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A polemical new book, Science Left Behind, argues persuasively that there is less than meets the eye in self-righteous claims by Democrats that they represent the “pro-science party.” Jon Entine, Director of the Genetic Literacy Project, reports:
The debate over which political party, Democrat or Republican, is more faithful to science has been a hot button topic since the 1990s. It’s not a trivial subject. The policy fate of many critical issues, including climate change, nuclear technology, genetically modified crops and foods, chemical regulation, public acceptance of vaccines, obesity, stem cell research, synthetic biology, genetic screening and nanotechnology, among many others could hang in the partisan balance.
A slew of books and articles from left-leaning science writers—which means most of the science journalism establishment—has elevated the popular narrative that Democrats adhere faithfully to the inspiration of Newton, Galileo, Bacon and Darwin while Republicans look more to ethereal authorities for their application of the scientific method.
But now, Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell, co-authors of Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left, make a nuanced and convincing counter argument: Ludditism is not a partisan issue. In fact, on many of the most critical issues of our time, the “progressive” perspective is often rooted in out-dated, anti-empirical, junk science paradigms that threaten innovation—and are beginning to unnerve the most scientifically minded thinkers on the left.
For decades, even into the 1990s, anti-science beliefs were evenly distributed between the two parties. It was all about religion and evolution was the defining issue. Anti-evolution conservatives—the largest bloc being blacks, who are overwhelmingly Democrats—have traditionally viewed science through the prism of the Bible, which, if you believe the Holy Book represents divine truth, is not kind to empirical evidence.
However, with the political emergence of white, conservative overwhelmingly Republican evangelicals in the 1980s and ‘90s, the anti-science label took on a more partisan hue. We saw those extremist views on display during the elections, with the embarrassing statements about the ‘science of rape’ by Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock.
As Berezow and Campbell note, extremist personal views on most hot button social conservative issues are modulated by legal precedents and local and regional customs, which will not be challenged by fringe and easily parodied prospective Senators—whose candidacies were rejected by solid majorities in Republican leaning states.
The authors also deconstruct the other two issues often held up as “proof” of the Democrats superior affinity to science—climate change and embryonic stem cell policy. The conservative religious opposition to stem cell research, which actually is pervasive in the Democratic black community as well, is rooted entirely in religious belief. It does not necessarily indicate a rejection of the scientific method or empirical evidence as there is no scientific measure for when human life “begins”—that’s a metaphysical question. One can be rigorously science-minded and still oppose embryonic stem cell research just as one can support such research and yet be ignorant about the scientific method as it applies to other issues.
In fact, that’s what we’ve seen in recent years in the partisan divide over global warming. As Berezow and Campbell point out, the evidence for human-induced climate change is conclusive, yet many Republicans don’t accept that. Does scientific literacy depend on acknowledging that temperatures are gradually rising—or is there a higher standard for what constitutes a scientific perspective? Arguably, the far more important issue is: What can or should we do about climate change?
The Democratic default for most public policy challenges, climate change among them, is: throw money and regulations at the problem and naively expect for the best. We’ve tried that doing that in education and social welfare policies and how’s that working out for us?
This mindset was on display during the election when President Obama ballyhooed his science agenda, contrasting it with the penurious views of Governor Romney. The president’s science bonafides? He proposed to spend our way to science literacy. So, for example, he committed the government to doubling funding for science agencies, hiring more science and math teachers, expanding energy regulation, increasing Food and Drug Administration oversight and spending more on conservation efforts
Science Left Behind examines each of these policy recommendations and the science “crises” they are designed to address. Their findings, meticulously documented, are surprising. Many of these pressing problems are not so pressing after all, or not in the way that Democrats seeking funding for their favored causes—hiring more teachers for example—make it seem. But perhaps more eye opening, the issues identified by the president are among the least pressing science challenges that we face to today. And here’s where the left/right divide gets more interesting.
While Democrats like to demonize Republicans for questioning evolution, embryonic stem cell research and global warming, Berezow-Campbell point out that far more pressing issues are being ignored. For example, “How should we fund science in an age of austerity?” It’s not enough to say, “The sky is falling.” We need to ask: What empirically verifiable polices can measurably influence policy and at what cost? From what public policy projects should we divert resources from to address potential challenges?
That’s a scientific debate, as it involves complex models comparing risk scenarios, costs and benefits. “Unfortunately, federal funding for science is a zero-sum game,” they authors note. “One project that is awarded money means hat another (potentially better) project did not get funded.” This is where the debate over who is more science-minded gets far more provocative and from a public policy perspective, more critical.
