The Left’s (Non-) War on Science: Anti-Nuclear and Anti-Hydroelectric are not “Anti-Science”

This week, Scientific American has an interesting, but I think flawed, article about the anti-science attitudes on the left. More specifically, Michael Shermer argues that:

Whereas conservatives obsess over the purity and sanctity of sex, the left’s sacred values seem fixated on the environment, leading to an almost religious fervor over the purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food.

Shermer’s starting point is the admittedly frightening statistic that 41% of Democrats (along with 58% of Republicans) are young Earth Creationists, and 19% of Democrats (compared to 51% of Republicans) doubt that the Earth is warming. That last difference is quite huge, and has been much discussed in the sociological literature (e.g. McCright and Dunlap 2011). Similarly, general trust in science is now substantially higher among liberals than conservatives (Gauchat 2012). So, there may be substantial anti-science sentiment on left, but there is not nearly as much as there is on the right.

That said, Shermer’s more interesting claim is not that the left is as strongly anti-science as the right, but rather that it’s anti-science in different ways. And here, I think his examples are just off or misleading or involve some sort of redefinition of what it means to be “anti-science.” Here’s one claim from the article, citing a recent book:

There is more, and recent, antiscience fare from far-left progressives, documented in the 2012 book Science Left Behind (PublicAffairs) by science journalists Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell, who note that “if it is true that conservatives have declared a war on science, then progressives have declared Armageddon.” On energy issues, for example, the authors contend that progressive liberals tend to be antinuclear because of the waste-disposal problem, anti–fossil fuels because of global warming, antihydroelectric because dams disrupt river ecosystems, and anti–wind power because of avian fatalities. The underlying current is “everything natural is good” and “everything unnatural is bad.”

Although I agree that this characterization of the left’s attitude towards nature has something going for it (especially as contrasted with the right), it’s not really an attitude about science. It’s about the moral weight of different kinds of harms. Specifically, it’s not “anti-science” to oppose an increased use of nuclear energy because of concerns about storing nuclear waste, nor to oppose hydroelectric power because it disrupts ecosystems. At least, it’s not anti-science the same way that denying global warming is anti-science: nuclear waste actually is a significant problem, and dams do actually disrupt ecosystems. Whether or not these costs are worth the payoffs (i.e. reduced fossil fuel usage) is a very different question than whether or not these costs exist.

It makes sense to read questions like “How old is the Earth?” or “Has the average temperature of the Earth increased in the past century?” as connected to an underlying attitude about science because these are issues which scientists have made strong positive claims about: the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, the Earth warmed about .6 degrees Celsius in the 20th century. To deny these claims is to deny science. But to claim that we undervalue the disruption of ecosystems by dams, for example, is not an “anti-science” claim.*

I’m not sure exactly what’s going on with Shermer’s article, except perhaps the contrary urge (we all know the Right is so much worse on science, but look, really the Left is just as bad!), but it seems to me like a classic example of false equivalence, powered by the conflation of skepticism towards technology on the grounds that it may have unforeseen consequences and the rejection of science. In sum, I remain a skeptic about the existence of the “Liberals’ War on Science.”

* Which is not to say that there aren’t tons of claims made by opponents of nuclear power or dams that run contrary to nuclear science, ecology, and so on. I’m sure there are. But that doesn’t amount to a campaign to delegitimize science as an institution: what we would properly call a “War on Science.” But maybe that’s the definitional issue that’s precisely troubling me, and that is entirely implicit in the article: what does it mean to be anti-science in the first place?

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5 Comments

  1. Kelan Steel Lowney

     /  January 22, 2013

    “At least, it’s not anti-science the same way that denying global warming is anti-science…”

    Yes, I agree completely. One of my closest friends is a world-class chemist/materials scientist. He is in no way “anti-science.” Yet, he has come to the conclusion that the known risks attendant with nuclear power (waste disposal, meltdowns) are not worth the known benefits. If anything, this is a conclusion based on science!

  2. justaguy

     /  January 23, 2013

    This is a very well written post. I’ve encountered a similar things when talking to friends who are enthusiastic about the use of GMOs. I’m skeptical of the FDA’s regulatory process for GMOs. It basically consists of companies establishing that a GMO is substantially the same as a non-genetically modified version, which is fairly easy for them to do. I have no reason to believe that GMOs are harmful, maybe they’re no big deal at all. I just don’t think there’s any technological process which can’t go wrong in unexpected ways, and think the way they’ve been introduced into widespread use has been reckless.

    But that difference in opinion on regulatory processes somehow gets be accused of being anti-science. I’m sure there are alarmists who are opposed to GMOs, and there’s plenty of bad information out there. I think there’s a tendency of some people to fetishize technology as a means for creating a better world, and if you don’t agree with that vision you’re anti-science.

  3. drs

     /  January 27, 2013

    Agreed. There is some anti-science stuff on the left, but it’s the moonbat fringe (crystals, polywater) that doesn’t get elected to Congress, unlike Creationists and warming deniers. The cases where I think common liberal positions might be wrong are cases where the science is more ambiguous. I suspect my fellow more liberals are more opposed to nuclear power and guns than the science justifies, and that most of them don’t even know the arguments against minimum wage laws (I’m granting that economics is a science, if a murkier one), but it’s not like they’re Clearly Wrong on the first two, and as it happens there’s empirical doubt about the validity of the arguments on the third.

    For both GMOs and nuclear power, there’s also deep distrust of scientific safety claims being made by corporations. I think there’s some unscientific “GMOs=bad” thinking but there’s also that Monsanto does not inspire trust; just because GMOs aren’t necessarily bad doesn’t mean the actual ones brought to market are good right now.

    I think more educated liberals tend to be more supportive of both nuclear power and global warming, while more educated conservatives are even more opposed to global warming; the education just serves to make them more confident in dismissing all those scientists.

    The biggest anti-science thing on the left is probably anti-vaccine stuff. But while sadly common among some circles it’s till not Democratic dogma and far from it, and i’m not sure it’s just the left, either.

  4. drs

     /  January 27, 2013

    Also:
    Shermer: “The left’s war on science begins with the stats cited above: 41 percent of Democrats are young Earth creationists, and 19 percent doubt that Earth is getting warmer. These numbers do not exactly bolster the common belief that liberals are the people of the science book”

    Me: Democrats are not synonymous with liberals or the left (which aren’t entirely synonymous either.) If you’re liberal in the US you’re probably a Democrat, but if you’re a Democrat you have a decent chance of calling yourself a conservative.

    “belief in the mind as a tabula rasa shaped almost entirely by culture has been mostly the mantra of liberal intellectuals”

    Now that’s an interesting point, and echoes Peter Singer’s _A Darwinian Left_. OTOH, the degree to which and ways in which the human brain is not a tabula rasa are not exactly matters of settled science.

    As for nuclear power, Fukushima left me thinking that our engineers probably can build very safe reactors, but I’m less confident that political and business cultures will reliably allow them to do so, or not cut corners along the way. And that’s in the West, never mind China. OTOH, more and more coal plants are also bad. Sophie’s choice…

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