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.
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