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AU 2030: Elizabeth Suhay

By Gregg Sangillo

SPA professor Elizabeth Suhay started at AU in 2014.

SPA professor Elizabeth Suhay started at AU in 2014.

*This is part of an ongoing series focusing on the AU 2030 project. American University has invested significant resources in key subject areas that cut across schools and departments. SPA professor Elizabeth Suhay's research falls under the category of decision science for policy. Through her work, she seeks to understand why people hold certain political beliefs.

The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y. wisely said that you're entitled to your own opinions, but you're not entitled to your own facts. But when science and politics collide, partisan warriors often cherry pick facts that feed into their own ideological biases. Their resulting arguments can look more like Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" than truth.

Science and the Battle for Truth

American University School of Public Affairs Assistant Professor Elizabeth Suhay has researched the politicization of science. Activist Democrats and Republicans frequently view scientific evidence through the lens of party politics, she says. "When science or factual knowledge becomes wrapped up with a policy area, like in the case of climate change, you get people who are rejecting or accepting scientific arguments based on what their political groups, quasi political groups, or close peers in their communities believe," Suhay says.

Scientific reports with political implications are now met with a frenzy of supporting arguments and counter-arguments. With so much technology at our fingertips via the Internet, information—regardless of its accuracy or scientific merit—is readily available for any citizen willing to wage a fight.

Recent scholarship shows that the left and the right in the U.S. are growing further apart, and partisanship is becoming more pronounced. "With that distance and intensity comes this feeling that the stakes are much greater," she says. "People are much more motivated to get science on their side, because science is a way of backing up their policy beliefs. And now, more than ever, they feel that it's very important to get their policies implemented and have the other side's policies shut down."

Conservatives are frequently criticized for denying sound science on climate change, but Suhay says that the manipulation and politicization of science is a bipartisan problem. Even amongst like-minded ideological cohorts, there are differences in how people interpret information. Since social conservatives are often motivated by religious convictions, they may express skepticism towards stem cell science or evolution. Economic conservatives are probably less resistant to this same science, she says.

Decision-Making and Public Opinion

Suhay has argued against "rational choice" theory, in which individuals make decisions that maximize benefits and minimize costs. You still hear politicians talk about people "voting with their pocketbooks." Yet a growing body of research shows that political decisions are often based on emotions, and not on any (often arbitrary) notion of rationality.

"What a lot of people are finding these days is that political views are driven much more by social identity," Suhay says. This can be manifested through one's feelings about race and religion, and it's also contributing to the polarization of the electorate. "If you have an individual who's Republican, that person is going to be much more accepting of a policy that comes from a Republican. And you can experimentally show this. If you have the same policy, but you say a Democratic legislator is proposing it, the typical Republican citizen will reject it."

Failing to Persuade

Suhay has also found that the obsession with "getting science on your side" can be unnecessary. She recently co-authored a paper titled, "Science, Sexuality, and Civil Rights: Does Research on the Causes of Homosexuality Have a Political Impact?"

Suhay and her colleague discovered that liberals were more persuaded than conservatives by claims that homosexuality is innate. Conservatives were more persuaded by the argument that homosexuality is the result of choice or social environment. However, after participants were presented with biological and non-biological influences on homosexuality, the researchers found no evidence that people altered their attitudes towards homosexuals or their support for gay rights.

"If you get some scientific studies out there that show, 'Oh, for some people, there's a choice component, or for some people there's some impact from social environment,' liberal activists might be concerned that this would cause a backlash against gay rights. And what we're saying is, 'No. So, let's all calm down about politicizing this.'"

Distinguishing Herself

Suhay was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After growing up in the suburban towns of Plymouth and Birmingham, she returned to Ann Arbor for college at University of Michigan. She graduated with high honors before spending five years working in the book publishing industry.

Though technically a detour from her academic pursuits, she learned a few things from her publishing experience. With a plethora of titles published every year by her employer, University of Michigan Press, she realized the importance of distinguishing yourself and the value of being interdisciplinary. "Many people were working on similar themes, and not talking to one another across disciplines," she says.

She earned her Ph.D. from University of Michigan and most recently taught at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

Suhay came to American University in 2014, and she's enthusiastic about AU's emphasis on research. She's also incredibly impressed with her students. "It's so fun getting to interact with graduate students who have these real jobs in D.C.," she says. "I get to learn some from them, and hopefully they learn some from me." And she's noted how her undergraduate students are quite knowledgeable about politics: "They are also an unusually participatory bunch. As a result, the quality of conversation in my classrooms has been very high. This makes teaching a lot of fun, and perhaps easier than it should be."

Though highly-motivated and energetic, she tries to relieve stress through yoga or watching a comedy movie with her husband. Suhay is also enjoying life in the nation's capital. Upon moving here, she set a goal of meeting former Obama campaign adviser Stephanie Cutter and Politico journalist Mike Allen within a few years. To her surprise, she met both of them within months of her arrival.