When Liberals Ignore Science

How do we deal with the false perception that liberals are more inclined to trust science than conservatives?


The New York Times claims that the vaccine controversy we're all talking about raises important questions about "how to approach matters that have largely been settled among scientists but are not widely accepted by conservatives."

Well, here's another question: How do we deal with the false perception that liberals are more inclined to trust science than conservatives? Also, how do we approach the media's fondness for focusing on the unscientific views of some conservatives but ignoring the irrational—and oftentimes more consequential—beliefs of their fellow liberals?

Though outing GOP candidates as skeptics of science may confirm the secular liberal's own sense of intellectual superiority, it usually has nothing to do with policy. However, if you walk around believing that pesticides are killing your children or that fracking will ignite your drinking water or if you hyperventilate about the threat of the ocean's consuming your city, you have a viewpoint that not only conflicts with science but undermines progress. So how do we approach matters that have been settled among scientists but are not widely accepted by liberals?

Take vaccines. There is little proof that conservatives are any less inclined to vaccinate their children than anyone else. If we're interested in politicizing the controversy, though, there is a good case to be made for the opposite.

For starters, polls show that millennials (most of whom lean liberal) are far more skeptical about vaccines than older Americans. You'll notice that laws with easier loophole exemptions from vaccination are most often found in blue states, where we also find the most outbreaks. You may also notice that leading anti-vaxxers, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., are writing in the mainstream Rolling Stone, not National Review. As The New York Times itself already reported, half the children attending schools in Marin County, California, go unvaccinated by their enlightened parents. Unvaccinated children are clustered all over liberal counties in California. None of this is particularly surprising. Modern environmentalism perpetuates myths about the inorganic world and the evils of big pharma. Its adherents are just as likely to be in conflict with settled science as anyone else.

The perception that one political group is less science-savvy than another is predominately driven by the unwillingness of many conservatives to accept alarmism about global warming and the policies purportedly meant to mitigate it. But when it comes to climate change, volumes could be written about the ill-conceived, unscientific, over-the-top predictions made by activists and politicians. We could start with our own Malthusian science czar, John Holdren, who once predicted that climate change would cause the deaths of a billion people by 2020 and that sea levels would rise by 13 feet. In 2009, James Hansen, one of the nation's most respected climate scientists, told President Barack Obama that we have "only four years left to save the earth." In 1988, he predicted parts of Manhattan would be underwater by 2008. If you don't like high-speed rail, California Gov. Jerry Brown will let you know that Los Angeles International Airport is going to be underwater. And so on and on and on.

Undermining the future of genetically modifying crops—a process that, in one form or another, humans have been engaged in for about 10,000 years—probably hurts society (the poor, in particular) more than any global warming denial ever could. Across the world, almost every respected scientific organization that's taken a look at independent studies has found that GMOs are just as safe as any other food. There is no discernable health difference between conventional food and organic food. There is a difference, though, in productivity, in environmental impact and in the ability of the world's poor to enjoy more healthful high-caloric diets for a lot less money.

Yet while Republicans are evenly divided on whether genetically modified foods are unsafe, Democrats believe so by a 26-point margin. Liberals across the United States—New York, California, Oregon and Massachusetts recently—have been pushing for labeling foods to create the perception that something is wrong with them. Science disagrees.

Hydraulic fracturing is as safe as any other means of extracting fossil fuels. It creates hundreds of thousands of jobs. It provides cheaper energy for millions of Americans. It has less of an environmental impact than other processes. It means less dependency on foreign oil. It helped the economy work its way out of a recession. So 62 percent of Republicans support science, and 59 percent of Democrats oppose it. Numerous scientific studies—one funded by the National Science Foundation, which debunked the purported link between groundwater pollution and fracking—have assured us that there's nothing to fear.

It doesn't end there. What are we to make of people who mock religion as imaginary but believe an astrological sign should determine whom you date or are concerned that they will be whisked away in a flying saucer? According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 48 percent of adults in the United States believe that alien spacecraft are observing our planet right now. Among those who do believe extraterrestrials are hanging around, 69 percent are Democrats. Democrats are also significantly likelier than Republicans to believe in fortunetelling and about twice as likely to believe in astrology. I won't even get into 9/11 truthers.

For many conservatives, resolving issues of faith and science can be tricky. What excuse do Democrats have? Maybe someone at The New York Times can find out.