Climate change is a great example. The 2012 World Meteorological Organization pegs the annual temperature increase at .1 degree per decade over the past hundred years and .3 over the past ten years (which may or may not be anomalous). Hysteria about Hurricane Sandy aside, climate change is an issue we need to address. But other than getting conservatives to publicly cry “uncle”, what are Democrats asking for?
Many Republicans are wary of signing on to the Democratic belief that every concern, science related or otherwise, can and should be addressed through unlimited federal spending—especially, as in the case of climate change, there is no agreement among scientists that anything meaningful can be done let alone an agreement on the best strategy. If Republicans, or sensible Democrats, reject cap and trade legislation as costly and ineffective or are wary of imposing carbon taxes on Americans while China, India and much of the developing will face no restrictions on carbon emissions, does that mark them as anti-science?
Berezow and Campbell contend that Democrats dissimulate about clearly more solvable and arguably more pressing science challenges, such as the need for a cost-effective policies on energy (Do we really want to ban shale gas extraction without any proof that it causes serious environmental problems, as bans would guarantee more dependence on foreign oil and dirtier coal?) and chemical regulation (Do we really want to ban the plastic additive bisphenol A (BPA) or the agricultural chemical atrazine based on precautionary fears, rather follow the guidance of the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization, which have stated that there is no evidence that they pose serious health threats to humans?).
Which brings us to one of the book’s central questions: What is the proper role of regulation when it comes to science? “Regulation (and its evil twin, litigation) is key to understanding progressive politics,” they argue. “… Progressives assume that corporations are bad and that most people are too stupid to take care of themselves, so the government must step in on their behalf. … If anyone disagrees on scientific or economic grounds, progressives are quick to label him or her a shill for Big Industry.”
If you read that and recoiled, you may be well past the point of reasonable discourse. The central thesis of Science Left Behind—that the left’s view of science has drifted decisively from empiricism into ideology—has now emerged as a genuine debate within the left community. This contentiousness became very public over the past month as “progressives” debated the merits of California Proposition 37, which would have mandated labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms.
For the political left, suspicion of biotechnology in general and more specifically the rejection of genetically modified crops as environmentally hazardous and GM foods as health hazards are now canonical. Almost every major activist environmental NGO supported Prop 37. But their contention that biotech crops and foods posted unusual environmental or health hazards is not based on science. In fact, fanning fears about biotech crops and foods has become a scandalous leftwing obsession. It’s an anti-science mindset, argues Keith Kloor, a frequent contributor to the Washington Post-owned, liberal online magazine Slate:
“[F]ears are stoked by prominent environmental groups, supposed food-safety watchdogs, and influential food columnists; that dodgy science is laundered by well-respected scholars and propaganda is treated credulously by legendary journalists; and that progressive media outlets, which often decry the scurrilous rhetoric that warps the climate debate, serve up a comparable agitprop when it comes to GMOs,” Kloors wrote. “In short, I’ve learned that the emotionally charged, politicized discourse on GMOs is mired in the kind of fever swamps that have polluted climate science beyond recognition.”
This soft conspiracy, promoted by mainstream Democrats, infects a broad array of science issues and highlights the religious-like iconic beliefs of the left (as Kloor has noted): Nature is sacred, big business is dangerous and corrupt, technology can cause more problems than it helps solve, the world is on the verge of an eco-apocalypse, and we need more precaution, regulation and legislation. I call it enviro-romanticism, a criticism documented in distressing detail in Science Left Behind.
How does that play out in the real world? According to Berezow and Campbell, mainstream Democrats—their views shaped by a crude anti-corporate environmentalism of the 1970s and enabled by reporters who fancy themselves as progressives—systematically exaggerate the dangers from chemicals, overstate challenges associated with nuclear power and hydraulic fracking, fire suspicions about “designer babies” and are otherwise suspicious of almost every new science-based innovation.
While this might sound harsh to Democratic true believers, their views are more in tune with what I would call “science independents”—those who base their views on data and evidence rather than partisan leanings. As George Monbiot, one of the United Kingdom’s most prominent environmental writers recently concluded when discussing the left’s contradictory and increasingly anti-environmental energy policy, “[T]he environmental movement to which I belong has done more harm to the planet’s living systems than climate change deniers have ever achieved.”
In sum: read Science Left Behind. It’s a clarion call for the empirically minded amongst us regardless of your ideological persuasion.
Jon Entine, founding director of the Genetic Literacy Project, is senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University, and at the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS).
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