Who is the Most anti-Science of Them All?

A fascinating debate was recently aired by the Canadian public affairs program The Agenda With Steve Paikin featuring Michael Shermer, Chris Mooney and Mark Lynas.

The topic under discussion was whether the charge of being “anti-science” was just as valid for the Left as for the Right.

Shermer, a libertarian skeptic thinks yes- there is Liberal War on Science; Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, disagrees. In a strongly entitled piece for Mother Jones There is no such Thing as a Liberal War on Science he argues that although liberals and the Left certainly reject science on specific topics such as vaccines and GMOs, these positions have been marginalised by the mainstream Left/Liberal political establishment, while on the Right, “Republicans today are majority creationist (58 percent, according to Gallup) and majority climate denier.”

As Lynas says, the political spectrum is not clearly divided along these lines in Europe; the alignment of the US Republican Party with creationist religion does not really have a parallel here, so while there are some similarities, this discussion is no doubt colored by my Euro-centric bias.

Mooney goes on to say

polls alone don’t tell enough of the story. Evolution denial and climate denial on the right are much more politically problematic—because conservatives, not liberals, are going around trying to force these wrongheaded views on children in schools. Oh, and by the way: By denying global warming, they also jeopardize the planet and the well-being of humanity. In my view, not all wrong beliefs are equally harmful—rather, wrong beliefs are harmful in proportion to their bad consequences.

There is a couple of things wrong with this position I think, as Mooney fails to distinguish between very different kinds of scientific issues, and their policy implications.

Firstly, the issue of conservatives trying to force “anti-science” views on schoolchildren made me think immediately of an instance of this from the Left: Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was incorporated into the school curriculum in the UK, leading to a court action by a concerned parent. The judge upheld the complaint that the film contained many scientific inaccuracies, including that

The film said a sea-level rise of up to 20ft would be caused by melting of either west Antarctica or Greenland in the near future; the judge ruled that this was “distinctly alarmist”

I am not suggesting that this is directly comparable to teaching creationism or denying evolution; on the other hand, it seems inescapable that this is indeed an example of politics masquerading as science, and as such its placing in schools in this way is highly questionable. There is no scientific debate about evolution vs Intelligent Design, but to pretend that everything about man-made global warming is “settled science” – including what to do about it (Gore’s film implies that changing your lightbulbs might be an appropriate response to ensuring Manhattan is not inundated with sea water) is itself political.

(Ironically, Shermer used to question climate science himself, and cites An Inconvenient Truth as one of the influences that made him change his mind.)

Secondly, Mooney does not really address Shermer’s point that Republicans only reject science on these specific topics because they conflict with specific beliefs they have. While Creationism is a core belief of many right-wing Christians, and climate change skepticism a reaction to what they see as a ruse to impose more government regulation on every aspect of their lives, they do not take an “anti-science” position per se.

On the Left however, despite scientists and academics being overwhelmingly liberal themselves as both Mooney and Shermer agree, there tends to be an underlying current of suspicion of science in and of itself. The liberal mind wants purity of nature and purity of their bodies, and is prone to suffer excruciatingly from the naturalistic fallacy; they are more likely to be anti-technology which they distrust as leading to yet more environmental destruction and an aspect of increased corporate control- even when being introduced for humanitarian reasons as with Golden Rice.

This callousness of progressive activists towards the poor who really need access to better technology also calls into question Mooney’s claim that they are motivated emotionally by sticking up for the underdog and fighting against injustice: all too often, the main priority seems to be just to kick “science” or “technology” or “corporations” where it hurts, and to hell with the poor (who, let’s face it, are much happier anyway just being poor).

Mooney points to research showing that the trust in science has declined precipitously in recent years- but I am just wondering whether this itself can be partly explained by the clear liberal bias amongst scientists and scientific institutions- particularly when they are seen, rightly or wrongly, to promote left-wing policy responses to complex scientific issues like climate change. Of course, this is often translated into a suspicion of the basic science of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, but there is no reason for the Right (or anyone) to have particular position on this but for the implications of left-wing policies being promoted as to remedy the situation: as I say, questioning CO2 as a greenhouse gas is not a core belief in and of itself for the religious right in the same way creationism is- it is purely a reaction to the policies of the Left.