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  1. See, when liberals are stupid, they’re sciency about it, so it doesn’t count.

    For example, if a liberal is hysterical about GMO’s, well, that’s the precautionary principle, and that’s science. Also, he probably listened to someone who sounded sciency when he explained how vaccines cause autism. So, that’s sciency.

    However, some republicans are creationists, meaning that their stupidity isn’t sciency. So, they are worse.

    1. I don’t know if Brian was intending to be sarcastic or not, but there is nothing particularly “sciencey” about a lot of left-wing hysteria. For a lot of these people, it’s based on a “natural = good, artificial = bad” point of view that’s derived from some mix of New Ageism, Thoreau, and Rousseau’s “noble savage” and is every bit as much of a religious belief system as Creationists. To be clear, I’m not saying that to support Creationists in any way. I think that both groups are equally bad and impervious to logical fact, however.

      1. Welcome to the board! You’ll find that it wrought of wit, slathered in sarcasm and injected with irony.

        1. And occasionally sprinkled with derp.

    2. “See, when liberals are stupid, they’re sciency about it, so it doesn’t count.”

      I don’t know about that.

      Listening to liberals talk about how the economy works is like listening to fundamentalist Christians talk about evolution.

      I think liberals are more susceptible to the appeal to authority fallacy, and that can sometimes come across as being sciency, but usually they’re quoting some scientist to make a point that isn’t really scientific at all.

      The question of whether climate change will impact the polar bears is a scientific question.

      The questions of whether we should make sacrifices or how big of a sacrifice we should make, on the other hand, isn’t a scientific question at all.

      Liberals, quite often, can’t tell the difference between them. But when they quote a scientist to make a non-scientific point, they’re not being all sciency. Quite the opposite.

      1. Right and particularly with global warming, you have the whole thing where it’s pretty clear at this point that the climate got warmer from 197_ to about the year 2000. But it’s not clear if that warming trend continues.

        Oh, and there is literally no way to prove humanity is the primary cause, because we don’t have an identical planet to serve as a control.

        And of course there’s plenty of evidence suggested a mild warming trend is beneficial on the whole for humanity.

        All you can really say for sure is that the planet got a little warmer since disco died, and that there might be some negative effects which could be mitigated by some form of human action.

        That’s all you can say, IMHO, and still be on firm scientific ground.

        1. And even if all those things were true, the question of whether the sacrifice required to save the first polar bear from dying due to this trend is worth it–remains an unscientific question.

          How much we would have to sacrifice to save the first polar bear is a scientific question.

          But whether the first polar bear is worth the sacrifice is not a scientific question at all.

  2. Now this is rich. Harsanyi lecturing us on science. Back in 2006, He was touting Bill Gray, who said this about climate change:

    “This scare will also run its course. In 15-20 years, we’ll look back and see what a HOAX this was…But this warming trend is not going to keep on going. My belief is that three, four years from now, the globe will start to cool again, as it did from the middle ’40s to the middle ’70s.” ”

    Really? Last I looked 2014 was the warmest year on record, surpassing even 1998 and the associated super El Nino.

    So, David, its a hoax? Or have you changed your mind? What is funny to me is you calling out both Liberals and Conservatives. What about Libertarians, like you? Most of the commenters here think its all a hoax, and that scientists who say the opposite of what they believe must have been bought off. Seems you think something similar.

    And by the way, you wrote an article a year ago entitled “The Climate Change Debate Is Over, And Environmentalists Lost.” Really? Doesn’t seem so, does it? An agreement with China, looming rejection of Keystone, limitations on coal produced CO2, and more. In fact, the only reason you are still speaking about climate change, like today, is because you know you are losing the debate.

    1. “Last I looked 2014 was the warmest year on record” – with a 38% confidence level, and with one (adjusted) dataset.

      Everything else you mention is purely political

      Thank you for providing such a good example.

    2. So, the NYT goes after conservatives, ignoring liberals. David points this out, as you say, “calling out both liberals and conservatives” (i.e., somewhat more even-handedly than the NYT does), and then you go after him for ignoring libertarians?

      For someone who’s finger is always pointed squarely at libertarians, why don’t you open up your own target window? Oh yeah, that’s just silly advice you give to others. David needs to be fair and open-minded, and criticize everyone. No ideology can be left out.

