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!

Shermer writes:

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.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Thank you for summing up so well the problems with Shermer’s piece. He used to be one of my favorite skeptical writers, but now I’m incredibly disappointed with him.

  2. Just to be sure, this disagreement with an article by Michael Shermer constitutes a “purge”, right?

        1. Three sentences resulted in a Nazi-witch-hunt-inquisition… What level of hyperbole is left for a full blog post criticising him! Although you didn’t mention any of the trigger words, sexism/misogyny etc, so I’m sure it will be ok.

        2. Crimoly. I saw the headline and thought: “Wait, women aren’t supposed to criticize Shermer!” And as I read the article I found myself getting sadder and sadder thinking about how you have just set yourself up for some real web-driven Nuremberg action conducted by the Shermerists.
          Rebecca, didn’t you comprehend before you posted the crimes against humanity you were about to commit? You — a female! — just expressed skepticism about the opinions expressed by a self-proclaimed male skeptic. The horror.
          Maybe oolon’s right, though. You didn’t accuse him of clumsily using sexist language, so perhaps your offense didn’t rise to the level of a crime against humanity.
          I suppose we will know for sure if a few months, after this post finally hits Shermer’s radar, what you will be charged with. I wish you luck.

        3. Whereas I’ve been openly slagging off Shermer and his shitty Powerpoints for YEARS, but does anybody notice MY War on Shermer? Of course not.

  3. I mostly agree that there’s not really a liberal “war on science,” although I’d probably agree that the actual grasp of science among liberals is only slightly better than that of conservatives, and is poor overall in both cases. The fact that liberals tend to align with the scientific consensus more frequently on things like climate change and evolution is probably incidental; they just happen to be issues that cohere more with their worldview.

    But I think you’re contradicting yourself in one way in this article. You point out that a “war” isn’t just belief, it requires action, but then when you’re discussing attitudes towards GMO crops you just cite levels of belief. There may be not enormous differences in beliefs between self-identified groups of liberals and conservatives, but if you look at who the most fervent, active opponents to GMO are, they overwhelmingly come from the liberal environmentalist camp.

    1. “but if you look at who the most fervent, active opponents to GMO are, they overwhelmingly come from the liberal environmentalist camp.”
      I’d accept that, if Shermer presented the evidence for it. As it is, he’s given no evidence for anything, and I’m left trying to find it for him.

  4. The “anti-energy” point is especially nonsensical because Shermer presents reasonable criticisms of various types of energy, presents no argument against those criticisms, and finishes off with a non sequitur about “natural vs unnatural”. Shermer’s not a particularly strong writer to expect to make his point in such a short article, and not a strong enough thinker by the looks of it.

    I keep seeing the argument that “skeptics” of the Shermer type are anti-liberal conservatives of the worse sort, who have come to their anti-woo by being anti-hippie. They’re trapped in some sort of weird anti-1960s thing, where they take anything vaguely associated with the New Age movement and reject it without consideration. That puts feminism out, as well as environmentalism, social justice, criticisms of capitalism, etc. If it sounds like a hippie would say it, it must be wrong and you don’t actually have to do any thinking to get there.

  5. Let’s face it, though. Anti-vaxxers are primarily from the left, with a few religious extremists thrown in. I’m kind of surprised Shermer didn’t use this one.

      1. I’m with jblumenfeld. I was under the impression it was more about lefty sorts on the anti-vax stuff. Good link. A comment that it seems to be more about those falling in to conspiracy theories than which fringe of the political spectrum they’re on sounds pretty plausible too.

    1. Shermer’s a libertarian, so he mostly used examples related to the only thing he cares about: profits. His other example, the “war”on evolutionary psychology? I must have missed all the liberals calling for laws making it illegal to teach or fund in state colleges. What I do remember liberals arguing against was the use of evolutionary psychology as support for so-called “scientific racism”.

  6. Not only is Shermer making a poor case, he is contributing to a toxic environment of false equivalence. He has to know that bad actors on the conservative side of these issues will latch on to articles like this to prove that “both sides do it”. I can only assume that is his intention.

    1. I love his talk about “moderates”. He implies that he’s one, even though a short dig into his history will show that he’s a pure extremist libertarian who is way more than happy to associate non-libertarians with Hitler, Mao and Stalin because “big government”. It’s literally like he’s just pulling from the false-equivalence playbook that Republicans love so much, right down to waving around their “independence” when identifying as “conservative” is inconvenient for them (hi there, Joe Scarborough!).