I am not defending the misrepresentation of science by any side in this- merely pointing out that Mooney is misreading the context and mis-diagnosing the underlying causes.

What about Mooney’s contention that “wrong beliefs are harmful in proportion to their bad consequences”? He claims that opposing the “science” of climate change will lead to a “global disaster that we are going to regret for all time- so how could it be bigger than that?” This seems to be an ideologically loaded statement that is a far remove from the “consensus science” on global warming, which can only give us different scenarios of how much warming based on different emissions trajectories, none of which there is any great certainty about as Mooney is implying. He seems to have slipped seamlessly from the science of CO2 as a warming gas and that humans are contributing to warming, to just the kind of alarmist rhetoric that Gore was guilty of.

The fact is, we don’t know what to do about global warming, or at least the solutions offered seem themselves to be split down political lines: on the one hand, more government regulation and the creation of powerful supra-national organisations which can usurp national governments’ ability to determine their own energy policy;
on the other hand, the potential for technological innovation to move much faster at reducing emissions than treaties have been able to, as we are seeing with the failure of Kyoto and the success of shale gas in the US.

A good example of this is the Keystone XL pipeline which has been a figure-head for “climate action” recently, but which has no real bearing on climate change regardless of whether you “deny” or “accept” the consensus scientific position.

This is what happens constantly in the climate debate which renders such discussions about who the the most anti-science fairly redundant: the science quickly merges into questionable policies or activist causes; question the policy, you become a “science denier”.

So it seems to me highly questionable- and certainly not scientific- for Mooney to suggest that “science denial” to the extent that it does exists on the Right can really be blamed for putative future global catastrophe; claiming certainty that the science is wrong for political reasons is of course damaging, but in this case we simply don’t know precisely what the correct course of action will be and we have to weigh it up against other considerations including the obvious need to keep the lights on and warm our homes.

It is possible then that thwarting certain liberal policies on climate could actually turn out to be the best thing to do- even if for entirely the wrong reasons.

Compared with the damage already done by opposing GE crops the damage done by questioning climate science, even in an extreme way, seems speculative at best, and in fact entirely unknown.

As Shermer points out, the left doesn’t seem to care what the actual solutions to global warming are anyway- which is why a strong contingent of the grassroots at least (whatever about Obama’s stance) is fundamentally opposed to both fracking and nuclear: they just want to impose “more government”, or, as I would prefer to say, they just want their solutions.

I have often argued, and still do, that the Left’s apparent pro-science stance on climate change is really just opportunistic, since they are so anti-science on some of the obvious and most promising solutions.

Mooney is correct that the Left and the Right are promiscuous with the science in different ways- but he just seems to be scoring political points in claiming the Left is worse- a rather obvious trap to fall into when claiming to understand the psychology of the opposition, but not your own.

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17 Comments

  1. “…the left doesn’t seem to care what the actual solutions to global warming are anyway- which is why a strong contingent of the grassroots…is fundamentally opposed to both fracking and nuclear: they just want to impose “more government”…”

    I would disagree slightly with your conclusion. The left (of which I used to be and still am socially) wants “less” technology, more small “green” companies (because we know that large companies just cannot be green), and more nature.

    Reply
    • Fair points- in the part you quote I was referring to Shermer’s view which is more relevant to the Democrats as a party than more generally to include greens, activists, the grassroots left etc- probably should have tried to be more clear, but the wider point that applies across this left spectrum I think is “their solutions” which generally includes more regulations by municipal authorities.

      Reply
      • “…their solutions” which generally includes more regulations by municipal authorities.” It’s odd isn’t it? That they themselves want more freedom (raw milk, composting toilets e.g. are on their list of wants) but then want those things they don’t like they want regulated. They haven’t grasped that regs are a meat cleaver not a scalpel.

        Reply
  2. Good to see someone recognising that creationism and climate change scepticism are not equivalent. My thoughts – http://quelgar.github.com/creationism-and-climate-change-denial.html

    Reply
    • Great post thanks- the irony is, it is “anti-science” and in fact scientifically illiterate to lump together evolution and climate change as if they have the same causes and are the same kind of issue; just as it is to lump together GMOs and climate change etc..

      Reply
      • That GMOs and climate change get lumped irks me (but then, I’m a CC denying kook).

