Is There a Liberal War on Science?
If so, Michael Shermer hasn’t made a very good case for it.
Today, via io9, I stumbled across an article by Shermer in Scientific American called “The Liberals’ War on Science,” in which he argues that liberals are no better (or not much better) than conservatives when it comes to science denial. This may be my bleeding heart liberal bias speaking, but it’s not terribly convincing. Here are his points:
Democrats believe stupid things, too!
Shermer states that 41% of Democrats believe god created man as-is within the previous 1,000 years [EDIT: I mean 10,000, not that that's much better] and 19% doubt global warming. The creationism question comes from a recent Gallup poll of 1,000 people, and the global warming figure comes from this 2011 poll that also found that only 36% of Democrats doubted evolution. But let’s say that yes, a large minority of Democrats don’t believe in evolution and a smaller minority doesn’t believe in climate change.
Does this equal a “liberal war on science”? Hardly. A lot of people believing something inaccurate does not mean there’s a war – a war requires action, and conservatives are the people who are performing the actions: namely, introducing and sponsoring antievolution bills. While I’m sure that some Democrat must have introduced an antievolution bill, my Google skills have failed to turn one up. Bill after bill in state after state, conservative Republicans are the ones who are attempting to legislate their religious beliefs.
Liberals hate evolutionary psychology!
As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker documents in his 2002 book The Blank Slate (Viking), belief in the mind as a tabula rasa shaped almost entirely by culture has been mostly the mantra of liberal intellectuals, who in the 1980s and 1990s led an all-out assault against evolutionary psychology via such Orwellian-named far-left groups as Science for the People, for proffering the now uncontroversial idea that human thought and behavior are at least partially the result of our evolutionary past.
The characterization here is very interesting: first, Shermer equates criticism of evolutionary psychology with a belief in the mind as a blank slate, as though there are no critics who put forth a more complicated view of the development of human nature. Second, he states that Science for the People and other critics were “liberal intellectuals,” as opposed to using the much more explanatory term, “scientists.” Of course, SftP weren’t all scientists, but the group was a fractured collection that consisted primarily of students, professors, and scientists like Stephen J. Gould who were concerned that evolutionary psychology was contaminating real science efforts with pseudoscience. While Shermer writes that their “assault” spanned the 1980s and 1990s, the group actually began in the 1960s as Scientists for Social and Political Action, which became Science for the People in 1969. They were perhaps best known for their disruptive protest of a AAAS conference in 1969.
Shermer (and many others) may not care for some of their tactics, but the least he could do is represent them fairly and get the basic facts right. And if he’s hoping to argue for a present-day Liberal War on Science, he’ll have to do better than citing a 30-years defunct group of scientists who made some rad zines and whose criticism of evolutionary psychology is carried on today by a multitude of scientists from a spectrum of disciplines who are critical of different aspects of the field, like biologist PZ Myers, psychologist Christopher Ryan, neurobiologist Steven Rose, and philosopher of science David J. Buller, here interviewed in Scientific American. It’s absurd to pretend that all these scientists, Gould included, are just ignorant, anti-science liberals.
And need I even criticize the use of the phrase “Orwellian-named?” No, I suppose I don’t. Moving on.
Liberals hate energy!
This, perhaps, is Shermer’s most baffling argument:
On energy issues, for example, the [2012 book Science Left Behind] 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.”
First of all, the final sentence makes no sense in relation to the previous. Wind energy is about as “natural” as it gets, so obviously that’s not an explanation for why liberals would be against these technologies. A more reasonable explanation would be that they’re against them for the reasons that Shermer lists himself: there is a waste-disposal question when it comes to nuclear power. Dams can disrupt river ecosystems. Wind power may cause avian fatalities. You or I may not think those are sufficient reasons for stopping the exploration of those technologies, and there may be other anti-science beliefs behind opposition to some of those technologies, but that list doesn’t cover them at all. And the most galling part is that liberals are criticized for being anti-fossil fuel because of climate change a mere two paragraphs after they’re accused of not caring enough about climate change. Which is it?
If Shermer wanted to make a point here, he may have been able to argue something about liberals inhibiting the progress of nuclear power, but he fails.
Liberals hate GMO!
Finally, Shermer focuses on the liberal hatred of all things genetically modified. He writes:
Comedian Bill Maher, for example, on his HBO Real Time show on October 19, 2012, asked Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg if he would rate Monsanto as a 10 (“evil”) or an 11 (“f—ing evil”)? The fact is that we’ve been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years through breeding and selection. It’s the only way to feed billions of people.
Far be it from me to defend the ridiculously anti-science vaccine-denier Bill Maher, but Shermer appears to be completely ignorant of the criticisms of Monsanto and how they can differ from the criticisms of GMO. I acknowledge that there are plenty of people out there who misunderstand the science of GMOs, but the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of people (scientists like Ben Goldacre included) who have a lot of very valid arguments against the practices of the Monsanto corporation.
And what about the people who hold anti-scientific biases against GMOs? I’d like to see the evidence that they’re all liberal, because I’ve seen a bit of evidence to suggest that GMO concern is a cross-platform issue. The best I could find showing a liberal bias is this ABC News poll that says:
Republicans divide evenly on whether genetically modified foods are safe or unsafe. Independents rate them unsafe by a 20-point margin; Democrats, by a 26-point margin.
Then again, last year’s California vote on labeling GMO foods showed fairly equal support amongst Democrats and Republicans:
As a Republican, I don’t want government bureaucrats or corporate lobbyists deciding what I can and can’t know about the food I eat.
Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on many issues – but Prop. 37 is an exception.
Poll after poll shows approximately 90 percent of Republicans and Democrats support the labeling of GMOs, and over 1 million Americans submitted comments to the FDA urging they be labeled, too, more than any petition received in the agency’s history.
The point being: the “Liberal War on Science” described by Shermer seems to me to be, well, a bit Orwellian.