The left-wing ‘War on Science’: what to do when new knowledge challenges our beliefs and interests

Is there a left-wing “War on Science”?

Influential American sceptic Michael Shermer devotes his latest column in Scientific American to arguing exactly this. Bloggers have already sent some considerable heat in Shermer’s direction, particularly because he implies that anti-science attitudes on the political left are somehow equivalent to those on the right in the contemporary USA.

Michael Shermer. Photograph by Byrd Williams, from Wikimedia Commons
Michael Shermer. Photograph by Byrd Williams, from Wikimedia Commons

Much of Shermer’s scorn seems to grow out of a distrust of technology within the environmental movement:

Whereas conservatives obsess over the purity and sanctity of sex, the left’s sacred values seem fixated on the environment, leading to an almost religious fervor over the purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food. Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs – genetically modified organisms – in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs.

I am not the only one who think he draws too-long a bow. In the USA, the Republican party has turned ignorance into a virtue through its embrace of Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman and the Tea Party. Republican politicians and their commercial and clerical backers, well aware that an educated polity and a strong research establishment threaten their vested interests, seek quite deliberately to trash both the public image once enjoyed by science and the public good it delivers.

The threat from the left seems to me far less well-coordinated and less substantial. Anti-vaccination activism remains fringe and far from confined to the left. Not all environmentalist lefties see a global conspiracy behind every GMO. And scepticism about profit motives plus a respect for evidence about the consequences of genetic modification are not necessarily a rejection of science.

Shermer, of all people, understands that political ordination doesn’t always fall on a strict left-right axis. He is possibly the world’s most prominent sceptic, an outspoken atheist who has written important books on evolution, but he is also a devoted libertarian and, until recently, a life-long gun owner. He is unusually consistent in his commitment to evidence and a sceptical view, although when he waxes positive about libertarianism I wonder if I detect a slight glow of devotion. Not a common combination of traits, and impossible to peg on a strict left-right continuum.

And yet despite some unease, I find myself in broad agreement with Shermer’s piece. Particularly it’s more modest but informative sub-heading: “How politics distorts science on both ends of the spectrum”.

Shermer’s criticism of the anti-science left is strongest when he pins the “cognitive creationists”: those who “accept the theory of evolution for the human body but not the brain”. Cognitive creationists (I prefer the label “Cultural Creationists”) come almost exclusively from the political left, and their agenda is the complete rejection of a role for biology in human affairs.

Anybody who writes about evolution and the human condition understands just how easy it is to incense both the left and right at once. I imagine if you come back to this page in a day or two, you’ll see direct evidence (although most readers of The Conversation seem to be polite and open to reasoned argument). Continue reading The left-wing ‘War on Science’: what to do when new knowledge challenges our beliefs and interests

Behavioural consequences of Chinese social engineering

I’m just back from holidays and wading through some of the exciting science published while I was temporarily untethered from the Internet. One of the most interesting was a Science paper led by Lisa Cameron of Monash University entitled “Little emperors: behavioural impacts of China’s one child policy.” If you’re a regular reader of The Conversation, you may well have caught Charis Palmer’s excellent report on the study.

The Chinese government introduced the one-child policy in the late 1970’s to slow China’s population growth. The policy is far from uniformly enforced. In the largest cities very few people are permitted to have a second child, but parents in rural areas and members of ethnic minorities can apply for permission to have a second child and sometimes even a third. Particularly if both parents are only children or if the first child is a girl.

The one-child policy draws criticism from almost every imaginable angle. It is often applied coercively, and tales of forced abortions grab headlines outside China. But its many unintended consequences have also turned it into history’s largest ever exercise in top-down social engineering.

Within China, the resulting generation of only children are seen as self-centred “Little Emperors”, doted on by their parents. But how much of that generation’s bad press is real? Younger cohorts everywhere get painted as self-obsessed and feckless. At the moment much of the talk in the English-speaking world concerns the failings of Generation Y.

Cameron and her colleagues sought to test whether the one-child generation are truly “Little Emperors” and whether the one-child policy (OCP) is the cause. From Beijing, where the strictest form of the OCP has been in place since 1979, they recruited 421 Beijing residents born in either 1975, 1978, 1980 or 1983. The subjects completed a series of games that economists use to measure traits such as altruism, trustworthiness, trust, willingness to take risks, and competitiveness. They also completed an inventory that measures the Big Five personality traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism).

Young adults who were raised as only children because of China’s one-child policy were less inclined to trust others, less trustworthy, more risk-averse, less competitive, more pessimistic and less conscientious. As Maria Histendahl says in her commentary on the paper, “the biggest surprise of the study is how thoroughly the only-child subjects lived up to their bad reputation”.

Cameron’s paper, of course, doesn’t settle every aspect of how the one-child policy effected the “Little Emperor” syndrome. But it provides a tidy example of how government policy and local conditions can dramatically alter not only the behaviour but also the personalities of individuals. I can only predict that larger studies of the aggregate outcomes will follow. Continue reading Behavioural consequences of Chinese social engineering