It is taken for granted by a certain segment of our pundit class that Republicans and/or conservatives don’t play well with science. But after a decade of mining that trope, it’s starting to seem thin. Fortunately for the pundits, there’s a whole other half of the political spectrum to criticize with vague framings of science policy. In January, The New Republic published the most recent major piece in this trend about Democrats (or maybe liberals, or who knows, because the article uses them interchangeably) not really following science. Armstrong, like most authors, criticizes the cultural qualities everyone “knows” are emblematic of the left: alternative medicine, an obsession with “natural” products, anti-GMO sentiment, and distrust of nuclear power. But that’s my issue: most of the article, and others like it, is powered by the author’s sentiments on the party in question with little to support them.
Right off the bat in explaining homeopathy, Armstrong has to use the official platform of the Green Party to make one of his points in an article nominally about Democrats. Then Armstrong strains to accept that liberals actually don’t differ from conservatives much in terms of GMO acceptance. Also, weirdly, Armstrong skipped the data that fit the title of his article more: people who identified as or leaned Republican were a bit more likely to say genetically modified food is safe than those who identify as or lean Democrat, 43% to 38%, although the analysis says the differences weren’t statistically significant by party or ideology. (Still, I’m a bit surprised by the swing. I would assume comparing “Democrats” over “liberals” would have gotten rid of more granola-y GMO skeptics.) But that brings me to my main point – so many of these conversations are strange without any data.
Again, we don’t get a data point proving that homeopathy practice is much more common among Democrats/liberals compared to Republicans/conservatives. Technically, Armstrong does link to a YouGov poll claiming that liberals are the “worst” on the issue, but the summary doesn’t include a breakdown by ideology and the link to the full survey results misdirects to one on tax policy. Libertarians and conservatives have proven sympathetic to homeopaths through the health freedom movement. Laws “protecting” practitioners of homeopathy and other alternative medicine systems from charges of unlicensed practice of medicine have passed in blue, red, and purple states: Alaska, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Heck, Walmart and CVS sell homeopathic “medicine” now. It’s worth pointing out that the data I’m asking for here is hard to find. There are some studies on homeopathic demographics, but few are on American populations, and there’s not a great line up with those social and political norms across cultures. (Here’s a UK one and a Norwegian one.) Seriously, American grad students in sociology (of science/tech/medicine) or public health, there’s a great topic for you to dissect here.
I’m open to the idea that homeopathy is more prevalent among liberals, but most of the conversation is just anecdotes and stereotype. But in that case, why does major “alternative medicine” guy Dr. Mercola have a lot of support in conservative circles? Similarly, although vaccination skeptics don’t have to be homeopaths, they’re often stereotyped as liberals. But in 2012, it was two Republican Congressmen who basically heckled an NIH institute director about mercury in vaccines causing autism in a Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing. And based on this study by the Cultural Cognition Project, you’re actually least like to question vaccine safety if you’re very liberal and a bit more likely than average if you’re somewhat conservative, although I don’t think the difference is significant.
You can look at local data for trends, but that doesn’t clearly map out politics either. Silicon Valley daycares allegedly have low vaccination rates, except at the biotech companies. But according to this reporting of California vaccination exemptions, conservative Orange County also has one of the highest rates of exemptions. (Although maybe liberal anti-vaxxers are more likely to cluster together?)
In an article in Policy Review titled “Science, Faith, and Alternative Medicine“, philosopher Ronald Dworkin pointed out that alternative medicine tends to not be a partisan issue:
The confusion surrounding alternative medicine is reflected in the political arena, causing deep divisions within both the liberal and conservative camps. Within the conservative camp, libertarians see any governmental regulation of the alternative medicine movement as a violation of individual freedom. Cultural conservatives, on the other hand, are suspicious of the movement’s links to anti-Western multiculturalism. Within the liberal camp, progressives like Sen. Ted Kennedy and Rep. Henry Waxman have pushed for greater regulation of the alternative medicine industry in the spirit of consumer protection. Yet multiculturalists want alternative medicine to flourish unimpeded because they see it as a powerful weapon to use against traditional Western ideas.
Granted, he wrote than in 2001 and in the same article, he feared that alternative medicine would end up becoming politically polarized. But the data above suggests that still hasn’t happened.
I think we should target liberals who are “bad” on science issues just as much as conservatives, just like the famous Daily Show clip on the Outbreak of Liberal Idiocy. But the trope of these “bad science issues for liberals” misses a lot. Even the Daily Show clip placed it as a kind of specific cultural strain of liberalism (see Bee’s question below to test the qualifications of her vaccine denialist), not liberalism writ large – and the interviewed expert points out that vaccine denialism matches up with wealthy, white, college-educated people. Also, the trope often seems like a weak cop-out, either by conservative writers who think this somehow gets them out of problems with science by their own movements or when liberal or moderate authors attempt to make equivalence out of this as a poor attempt at crossing the aisle but without any clear understanding if the stereotype is true or where it comes from.
(You’ll notice I’m skipping the last section of the article here, and that’s for good reason. Armstrong actually provides a good data point, not just a stereotype, on Democrats skepticism towards nuclear energy. And I agree with his basic argument: unreasonable skepticism towards nuclear just leads to the adoption of other power sources, and right now, those are overwhelmingly fossil fuels. It’s worth pointing out that there’s something interesting in that while polarization increases with scientific literacy on nuclear power, it turns out liberals still accept it more as they become more informed, it’s just that conservatives tend to accept it way faster. Also, can we guarantee this won’t become a NIMBY problem if suddenly our bipartisan elites agreed?)
You might ask, why does this matter? Well, this framing of currently nonpartisan/nonideological issues as partisan can turn them into ideological markers. So a trope of just assuming Democrats hate GMOs and vaccines and love homeopathy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which would go against the goal of most of these articles I’m criticizing (and my own!). There’s probably a decent case to make that this process did happen with the politics of climate change, though I could only offer a vague outline at the moment without digging through more sources. Also the stereotype doesn’t suggest a clear way to deal with the groups who reject the science on these issues. There’s my obvious complaint that I think it ignores that conservatives, and even moderates, (probably) represent a significant share of people with these beliefs.
But even just within liberal groups, there’s diversity in the way these beliefs manifest. You’re not going to convince a center-left Silicon Valley anti-vaxxer to vaccinate with the same approach as some honest-to-goodness hippie because they’re in cultural environments with different values.This also applies to groups on the right. Good science communication accepts that those values matter if you want to engage meaningfully with someone, just as much as the relevant knowledge. And if there’s something we should be learning from last year, it’s that figuring out how to communicate to people with different values is going to be a major part of approaching politics in the future.