      Meanwhile, I assume you’re on some mission to let libertarians know how stupid they are, to the exclusion of all else. And that’s totally OK. For some reason, “What about liberals, Jackhand Ace? Huh? Huh!??!?!?!?!” doesn’t count as an adequate response, even though its your basic message. Whatever.

    3. Anyway, I think the point of “The Climate Change Debate Is Over, And Environmentalists Lost” is, essentially, this:
      To be fair, every poll including the one I mention shows that climate change is not given the priority other issues get.
      Yeah, apparently, climate change is a real problem that we should all be extremely concerned over, right after we take care of practically everything else first. In a similar way, I bet the people care about starving children in Africa. You know: not enough to actually do anything about it, but when asked, they care. Don’t want to seem stupid and heartless, even as they want life to go on much as it did before, with no changes.

      An agreement with China, looming rejection of Keystone, limitations on coal produced CO2, and more. In fact, the only reason you are still speaking about climate change, like today, is because you know you are losing the debate.

      I had no idea we were about to solve global warming. Sounds pretty much over now. I assume, then, that we can move on to something else?

    4. Most of the commenters here think its all a hoax…

      I don’t. I take as presumptively true the science in the IPCC ARs as written.

      It’s frankly not worth expending any effort disputing the consensus science of climate change because the political-economic case for doing anything significant about it is so mind-bogglingly weak.

    5. “Back in 2006, He was touting Bill Gray, who said this about climate change:”

      There’s nothing unscientific about changing your mind as new data becomes available. And a lot of new data has become available in the last ten years.

      Revising your scientific opinion when new data comes in that conflicts with your theory isn’t evidence of someone being unscientific at all.

      Quite the opposite.

      If new and compelling evidence becomes available tomorrow showing that climate change is most likely a hoax, it wouldn’t be unscientific of him to revise whatever theory he holds now to reflect that new data either.

    6. Was saying the Earth is warming a hoax? Probably not. Was all the absurd alarmist horse-shit a hoax? Who knows if the people perpetuating those ideas legitimately believed them, but they might as well have been a hoax (or, you know, a good excuse for more funding and more government intervention).

      1. I have not complaint about any response above…none. To be honest, its taken a long time for people just to say its not a hoax, maybe we just agree with some of the scientists like Curry who say something different.

        That all is fair….my complaint has always been with all those, and there are many, who just want to denigrate the science.

        There are valid arguments to be made about what should or should not be done to solve this problem.

        I thank you all.

  3. Good post. I’ll note a couple of other pervasive examples of liberals ignoring science.

    First, there’s widespread attack from liberal academia on any research that suggests that male-female disparities in society have some basis in evolutionary traits and inherent differences between the sexes, or even investigating the topic. The Larry Summers episode at Harvard was a high-profile case of the refusal to even consider this possibility. I’ll note that the primary line of attack isn’t the normal and natural process of experts in the field critiquing each others’ work. Instead, the form of debate is for academics from fields such as the humanities to declare flatly that they won’t accept the results of such research.

    Second, the pro-choice movement essentially always glosses over the fact that a fetus is genetically distinct from the mother (or potential mother) carrying it. (I point this out even as a person who believes that abortion should generally be legal through the first one or two trimesters of pregnancy.) It’s a basic scientific fact that complicates various arguments for the pro-choice movement, who therefore does just about everything possible to avoid discussing it.

    1. To say nothing of research that treats race seriously, or seeks to quantify biologic effects of ionizing rad’n.

      1. To say nothing of research that treats race seriously

        It was very interesting to see the headstands and contortions everyone went into trying to refute and deny the dozens of IQ studies, including ones that eliminated any possible racial bias, that continually showed the disparity of IQ between races as documented in The Bell Curve. Despite this all being well documented ‘science’, you were an asshole just to read the book! I actually remember checking it out at the library in San Francisco — and the African-American clerk who took my library card gave me a glare like I’ve never had before or since.

        1. The funniest part to me about IQ is that the African American man that started my love affair with history books that led me into libertarian philosophy, and is one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, has an IQ of 95. I generally test about 115 or so, and there’s not a way in the world that I am smarter or more intelligent than he is.

