Is Everyone Anti-Science?

The libertarian magazine reason (I think that’s how they like you to write their name) recently posted an interview with Alex Berezow about anti-scientific views of the left/progressives.  If you’re not familiar with Alex Berezow (I’m not), he’s the editor for RealClearScience, which seems to be a sibling of RealClearPolitics, and he has a PhD in microbiology.  His interview is mostly about his book on the same subject, Science Left Behindwhich he co-wrote with Hank Campbell, founder of the Science2.0 blog (which claims to be like the Web 2.0 of science).  Amazon reviews of the book seem mixed on whether they’re Republican/corporate hacks (not that these terms are disconnected in some liberal circles), right on, or perhaps engaging in false equivalence.  (You can find false equivalence on Wikipedia, but I recommend checking out The Atlantic’s James Fallows’ blog instead)

Based on the interview, I’m going with the third option.  It’s true that some degree of anti-science sentiment exists in practically every political group.  New agers concerned about “natural” products are certainly more common on the left than the right.  But a lot of the skeptic/atheist community is also on the left side of the political spectrum, and they tend to attack dubious claims like homeopathy, alternative medicine, and vaccine denialism.  And while vaccine skepticism may have started on the left (I’m honestly not sure, but I’d buy that scratch that, I’m honestly not sure and I don’t want to do an hour of research for like one line of a post), but it’s definitely started moving over to conservative Christian circles (see: Michele Bachmann during the Republican primaries) and honestly, it seems to be more a middle-class movement than an ideological one.

Here’s a breakdown of other  biases mentioned in the interview or book

  • Electromagnetic radiation and health – I honestly can’t find anyone seriously concerned about this in contemporary political culture.
  • Anti-nuclear movement – that’s a bit harder to argue with, but I would say there’s still a valid complaint about the United States not having a large-scale permanent nuclear waste storage facility.  The rejection of nuclear at all by environmentalists is less defensible.
  • Fracking and natural gas – While fracking isn’t the most intrusive extraction process developed, the recent increase in fracking activity has led to more observations of water contamination that suggest further study is still needed.  I’m also not sure there’s  an opposition to natural gas by itself (it IS cleaner than coal), but that environmentalists tend to prefer renewables.  Granted, the idea that we need to use an energy source we haven’t fully developed yet does seem to go against the idea that we must do things now to stop carbon emissions.
  • “Natural is better” – Less rational yes.  But this isn’t really a policy goal of most progressives I know, aside from pushes for labeling standards.  And organics just seem popular with people willing to spend more on food.
  • PETA – They are not at all close to being a major influence in the progressive movement in my mind.  The only thing I’m really aware of is San Francisco’s attempt to ban pets in the name of animal welfare.  Which failed.
  • Differences between sexes and genders – This one isn’t really developed in the Amazon summary or even mentioned in the interview.  There is a bit of a “gasp” reaction if anyone tends to mention these things, but let’s be honest and admit we developed that because it usually prefaces an actual racist or sexist statement.  Also, gender and sexual norms vary a lot between cultures, so it’s important to realize biology isn’t destiny (in Lysistrata, part of the drama of the sex strike is that women were considered too lustful in Greek culture at the time; compare that to modern American views of female sexuality).  Or from a statistical point of view, while there may be a difference in the “average” man and woman, the variance in individuals of each gender is too large to generalize it to everyone.

Here’s also where I’ll admit I haven’t read any of the book (I just found out about it).  If someone were to cite statistics showing these views are taken more seriously than I’m guessing, I would believe and be willing to revise my views.  But the fact is, none of the reviews mention any and neither does the interview.  More importantly, this just seems like false equivalence because the whole point of most talk of the “Republican War on Science” points out that many of these views come from actual policymakers or people of influence in the movement.  To say a school board member who wants to put “Warning” stickers on a biology text that talks about evolution is the same as a New Ager trying to sell kali carbonica on HuffPo seems to be ignoring how these people are treated in their movements.

I do like one of the points Dr. Berezow makes in the interview.  That is that science policy isn’t just a purely scientific issue, and he brings up the example of funding for nuclear fusion.  This is definitely true, and I feel like it’s something that gets oversimplified when people just say “science policy should be left to scientists”.  In a democracy (especially one that gives so much money to its scientists), it’s definitely important for non-scientists to make sure they can feel comfortable supporting science.