to consider such institutions and their subcultures one at a time, but I think much can potentially be gained by considering them together as well.”

    Does that mean we can replace the Seminar Speaker Tournament with a Best Episode of The Wire Tournament this year? Speaking of – it’s too bad they never got into the health clinics on that show. That would’ve been more interesting than that fake journalist storyline. I mean, you know those clinics are juking the stats too.

  4. Len says:

    “I don’t have any particular conclusion here. I just think this is an important topic in understanding current American politics. “

    yeah, we all have unfocused thoughts/themes running through our minds.
    But with a year’s retrospection, can you now state your conclusion/point in one sentence?
    And maybe one more sentence on why it’s important?

    (tough audience out here in the cold & snow)

    • Andrew says:


      No, I have no one-sentence conclusion. As a scientist, I think it’s good to discuss interesting and important issues, whether or not I have a clean point to make. Indeed, I think this is an important way of learning, to focus on things that we don’t fully understand. Regarding the political leanings of people in science and the military, one thing that I think is important are the trends over time, the increasing polarization, if that is indeed occurring.

  5. dk says:

    Pychologist Jason Weeden wrote two blogposts on the relationship between occupation/industry with partisanship as opposed to other demographic variables using the 2016 GSS data. I hope he goes into more detail as to how he classified the GSS’s 250+ industry codes and 500+ occupation codes.

    “Summary: I look at how detailed information on industries and occupations (alongside standard demographics such as race, income, education, gender, etc.) relates to political party identifications. I find that Democratic support is higher for lawyers, social workers, those in art/media/writing industries, and members of labor unions. Republican support is higher for CEOs, financiers, engineers, and police/military. Many other categories that I looked at weren’t big deals—for example, scientists, physicians, tech workers, and accountants don’t lean heavily in either direction, and neither do people in fossil fuel, mining, manufacturing, real estate, healthcare, or various other industry categories.”

    • anon says:

      Kim Weeden (no relation to Jason Weeden, AFAIK) and David Grusky published a similar analysis in a 2005 American Journal of Sociology article. They include details on the occupational classification scheme they used.

  6. Sean Mackinnon says:

    I’ve thought about this a few times, probably because one of my close friends is military (I’m in Canada, but not that different). On one hand, the two groups seem like polar opposites in terms of liberal/conservative divide, and anecdotally he’s more conservative and I’m more liberal. But sometimes it also seems like there are striking parallels when I consider my academic world, and his military world.

    Both cultures are very insular, and get … well, WEIRD for lack of a better term. Both cultures are very idiosyncratic and kind of get disconnected from the experiences of anyone outside of the group. There’s also a certain amount of groupthink, where the training tries to get everyone to think in a certain kind of way early on. When I heard my friend talk about boot camp, the mental conditioning sounded awful … but at the same time, when I reflect on graduate school, it was a sort of “mental boot camp” that was similarly designed to try and instill scientific values in me.

    I guess I’m similarly unfocused in my conclusion, but I’ve thought about the parallels — both groups seem to promote, or even enhance polarization. In theory, the academy should give all ideas equal opportunity, but I’ve never found that to be the case. Ideas that go counter to established doctrine and “big name” theories are usually suppressed, unless great effort is applied. So are politically conservative theories on the whole, if I’m honest (though that hasn’t tended to bother me much, as left-leaning person).

  7. BenK says:

    As a scientist in the military, it seems I should be a particularly odd duck… but maybe a collection of us, given the right questions, could reveal something else unusual about those two subcultures? If this seems worth following up on, a discussion could specify the kinds of inquiries and the parameters of interest.

  8. Martha (Smith) says:

    Andrew said,

    “The other striking thing about science and the military in the United States is their distinct cultures.

    When I say “distinct,” I don’t mean “completely separate.””

    Perhaps “distinctive” would be more appropriate than “distinct”? (The web gives me the definition “characteristic of one person or thing, and so serving to distinguish it from others” for “distinctive”.)

  9. Jeremy Fox says:

    The political identification of US scientists has shifted over time, hasn’t it? Back in the 1950s and 60s, weren’t scientists more likely to identify as Republican than Democrat?

    • Kyle C says:

      Comparing political affiliation pre- and post-1980 is problematic, bordering on useless. Before Reagan, the two parties were not neatly sorted by ideology (i.e. there were liberal Republicans and Bourbon Democrats). Now they line up so that the most conservative Democrats in Congress (or a statehouse) are almost always more liberal than the most liberal Republicans.

  10. Terry says:

    “I don’t have any particular conclusion here. I just think this is an important topic in understanding current American politics.”

    Sometimes thinking very simply can yield some useful insights.

    1. People are often different. People often have different abilities, inclinations, attitudes, affinities, etc.

    2. These differences often make some people better suited to some tasks and organizations than others.

    3. These differences are often useful, and they are often very, very useful. People who are good at X, and devote their lives to X, and build organizations that specialize in X can be very productive. The military and academia are good examples. As you note, there are many, many such specialized professions. This is a basic economic insight, often called specialization of labor, and has been recognized since at least Adam Smith’s pin factory discussion.

    4. Diversity of abilities and specialization of labor often lead to different types of people “clumping” together.

    5. Since people’s attributes are often correlated with each other, clumping can lead to distinct skews in political attitudes. But, “politicization” may be the wrong term for this because it suggests the political skew is imposed on the clump. Instead, a political skew may arise organically from specialization of labor.

    6. Since clumping is often beneficial, it is not necessarily an evil phenomenon. But, if you are unaware of the benefits of clumping, you may mistakenly believe all clumping is evil because it violates principles of equity.

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