It's popular to portray the GOP as the anti-science party and Democrats as the sane, "party of science" alternative. And only 6 percent of scientists identified as Republicans, according to a 2009 Pew Research poll, which seems to be the most recent one on the topic. But the truth is that when science and politics meet, the result often isn't pretty, regardless of partisan affiliation.
Reason TV asked locals in Venice, California about their thoughts on various scientific policy questions and compared their answers to public opinion poll data. We found that many people favored mandatory labeling of food that contains DNA, the stuff of life contained in just about every morsel of fruit, vegetable, grain, or meat humans consume. Yet a recent survey out of the University of Florida found that 80 percent of respondents favor mandatory DNA labeling, only slightly below the 85 percent that favor labeling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While Republicans are divided evenly on the GMO question, Democrats rate them unsafe by a 26-point margin, despite almost 2,000 studies spanning a decade saying otherwise.
Republicans are more skeptical of the theory of evolution, though by a surprisingly slim margin with 39 percent of them rejecting it as compared to 30 percent of Democrats. When it comes to other scientific matters, the waters are even muddier. For instance, Democrats and Republicans believe in the false link between vaccines and autism at roughly equal levels.
And it's largely liberal Democratic politicians pushing anti-vaping laws, despite public health agencies estimating e-cigarettes to be around 95% safer than conventional tobacco cigarettes and early evidence they help smokers quit. And vaping products don't contain any tobacco or its resultant tar, yet the FDA still wants to treat them as tobacco products.
The big science policy issue of the day, though, seems to be global warming. Sixty-four percent of Democrats believe in man-made global warming, while only 22 percent of Republicans do. But when it comes to realistic solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Democrats still aren't always science-minded.
Only 45 percent of Democrats support expanding the use of nuclear energy, as compared to 62 percent of Republicans, despite the fact that except for Chernobyl, not a single person, including nuclear workers, has ever died due to a commercial nuclear reactor accident.
Burning natural gas extracted through fracking is cleaner than oil or gasoline, and far more economically viable than non-nuclear renewable sources. And it emits half as much carbon dioxide, less than one-third the nitrogen oxides, and 1 percent as much sulfur oxides as coal combustion.
The ongoing switch from coal to natural gas to generate electricity is a primary driver of the reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by half a billion tons over the last decade, according to the EPA, which also has found no systemic evidence that fracking contaminates water tables. The U.S. Geological Survey found that fracking can cause "extremely small earthquakes, but they are almost always too small to be a safety concern," though larger earthquakes can result when operations dispose of wastewater by injecting it deep into the ground.
So maybe it's not that Republicans are dumber than Democrats when it comes to science, or the other way around, but that both sides have blind spots when data-based evidence contradicts their political preferences.
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Produced by Zach Weissmueller and Justin Monticello. Additional graphics by Josh Swain. Music by Adam Selzer and Chris Zabriskie. Approximately 8 minutes.