Last week, I took to task a really poor USA Today op-ed making the following claim:
“In short, for every anti-science Republican that exists, there is at least one anti-science Democrat. Neither party has a monopoly on scientific illiteracy. Indeed, ignorance has reached epidemic proportions inside the Beltway.”
I accused the author, Alex Berezow, of constructing a false equivalence between right and left wing science abuse. The latter does occur sometimes, and I’ve given many examples (ionizing radiation risks, vaccines, GMOs, etc). But it has relatively little mainstream influence today—and can hardly compare with the sweeping denial of huge bodies of knowledge (e.g., all climate science, all evolutionary science) that we see on the right.
Joe Romm also reposted my post and weighed in, further trashing Berezow’s weak argument, and particularly on the nuclear power front. Paul Raeburn also weighed in at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, noting Berezow’s conservative media connections.
In the comments on my post (no longer available, as the blog has just moved to a new URL—please update!), and then in a subsequent post, another conservative—Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute—weighed in. Who is Kenneth Green?
Green has been in the climate world for many years, criticizing the science. And although he claims to have been “writing about the fundamental soundness of climate science since 1997, including in a textbook I wrote for middle-school students,” I certainly don’t see that in this 2003 article of his entitled “Kyoto Krazy,” which contains this statement:
Canada’s federal government has justified ratifying the Kyoto Protocol by citing groups such as the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has published reports suggesting that a warmer climate would cause major ecological disruption necessitating urgent action. But other scientists, in both Canada and the United States, have shown that the threat of global warming is overstated by the United Nations (McKitrick and Essex, 2002). Indeed, scientists such as Harvard’s Sallie Baliunas explain that most of the observed global warming has been a natural, and largely beneficial phenomenon, primarily related to the increase of energy output from the sun (Soon, Baliunas et al, 2001).
How does undermining the IPCC, and blaming global warming on the sun, reflect an acceptance of the soundness of climate science?
Green is also a critic of climate models (a critical tool for understanding our the climate system and our predicament) and a down-player of climate risks (which could be extremely severe and destabilizing).
Maybe Green has changed his view on the basic issue of whether global warming is human caused since 2003–and let’s assume he has. Fine. He also needs to change his view about the relationship between left, right, and science, because his attempted rebuttal to me is pretty weak gruel. (Read my entire book on this, The Republican War on Science, if you want to know the kinds of distinctions that actually need to be drawn to make an argument in this area.)
The chief reason the political right is anti-science is because it contains the Christian Right (and Tea Party, which is kind of the same thing). There is no force in American politics generating anywhere near so much unreality, in science or in other spheres, as this one. It is not just evolution, or the age of the Earth, as Green seems to think. When it comes to science, it is also anything having anything to do with abortion, reproductive health, and sexuality. Moreover, we are talking here about the willful advancement of dangerous falsehoods, and the clinging to them in the face of all evidence and refutation—because this is about unwavering certainty, and ultimately, about faith.
Not only does Green dramatically downplay the Christian Right (free market conservatives’ cozy bedfellow, whether or not they want to acknowledge it). He doesn’t seem to understand that science abuse isn’t about getting something wrong. This happens all the time in science, in academia, etc. That’s okay, because science has a self correcting mechanism–and this is part of its very nature.
The real problem is therefore not mistakes. It’s attacking established knowledge, and spreading clearly refuted falsehoods, for political reasons. And clinging to them, sinking into denial. That is what we are actually talking about.
Yet another point that Green misses is equally important.
Both left and right have fringes, where silly claims are made. Thus, for instance, after Fukushima some lefties went hunting for dead babies on the U.S. West Coast from ionizing radiation supposedly traveling across the Pacific. Like I said, fringes.
But the fringes aren’t very relevant–unless the inmates are running the asylum. That’s what you have today on the right, where Republicans and Tea Partiers overwhelmingly reject mainstream knowledge in key areas and these views are also endorsed by elected representatives and even presidential candidates.
And this is why, when you take a left-leaning science abuse issue like vaccines and autism, it is not really very significant—because the Democratic Party does not embrace this dangerous nonsense, and because, as I mentioned, many liberals and science bloggers like myself have chased it from mainstream discourse. And the same goes for exaggeration of nuclear radiation risks (just look at how a good liberal, George Monbiot, destroyed this stuff), exaggeration of human health risks from GMOs, and so on.
Green wants to argue back that the environmental left is an anti-science misinformation machine, but he’s not addressing this nuance–or others. He writes:
…..the religious Right gets a handful of anti-science points for views on evolution (and related rationalizations about the age of the earth, etc.), and for some dismissal of climate change theory, but the Left gets many more anti-science points for exaggerating the health and ecological risks of POPDDTGMOEM radiation; high-tension powerlines; climate change; population growth; resource depletion; chemical sweeteners; species extinction rates; biodiversity decline; and I’m sure the list could go on.
What are the mistakes here?
- Completely downplaying the extent of problems with the Christian Right. This is by far the most egregious problem in the context of the left-right-science argument.
- Citing stuff that is not mainstream on the left today, or a matter of big concern there (GMOs, population growth, resource depletion—if I properly understand what Green means, then these last two are, like, from the days of vinyl).
- Citing stuff where, contrary to Green, the risk is very real, though you certainly might argue about the magnitude (climate change, biodiversity decline/species extinction rates). And DDT—that was a real one, albeit not current.
- Last but not least, playing what I’ll call “poison is in the dose” games. This requires a little more explanation.
I’m not an expert on—or have not reported on—every other issue listed by Green, e.g., persistent organic pollutants, plastics and plasticizers, pesticide residues, and so on. However, I know well enough how these kinds of issues play out in general.
You have some risky substance, or chemical, or exposure—and then there is a battle over what low dose is a safe dose in the environment. There is always much scientific uncertainty, and industry claims it’s safe, but environmentalists always want to be more cautious—e.g., adopting the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is not an anti-science view, it is a policy view about how to minimize risk.
Conservatives like Green—and their think tanks—then come back and accuse the environmentalists of exaggerating things, hyping risks. And when they later go on to claim that there’s anti-science on the left, they pull from this catalogue. It’s like their greatest hits.
The problem is that these are very complex issues, largely turning on uncertainty and whether you accept the precautionary principle. And based on my experience and reporting, while environmentalists are not always unimpeachable, I don’t trust the anti-regulatory right and its think tanks either when it comes to handling these issues.
If anything, they often downplay the significance of the low dose risk, and use questionable assumptions to do so. For instance, Green is a scientific adviser to the American Council on Science and Health, which, as I reported in my book, wanted to throw out animal tests as a guide for helping to identify human carcinogens. That’s nonsense—animal tests, like climate models, are a useful tool, and are particularly important since you can’t, uh, test chemicals on people.
Anyway, there is one last point that I made in the earlier post, and that I will reiterate. It was about the left and disobedience. Green didn’t seem get this one either.
On the left, we eat alive our own allies when they make false claims. That’s precisely what happened on vaccines and autism. We don’t follow the leader—any leader. This is part of our inherent disunity (often a political liability) and anti-authoritarian psychology.
On the right, the dynamic is different and authority is too often followed, even when it is dead wrong. And you stand up for your friends. That’s a virtue in many instances—but not when those friends need calling out and correcting.
There is much more that can be said about that, and indeed, will be said in my next book. But for now, we’ve done more than enough to show why the left and the right are different beasts when it comes to science–and why trying to construct a false equivalence between them ignores all the differences that matter.