        Reply
        • yes. there is definitely something very wrong here- people taking the high horse about what is and what isnt correct science who refuse to acknowledge what anyone who has basic scientific literacy should see as obvious, that we are talking completely different kinds of scientific issues here- with quite different policy implications. Id rather be a denier kook in your good company ;)

          Reply
  3. john lord

     /  March 6, 2013

    The left are strangely silent and uncritical about organic gardening with little science behind it, not to mention biodynamics, which is a total stranger to scientific rationally.

    Reply
  4. Roman Catholics are creationists who believe in intelligent design. They also affirm evolution, and the ca. 13-billion-year age of the universe. The Vatican has its own astronomical observatory, sponsors stem cell research, and is home to the world’s oldest scientific academy. Lumping creationists and id’ers together into an anti-science category is crude, simplistic and ignorant. And quite intentionally so, I’m sure.

    Reply
    • Dont be so sure- unless you are claiming Papal infallibility. I dont mention Catholics in this post- are the religious-Right in the US mainly Catholics? I didnt even know that, and have a perhaps distorted image of Bible-thumping TV-evangelists. But Im still confused- you say RCs are creationists who believe in ID, but that to lump the two together is wrong? In any case, it’s irrelevant to the points Im making here- desnt matter if RCs like most science, ID is not a scientific concept, has no place in science. This is nnot the subject of the post though, which is really to take issue with the line Mooney takes on science when he is really talking about left-wing policies.

      Reply
      • The religious right mainly refers to “non-denominational” evangelical protestants, though the category does include Catholics.

        Reply
  5. Sundance

     /  March 6, 2013

    You analyze the subject like a scientist and I do my best to use the same approach. I have picked on Mooney in the past when he was at Discover Blog as he touted Katrina as the proof that global warming was responsible for more violent hurricanes and whipped up his readers that it would get worse. Unfortunately for Chris the data tells a much different story on Hurricanes and seven years without a Cat3 or higher hurricane making landfall, has made Chris look silly. Mooney is a provocateur with a desire to win politically and science be damned if it conflates with his arguments. Having gone to DeSmog Blog and now Mother Jones suggest that he is where he belongs, on the fringe left.

    I have Shermer’s latest book and plan to read it on vacation and I am a fan of his co-author Hank Campbell’s Science 2.0 site. I am biased towards getting information from Science 2.0 rather than at Mother Jones. There is very little science at Mother Jones and Mooney hasn’t changed that fact.

    Reply
  6. Great post, Graham! And I think it would have been an even greater post had Solomon … sorry Paikin** (or more likely his producers) not chosen to include such an obvious uber-alarming propagandist as Mooney.

    Not only is Mooney a green-heart-on-sleeve activist, but also he’s an English major who clearly did not have the benefit of a pre-post-modernist education! Ergo, critical thinking skills are not his forté. viz the “last words” that Paikin gave him on the program, which Mooney concluded with something along the lines of ” … we’re headed for a huge global warming disaster we’re going to regret for all time” followed by some (highly unoriginal but inane) pschobabble!

    ** They’re both Canucks and Steve Paikin works for TVO[ntario] while Evan Solomon works for CBC[anada]. They look alike and sound alike (at least to my aging eyes and ears!) And when it comes to biases (albeit slightly more nuanced than those of many in the media commentariat), it’s difficult to tell ‘em apart. And not only that, but they’re both members of my “tribe” ;-) But I digress …

    The discussion in the video could have been more enlightening had Paikin stuck to Lynas and Shermer – although neither of them gave any indication that they’ve looked at or listened to the concerns and/or arguments of those on the skeptical side of the global warming/ climate change fence.

    On the Left-Right polarization front; my guess is that this is more a function of MSM-advocacy repetition (probably reinforced by the perceptions one can get from reading the “commentariats” at the higher traffic blogs!) than the findings of any polls Mooney (or anyone else) might choose to cite.

    And the whole “anti-science” meme, in my view, is simply another way of marginalizing the views of those who differ from the self-proclaimed “experts”. – in whose opinions, evidently, Lynas believes one should “trust”.

