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?