"Libertarian ideology is the natural enemy of science," says The Guardian: Absolute Codswallop.



Guardian columnist David Robert Grimes singles out advocates of property rights and free markets as a special menace to society largely because their supposedly greed blinds them to the scientific truths about climate change, gun control, and pharmaceutical research and development so evident to objective and fair-minded leftwingers. Of course, Grimes inconveniently overlooks the copious research that finds that left-wingers resort to motivated cognition too when it comes to evaluating distasteful scientific data. GMOs? Nuclear power? Fracking?

Consider the findings of Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his research colleagues at the Yale Cultural Cognition Project. The group uses a theory of cultural commitments devised by University of California, Berkeley, political scientist Aaron Wildavsky that "holds that individuals can be expected to form perceptions of risk that reflect and reinforce values that they share with others." The Wildavskyan schema situates Americans' cultural values on two scales, one that ranges from Individualist to Communitarian and another that goes from Hierarchy to Egalitarian. In general, Hierarchical folks prefer a social order where people have clearly defined roles and lines of authority. Egalitarians want to reduce racial, gender, and income inequalities. Individualists expect people to succeed or fail on their own, while Communitarians believe that society is obligated to take care of everyone.

The researchers report that people whose values are located in Individualist/Hierarchy spaces "can be expected to be skeptical of claims of environmental and technological risks. Such people, according to the theory, intuitively perceive that widespread acceptance of such claims would license restrictions on commerce and industry, forms of behavior that Hierarchical/Individualists value." On the other hand Egalitarian/Communitarians "tend to be morally suspicious of commerce and industry, which they see as the source of unjust disparities in wealth and power. They therefore find it congenial, the theory posits, to see those forms of behavior as dangerous and thus worthy of restriction." On this view, then, Egalitarian/Communitarians would be more worried about climate change risks than would be Hierarchical/Individualists.

On climate change Grimes asserts "if one accepts human-mediated climate change, then supporting mitigating action should follow." The fact that scientific research identifies a problem does not specify what policies should be adopted to address it. Mitigating global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions is certainly one possible policy, but so, too, is favoring increased economic growth and technological progress as a way to enable people to adapt to future climate challenges. What about buidling nuclear power plants as a way to cut carbon dioxide emissions? Which is better? Science does not say. It is not at all surprising that Individualists are highly suspicious when carbon rationing proposals just happen to fit the cultural values and policy preferences of Egalitarian/Communitarians.

For what it's worth, I am a libertarian who has concluded that man-made global warming likely poses significant problems.

Next, Grimes evidently thinks that science somehow shows that trusting private companies to innovate health care is "misguided." Nevertheless, health economist James Henderson points out in Health Economics and Policy:

U.S. supremacy in the development of new drugs is clear….In 2010, there were almost 3,000 compounds in development in the United States-three times the number in the entire European Union and six times the number in Japan. Europe's once-thriving pharmaceutical industry is migrating to the United States. Since 1995, Pharmacia (Sweden), Novartis, (Switzerland), Avantis (France/Germany), GlaxoSmithKline (United Kingdom) have moved some aspect of their operations to the United States.

Grimes also dismisses the claim that FDA regulation is excessive. Yet, a 2010 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that FDA regulations on clinical trials of new cancer medications saved 16 life-years over the course of drug development. On the other hand, the authors conservatively estimate that increased regulatory delays in drug approvals results in the loss of nearly 300,000 life-years in the U.S. Even Grimes might agree that such regulation might be a tad "excessive."

Finally, Grimes argues that scientific findings trump the libertarian notion that "people have a right to arm themselves to make themselves safer." Never mind that the U.S. Constitution guarantees Americans the right to bear arms. In any case, Grimes cites some studies that find that gun owners are more likely to be shot than non-gun owners and that accidental deaths from gunshots are more likely in gun-owning households. Let's just say that research in this area is not as settled as Grimes supposes. Consider the issue of concealed carry. A 2004 National Academy of Sciences report on Firearms and Violence reported that

despite a large body of research, the committee found no credible evidence that the passage of right-to-carry laws decreases or increases violent crime.

In a 2013 study published in Applied Economics Letters, the Quinnipiac University economist Mark Gius sought to determine the effects of state-level assault weapons bans and concealed carry laws on gun-related murder rates between 1980 and 2009. He found that murder rates were 10 percent higher in states with more restrictive concealed carry laws. In addition, assault weapon bans did not significantly affect murder rates at the state level. Gius concluded that his results suggest that "limiting the ability to carry concealed weapons may cause murder rates to increase."

My article, "Study Shows Smart Liberals, Conservatives, and Libertarians Are Easiest to Fool," in which I analyzed the findings of the 2012 Yale Cultural Cognition study, "Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study" reported that liberals, conservatives, and, yes, libertarians are equally adept at ignoring data that threatens their worldviews, while warmly embracing that which confirms their biases. I concluded:

The new Yale study finds that when it comes to thinking about policy-relevant scientific information that challenges their ideological views liberals, conservatives, and, yes, libertarians, are inclined to violate physicist Richard Feynman's famous "first principle." As the irreverent genius put it, "You must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."

And the smarter you are, the easier it is to fool yourself.

That means Grimes too.

For more background, see my article, "Why Do People Believe Scientifically Untrue Things?" See also my "The Evolution of Liberty" item at Cato Unbound in which I point out that modern science only became possible once liberal institutions like private property, the rule of law, and free markets came into existence.

Hat tip: Ken Constantino.