  7. “I keep seeing the argument that “skeptics” of the Shermer type are anti-liberal conservatives of the worse sort, who have come to their anti-woo by being anti-hippie. They’re trapped in some sort of weird anti-1960s thing, where they take anything vaguely associated with the New Age movement and reject it without consideration. That puts feminism out, as well as environmentalism, social justice, criticisms of capitalism, etc. If it sounds like a hippie would say it, it must be wrong and you don’t actually have to do any thinking to get there.”
    This, seriously, and I really also can’t help but be leery of the evo-psych bullshitting because of it — since, the critics of evo-psych happen to be pro-SJ, probably because (surprise surprise) evo-psych tends to support kyriarchy.

    This plus TAM plus all the anti-SJ loudmouths is making me really wonder how much of skepticism/atheism is just white libertarians who think woo is hippy crap and religion’s ethical requirements just infringe on their precious FREEDOM =/

      1. Yep. And don’t worry, even being interested in social justice (and thinking I’m quite a sharp fellow) I still had to look it up a couple of weeks ago.

  8. It’s Orwellian? Or is it like a witch hunt, Mr. Shermer? Perhaps you’d like to invoke Nazi persecution of fine, upstanding, GMO-supporting conservative scientists?

    Shermer’s skeptical halo is looking mighty tarnished.

  9. I liked this criticism. It was well argued. You gave Shermer less wiggle room because you focused on how poorly he argued his conclusion rather than going the hit piece route. If you go that route then it is invoke the “witch hunt”. I am sure even as liberals we can all think of better arguments against liberalism than a “liberal war on science.” Really he seems to me to be a little obsessed with liberals.

  10. GMO opponents seem to be a common enough target of Shermer’s disdain that I’m beginning to wonder how much Monsanto stock he owns.

    (And the “We’ve been genetically modifying organisms for thousands of years” argument has never impressed me. It totally ignores the differences in scale and timeframe.)

    1. you think he is a shill for personal gain? give me a break. You sound like an anti vaxxer calling everyone an agent for big Pharma.

      1. I don’t know whether he’s a shill or not. Possibly it’s just the result of under-informed arrogance or page-hit trolling or lazy writing. It’s difficult to know for sure.

  11. Look we all know the only thing left to do is “go Galt” and build an underwater city called Rapture…Rapture, a city where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, Where the great would not be constrained by the small! And with the sweat of your brow, Rapture can become your city as well!

  12. Was going to ask why anyone still gives a shit what Shermer has to say, but thought I’d be more useful and note that in Chrome / OSX, Skepchick has zero left margin, and everything is jammed up against the edge of my browser window with no space. Hard to read. And did I mention F Shermer?

  13. I lost most of my respect for Shermer when he came out as an Ayn Rand fan in his last book. How can you call yourself a skeptic and swallow that load of woo?

    1. I lost most of my respect for Shermer when he cut in the middle of a very long line at the cheese and cracker table at TAM 8.

  14. What I find particularly funny about the article is that the loony liberal moonbat etc. that Shermer uses to show off how anti-GMO the left is Bill Maher. Who is a libertarian like Shermer.

  15. Rebecca Watson,

    Based on my experience, which isn’t that much, so I could be wrong, but it does seem that most of the anti genetically modified food hysteria, comes from the left. Almost none of the right wing blogs I used to follow at one time, talked much about GMOs and whenever they did, at least when it came to food they tended to be somewhat supportive of genetic engenering from what I can remember. Although I do remember reading a movie review by a conservative Christian once basically saying that one of the few things about the Island of DR Morrou that he liked, was that it was against genetic engineering. So I think its say to say it exists on both sides of the spectrum.

  16. While it’s probably true that liberals are not on average much better informed about science than conservatives it seems that the actual Republican political party has a much stronger history of taking anti-science stances on various issues than the Democratic party.

    I’m not sure I see the Democratic party as being exactly pro-science they just don’t tend to be overtly anti-science either, at least not on the federal level.

  17. I would also add in support of your last and overall point that “last year’s California vote on labeling GMO foods” was a no (rejected, 51% to 48%). In other words, a majority of voters in one of the most liberal states in the union rejected the proposition. That’s a pretty weak war on science. But at least the proposition existed. So I guess you can say there is “more” of a liberal war on science than there is a liberal war on Christmas. But as wars go, it’s weak tea.

