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.