  4. We could start with our own Malthusian science czar, John Holdren.

    The last guy I would put in a position of influence is a nitwit who sided with Paul Ehrlich in his bet with Julian Simon. Plus there’s his whole closet eugenecist shtick.

  5. This one is pretty simple: Corporations are bad.

    Big Oil is making Big Profits, therefore they are causing climate change in their rapacious search for profits. Anyone who disagrees is a corporate shill.

    Big Pharma is making Big Profits, therefore they are causing autism in their rapacious search for profits. Anyone who disagrees is a corporate shill.

    Big Agra is making Big Profits, therefore they are causing environmental devastation in their rapacious search for profits. Anyone who disagrees is a corporate shill.

    Science has nothing to do with it.

  6. Coincidentally, one doctor on a physician-only social media site today posted this response to the question:

    “What’s the most bizarre medical pseudoscience you’ve encountered?”

    Optho Doc responded: For me, it’s doctors who complain about parents dismissing the expert consensus opinion that vaccines are safe and effective, and who then turn around and dismiss the expert consensus opinion that climate change is both real and man-made. Similarly, these same doctors will roll their eyes when a pt cites ‘Dr. Google’-derived quackery, but see their own ‘Meteorologist Google’-derived nonsense as unimpeachable.

    Never have been able to comprehend the level of cognitive dissonance required to hold such conflicting attitudes about science.

    1. To be fair, vaccine safety and effectiveness admits itself very well to scientific study.

      On the other hand, computer models are not science. And refusing to recognize the emerging future’s divergence from the models’ predictions as a failed experimental test of the model is most definitely not science.

      1. Einstein said that while no amount of experimentation can prove him right, just one can prove him wrong.

        That’s science.

        Claiming that the reason computer models have failed is because the earth isn’t cooperating isn’t science.

    2. Thing is, climate “science” is not science. It’s a religion.

      You’ve got original sin in the form of carbon, the basic building block of life as we know it.
      You’ve got the devil in the form of Big Oil and other corporations and their shills.
      You’ve got salvation in the form of turning away from carbon.
      You’ve got the coming apocalypse of we don’t turn away from our carbon sinning ways.
      You’ve got the higher power in the form of government that will save us from ourselves by forcing the devil to stop producing evil carbon and stop us from sinning with it.

      Not to mention the circular logic. Human activity is bad, the climate is changing, therefore human activity must be the cause because human activity is bad.

      Self hate, original sin, a devil, a coming apocalypse, and salvation from a higher power.

      That’s not science. That’s religion.

      1. This is sort of what I’m trying to get at.

        Whether we should make sacrifices and how much we should sacrifice are not scientific questions.

        That’s a question of ethics, politics, and, yeah, religion.

        Ecology doesn’t even bill itself as just a science.

        “Ecology is an interdisciplinary field that includes biology and Earth science. The word “ecology” (“?kologie”) was coined in 1866 by the German scientist Ernst Haeckel (1834?1919). Ecological thought is derivative of established currents in philosophy, particularly from ethics and politics.[1]”

        Yeah, they use science, but they aren’t just a science. Ethics can be rational, but ethics isn’t science. Politics can be rational, but politics isn’t science either.

        The statement that polar bears are more important than coal miners isn’t really falsifiable. A scientist might falsify the question of whether there really exists a trade off between them, but the statement that polar bears are more important than coal miners isn’t any more falsifiable than the statement that coal miners are more important than polar bears.

        We’re talking about ethics and politics and culture and, yeah, religion, when we’re talking about whether we should sacrifice our standard of living for some greater good.

      2. When a scientist says we should make sacrifices because polar bears are more important than our standard of living, he isn’t being any more of a scientist than he would be if he were on his knees and praying to the God of Abraham. …and yet this is what many liberals/progressives are referring to when they say that the right rejects “science”.

  7. It’s simple:

    “Liberals” don’t like chemistry.

    “Conservsatives” don’t like biology.

    Nobody likes physics.

    Nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee. They all want cake.

  8. According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll, 48 percent of adults in the United States believe that alien spacecraft are observing our planet right now.

    Could extraterrestrial life forms have evolved to the point of being able to build faster-than-lightspeed spacecraft within the 14 billion years life-span of the universe?

  9. Men of science like say Linus Pauling or Albert Einstein were experts at their science. People assume they were therefore brilliant at everything they did. Therein lies the problem.

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