  18. I thought I was missing something in the post here on Skepchick as the writing made no sense in relation to this ‘Liberals’ War on Science’. I read the original article and well, the article made as much sense as his use of his use of the English language. I never did find this war as Rebecca pointed out so well.

    BTW castigated means criticized. Orwellian which I have learned after googling means ‘To describe something as “Orwellian” is to say that it brings to mind the fictional totalitarian society of Oceania described in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four’. Am I the only person who did not read this novel? And there is ’are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.’ Say what?

    1. If you didn’t read it do. It is the source of many oft-used phrases such as “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” and terms like doublethink, newspeak, thought-police. A lot of the stuff in their is a nice description of North Korea, as Hitch once so aptly pointed out.
      Oh and if you get a bit depressed after reading that distopian view of the future, go read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – that has promiscuity and IVF/cloning, contraception and the experience of sex on a bear rug in virtual reality (down to every last hair!).

      1. I think I will read the book this weekend and then maybe something good can come out of reading that article. :) I am always looking for a good book!

  19. I really want to believe that liberals are not as anti-science as conservatives. I live in San Francisco, and I’ve had a few people label me as “conservative” because I am pro-vaccine and won’t use alternative medicine. And then I find myself saying “but in every other way I am really liberal”, which is dumb because being pro-vaccine should not negate my liberal leanings.

    Of course, these are the same people who quote Mike Adams, because somehow since his website uses the word “natural” he must be a leftie.

  20. As a skeptic and a liberal I’ve been extremely frustrated with some of the jaw-droppingly idiotic woo I’ve heard my Democratic allies expound. I couldn’t say what the Greens believe (are they still out there?), but I’d suspect they’re pretty invested in the new age woo. My Socialist friends tend to uncritically repeat anything Noam Chomsky says. That said, from my own observations I don’t believe the alt-med, crystal rubbing, anti-vax, anti-GMO movements have reached the level of ironclad political dogma and massive financial backing within the Democrat’s platform as global warming denial, creationism, and religious fundamentalism has with the Republicans and the even more conservative parties.

    1. I think this really gets to the crux of the matter: there may be a lot of people spewing this idiocy, but there isn’t nearly as much lobbying power and money backing it.

  21. The section on Energy is most telling that Shermer’s libertarian side is at work here. Rebecca, you pointed out the non-sequitar but I feel we need to expand on the fact that none of the objections that he says that liberals have towards nuclear, wind and hydroelectric have anything to do with the science of these technologies. Liberals aren’t claiming nuclear power doesn’t exist. Or that wind or hydroelectric are scientific lies that fly in the face of Gaia. The objections of some liberals are about environmental impact and economic factors. He can disagree with the politics all he wants but he can’t label disagreement about the efficacy of using these technologies as “anti-science”. His premise is that liberals have a war on science but it seems that all he’s arguing (at least in this section) is that liberals disagree with his politics.

  22. Shermer seems to have been sucked in by the same pull that makes mainstream science articles so suck-sacrificing the value of their journalism for the “sell the sizzle, not the steak” gimmickry to broaden readership.

    Hey, no kidding liberals can be politically biased pseudoscientific knuckleheads too. But where’s their “war” machine?

    And why does Shermer have nothing whatsoever to say about the politically biased, pseudoscientific libertarian knuckleheads? Is there a more transparently ideological, less likely to be “swayed by the evidence” mission/objective than that held by libertarians? Where evidence of social harms are routinely diminished on principle alone!? (OK, anarchists are serious competition in that event. But in the US the libertarian cultural “war machine” blows the anarchists’ outtathewater.)

  23. I think one needs to be sure of how one defines Liberal.
    Here in the USA it has an entirely different meaning than say in northern Europe.
    Here Liberal is usually assigned to people who have a tendency to fall for yoga energy pro biotic acu puncture healing touch nonsense as part of a “llifestyle”choice ,which ,I think is what Shermer is taking advantage of ,his point of view is somewhat compromised by him being an admirer of Ayn Rand (A good example of a cult that has more in common with Scientology than politics )
    A more pertinent Question would be is there a social democratic/socialist war on science ,the answer being a decidedly loud no,at least to my knowledge ,

    1. I agree. Here in Australia the Liberal Party are the conservatives. There are no Tories as such. There are a few right wing ratbags but they attract only a few percent of the vote, unlike the USA where it seems almost 50:50. I think Obama would be far to the right of most of our social democrats (Labor Party) and even some of our so called Liberals.
      It’s interesting, one of our previous Liberal Prime Ministers, Malcolm Fraser, who was the big conservative enemy in the seventies, now complains about the “drift to the right” that is occurring here.
      Many of us look at the US political situation with horror. I shit you not, we have very intelligent and educated friends who would far rather visit Burma, Vietnam and mainland China than the USA, and do so regularly. These are Liberal voters, by the way!

