Sunday, February 1, 2015

Who's Anti-Science?

Who's anti-science, conservatives (who tend to be Republicans) or liberals (who tend to be Democrats)? Perhaps surprisingly, according to Hank Campbell at Science 2.0 it's the liberals who overall are most strongly opposed to the scientific consensus.

Conservatives tend to disagree with the scientific clerisy on some highly publicized issues like evolution and climate change, but liberals more strongly disagree with the scientific consensus on more issues that receive less scrutiny in the media. Because conservatives tend to disdain the opinions of scientists on prominent issues on which the media agrees with what the scientists say the media likes to paint conservatives as anti-science ignoramuses and liberals as science sophisticates, but, like a lot of media generated myths, it's not true.

Campbell states that,
It's a fine narrative, it just takes ignoring inconvenient truths, like that the difference between Democrats and Republicans is only 9 percent on that topic (evolution), and that in areas other than evolution and climate change, Democrats are much farther from the science consensus than Republicans are - of 55 politicians in Congress who wanted to put warning labels on GMOs, 53 were Democrats. That is real anti-science belief that correlates with a political party. The most anti-vaccine hotbeds of the most anti-vaccine state, California, are all 80 percent Democratic so that also correlates to political party if evolution and global warming belief does.

Compared to those levels of anti-science thinking, evolution is doing quite well. A new pair of surveys by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) finds that evolution acceptance, at 65% of the public, is nearly twice that of acceptance of other well-established biology, such as genetic modification of food, where only 37% of people think it is safe, or pesticides, where only 28% think it is safe, despite the consensus of science and all regulatory bodies. The people that are against agricultural science (and vaccines and energy) are overwhelmingly Democrats.
Campbell could have included in this paragraph nuclear power production as something generally favored by scientists but strongly opposed by Democrats. At any rate, he concludes:
Scientists understand that genetic modification has been done by humans for 10,000 years and by nature long before that - random mutation, though completely natural, can be dangerous, even if it is a part of evolution. Whole Foods shoppers may believe that mutagenesis, the less-precise genetic modification done before GMOs that has resulted in 2,000 strains of food - including many organic foods - is natural while modern GMOs are not, but scientists know that calling one a GMO and one not is just an arbitrary legal definition that has nothing to do with science. Scientists certainly know that dousing crops with organic Bt spray is not healthier than a Bt gene - or a synthetic pesticide.

Evolution and climate change still get plenty of traction among the demographic that needs to promote their notion of superiority over conservatives - it rationalizes why conservatives can't seem to get tenure jobs in academia - but if we really cared about science and the public, and not just putting one over on the other party, we'd stop fighting a fake culture war about evolution and the right wing and take a more honest look at all the people on the left promoting anti-science ideas about food, energy and medicine.
One interesting thing about this is that those issues on which conservatives tend to be skeptical are issues which either blur the distinction between empirical science and speculative metaphysics (evolution) or on which the evidence for the scientists' claims seems ambiguous (climate change). Those issues on which the liberals dissent, however, seem to be pretty straightforwardly scientific.

It doesn't matter, though, to our media which either lacks the wit or the integrity to get the story right. As we head into the next presidential election cycle we might expect a lot of stories ridiculing Republicans as a bunch of ignorant rubes because they dare question the authority of our scientists on evolution and climate change. We can also expect that there will be few to no stories written about the unscientific views held by Democrats.