    But I don’t buy that argument! Primarily because far too many of these “experts” have granted themselves a level of expertise in areas in which they clearly have none. For example, hockey-stick creator, Michael Mann – who these days, seems to be rolling off one of his tree-ring logs onto the “sustainability” bandwagon.

    However, I agree completely with your conclusion:

    we simply don’t know precisely what the correct course of action will be and we have to weigh it up against other considerations including the obvious need to keep the lights on and warm our homes.

    But, that might be my confirmation bias kicking into gear ;-)

    Hilary Ostrov

    Reply
    • Hi Hilary thanks for your comment and for filling me in on some of the nuances of US politics and MSM.

      had Paikin stuck to Lynas and Shermer – although neither of them gave any indication that they’ve looked at or listened to the concerns and/or arguments of those on the skeptical side of the global warming/ climate change fence.

      but you missed the link where I pointed to how Shermer used to be a climate skeptic! The irony is, what swung him around was not an in-depth study of peer-reviewed atmospheric science, but among other things, Al Gore’s film! I first wrote about this two years ago here.- as you see, it was reactions to this post that first alerted me to something else going on in climate other than “science”.

      marginalizing the views of those who differ from the self-proclaimed “experts”. – in whose opinions, evidently, Lynas believes one should “trust”.

      but of course I agree with Lynas on GMOs, vaccines etc- even evolution! We have to, and do, all of us, trust the “experts” on so many different topics- this doesnt mean we have a blind faith in them but in many ways they have served us very well. The argument that we should not “trust the experts” goes to the core of the anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, anti-fracking, anti-nuke, anti-”chemicals in food”, anti-fluoridation movements.

      Many more liberal/progressive/pro-science/skeptics (of the Shermer variety, not AGW skeptics) and many in the scientific establishment claim the same is happening with AGW- skepticism- that this is more just anti-science woo like hmeopathy. I am trying to argue in this post why that is not so- a)because science and policy are mixed up b) because climate change is many orders of magnitude more complex and less certain than simple things like GMO safety which can be verified in lab experiments.

      Reply
  7. Graham, I wasn’t suggesting we should not trust the experts …

    But I was suggesting that we should be very careful about trusting the self-proclaimed “experts”. I do believe there’s a difference (particularly in the infant field of “climatology”).

    Mooney (who is hardly worth talking about further) is certainly not an expert, nor are Lynas or Shermer.

    But I found Shermer was particularly disappointing; because of the three of them, he should definitely know better. I hadn’t realized that Shermer’s views had been so influenced by Gore. Shame on him, although I know of many other (far lower profile) people who should also know better – and are deserving of equal shame!

    And double shame on Shermer for not recognizing (in the video) that Mooney had expropriated one of his own arguments against Holocaust deniers (i.e. the “real” deniers)!

    Lynas may have seen the light on GMOs … but his predominant advocacy lens seems to have precluded (occluded?!) any attempt on his part to conduct any due diligence on the so-called “science” of climate change aka global warming – or on the actual views of those of the skeptical persuasion.

    Reply
  8. Graham the “Trust The experts bit” ..There are 2 parts of Science
    1. Science THEORY e.g. that there is certain to be a catastrophe
    2. VALIDATED Science : fracking, vaccines & GMO proved largely safe, evolution being observed with micro-orgs in the lab
    - so it is not Trust the Experts, but trust the VALIDATED Science, cos it works !
    & when experts come up with science that has NOT been validated, we should be skeptical of it

    Reply
  9. “I am trying to argue in this post why that is not so- a)because science and policy are mixed up b) because climate change is many orders of magnitude more complex and less certain than simple things like GMO safety which can be verified in lab experiments.”
    It’s hard to make those points in the “pro-science” community. The Alarmists have so thouroughly poisoned the well that any dissent is meet with the “denier” moniker. We are at a point now that only time will be the real judge of what happens. I am confident that both 1) the voting public will not fall for the alarmist (if you look at polls in the US, Climate Change is almost a non issue). This is thanks to the extreme Alarmist of Gore and Mooney. 2) Climate Sensitivity and Clouds will expose the Model Error and the uncertainty inherent in the Alarmists views. As long as the projections keep getting smaller the uncertainty term will grow more and more until the AGW alarmist crowd can’t ignore it anymore. Then and only then, will we have an intellegent debate on the topic.

    Reply

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