  24. My comment is limited to one small point, namely congressional opposition to GMOs. This comes virtually entirely from the left side of the political spectrum. For example, the Senate bill that was introduced last year that would allow for labelling of GMOs was sponsored by Senators Sanders and Boxer and, I believe, only Democrats voted for it. For years, Dennis Kucinich led the opposition to GMOs in the House. So, yes, there has been legilsation introduced in opposition to GMOs (or to their marketing withour labelling) and this legislation has been supported predominantly by liberals. I’ll leave it to others to argue about whether this constitutes evidence of a “war” or not.

  25. The problem with GMO’s is not whether they are necessarily bad to eat. It’s more what they represent in term of ecology and farming. This is so much more important than the hysteria around their quality as food, that I’m dumbfounded that people are not up in arms about this.

    Consider – the seed supply of the world is basically at risk, with one corporation controlling the genetics of the food we eat. Monsanto has sued farmers whose crops were pollinated by their products. That is a naked attempt to squash all resistance right there. What will happen down the road when GMO’s are a firm fixture everywhere, but Monsanto’s bottom line doesn’t please its shareholders, and its stock crashes? Will the world starve?

    The other factor is that its crops are designed to encourage a specific type of farming which may be even less sustainable than the agribusiness practices upon which it’s based. A plant which is designed to flourish in salty soil may sound great, but some salty soils need to be left alone, and others got that way from exhaustion. Crops grown in ever-more over-irrigated land is a recipe for eventual crashing of arable land.

    So forget about the perception of food poisoning from GMO’s – and think eventual starvation. It’s not a case of little Jimmy’s nose falling off because he ate Frankenfoods. It’s a case of Little Jimmy eating his shoe leather someday. Yes, I’m probably being too alarmist here, but these dangers are real.

  26. What about the liberals’ love affair with po-mo antiscience. Wouldn’t that have been a more worthy critique from Shermer?

  27. I know it’s a cliche, but I want to say it anyway.
    Reality has a liberal bias.
    For some definitions at least.

  28. I think David Friedman nicely set out how those who claim to believe in evolution appear to become creationists when some of the implications become apparent (see also William Saletan’s Slate articles on “Liberal Creationism”):

    “Consider the most striking case, the question of whether there are differences between men and women with regard to the distribution of intellectual abilities or behavioral patterns. That no such differences exist, or if that if they exist they are insignificant, is a matter of faith for many on the left. The faith is so strongly held that when the president of Harvard, himself a prominent academic, merely raised the possibility that one reason why there were fewer women than men in certain fields might be such differences, he was ferociously attacked and eventually driven to resign.

    Yet the claim that such differences must be insignificant is one that nobody who took the implications of evolution seriously could maintain. We are, after all, the product of selection for reproductive success. Males and females play quite different roles in reproduction. It would be a striking coincidence if the distribution of abilities and behavioral patterns that was optimal for one sex turned out to also be optimal for the other, rather like two entirely different math problems just happening to have the same answer.

    The denial of male/female differences is the most striking example of left wing hostility to the implications of Darwinian evolution, but not the only one. The reasons to expect differences among racial groups as conventionally defined are weaker, since males of all races play the same role in reproduction, as do females of all races. But we know that members of such groups differ in the distribution of observable physical characteristics–that, after all, is the main way we recognize them. That is pretty strong evidence that their ancestors adapted to at least somewhat different environments.

    There is no a priori reason to suppose that the optimal physical characteristics were different in those different environments but the optimal mental characteristics were the same. And yet, when differing outcomes by racial groups are observed, it is assumed without discussion that they must be entirely due to differential treatment by race. That might turn out to be true, but there is no good reason to expect it. Here again, anyone who argues the opposite is likely to find himself the target of ferocious attacks, mainly from people on the left…

  29. ***It’s absurd to pretend that all these scientists, Gould included, are just ignorant, anti-science liberals.***

    They’re not ignorant. They simply obfuscate the facts to falsely reassure people that there are no significant group differences in behavioural traits. Gould in fact lied as part of his efforts to discredit psychometrics and old anthropological studies (don’t get me started on the numerous strawman arguments in Mismeasure of Man & omissions of up to date studies that would have devastated his argument).

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