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Classic False Equivalence on Political Abuse of Science

By Climate Guest Contributor and Joe Romm  

"Classic False Equivalence on Political Abuse of Science"

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Chris Mooney dismantles an embarrassingly bad instance of false equivalence in USA Today.   I throw in my ten cents at the end.

Political conservatives in the U.S. today have overwhelming problems with science. They reject, in large numbers, mainstream and accepted knowledge on fundamental things about humans and the planet–evolution, global warming, to name a few. I also recently posted about how systematically conservatives undermine science with respect to reproductive health.

And this is still just the tip of the iceberg.

When this kind of thing gets pointed out, there is one response you can count on: Someone tries to show that liberals do the same thing. This typically involves finding a few relatively fringe things that some progressives cling to that might be labeled anti-scientific. But usually, the allegedly anti-science position is not mainstream or has relatively little political influence. Sometimes, the argument is even weaker still, because science-related policy disagreements are confused with cases of science rejection, ignoring a very basic distinction that is central to any discussion in this area.

Case in point: An oped in USA Today by one Alex Berezow arguing that

In short, for every anti-science Republican that exists, there is at least one anti-science Democrat. Neither party has a monopoly on scientific illiteracy. Indeed, ignorance has reached epidemic proportions inside the Beltway.

This is a truly mind-boggling statement. What is this numerical claim based on?

I can give you polling data on Tea Party followers, for instance, who reject evolution and climate change in dramatic numbers. I’d love to see similar data on a scientific topic where liberals reject a widely accepted scientific fact in similar numbers, and do so for clear political reasons.

The cases adduced for liberal science abuse by the author are similarly flimsy. For instance, PETA is cited, because it opposes animal research. First, this is mostly a moral issue . Second, and as I noted in my book The Republican War on Science, animal rights activists actually do reject the science on this issue, by saying that animals aren’t really needed in medical research … but the author doesn’t even note it.  Third: The fundamental point is that PETA is not a liberal group commanding wide assent for its views on the left, doesn’t drive mainstream Democratic policy, etc.  The example is completely non-parallel to conservatives’ increasingly monolithic rejection of climate science.

Something similar could be said of the other examples: GMOs, nuclear power, and vaccine denial:

1) GMOs: there’s some progressive resistance and some misuse of science in this area–no doubt. I wrote about that in The Republican War on Science too. But again, it is not a mainstream position, not a significant part of the liberal agenda, etc. The specific case cited by the author (some Pacific northwestern Democratic senators resisting GM salmon) may contain a misuse of science–I don’t know–but it is not obvious that it does. This looks at first glance like a policy disagreement, rather than a dispute over the facts of science in which liberals are wrong. Certainly no case is made here that it is more than that, though I would be open to such a case.

2) Nuclear power–this is a pretty good one, because for a long time the left really was anti-nuclear. However, I don’t think that is the case today, and in fact, President Obama’s administration is pretty much pro-nuclear. And again, the author makes no case that nuke opponents are factually wrong about, say, the risk of low-dose radiation. (Although some of them are.)

3) Vaccines–polling data suggests that distrust of vaccines is rather bipartisan, but I actually agree with the author in suspecting those data aren’t that good and that this is more of a left wing thing. But of course, liberal journalists like myself, and liberal commentators, have pretty much chased vaccine denial out of the realm of polite discourse. We’ve held our own accountable and really, you cannot defend this view any more without being pilloried.

Which, of course, is how it works for liberals. We work with scientists and respect them–there is far too much psychological cost for most of us to openly contradict a consensus they’ve reached. Why that’s the case is a much longer story … and perhaps will be for another post.

Chris Mooney in a Science Progress cross-post

JR:  The arguments in this op-ed are remarkably unscientific, even though “Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.”  To expand on the most unscientific argument he makes, Berezow writes:

We can also thank progressives for blocking the construction of nuclear power plants, even though nuclear power is supported by 70% of the scientific community. Ironically, they oppose this technology despite the fact it would help reduce carbon emissions and limit the impact of global warming.

[Pause to clean up grey matter because I forgot to warn you to put on your head vise.  Apologies.  These days I just leave mine on 24/7 because, well, you never know.]

The author has crammed a remarkable number of logical errors in those two sentences.  Okay, blaming progressive for blocking construction of nuclear power plants isn’t a logical error:  It’s just a classic right-wing talking point that is presented with no supporting evidence whatsoever.  Most folks in the energy biz know that the real culprit is cold hard economics — nuclear power plants have simply priced themselves out of the market (see Exelon’s Rowe: Low gas prices and no carbon price push back nuclear renaissance a “decade, maybe two” and links therein).

Second, and this is a logical error, Berezow makes a classic mistake of conflating what scientists tell pollsters with science itself.  There are lots of reasons to oppose nuclear power that have nothing to do with science.  Readers know, for instance, that I’m not fundamentally opposed to nuclear power — new nukes just happen to be a poor way to spend limited resources if your priority is carbon mitigation.

Third, another  logical error is to lump all progressives together as in “they oppose this technology.”  Indeed, many progressives do support nuclear power precisely because of their concern about global warming.  And if we’re talking progressives in Congress, which is where the power really is, they virtually all supported a market-oriented climate bill that promoted nuclear power whereas virtually all Republicans opposed it.  So again, anti-science triumphs in a genuinely political sense only in one party.

Finally, if your top priority is mitigating greenhouse gases, then presumably you would want to focus on the most cost-effective strategies.  The fact that nuclear is not near the top of the list is economics and not science.

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21 Responses to Classic False Equivalence on Political Abuse of Science

  1. Don Pickard says:

    Haha! Yeah, those liberals that are against Nuclear Power: do they believe that nuclear reactions don’t actually produce energy?

    No, they (for the most part) believe that there are other contributing factors outside of the direct science of the nuclear reaction that leads them to be against it (mostly in the area of future potential risks related to the materials involved).

    Bottom line is that I think it’s safe to say that Republicans are more anti-science than Liberals because they are more under the sway of the financial interests that don’t benefit by teaching truth about science.

    That said, I do know of liberals that believe some wacky things, like “chemtrail” conspiracies, and “orgonite therapies.”

  2. sault says:

    This is all due to the fact that conservatives have complained for decades about a “liberal bias” in the media. Not being in media myself, I don’t know the specifics of the business, but I think it’s more of a “narrative bias” and a “status quo bias”. The “mainstream” press as a whole just loves crafting narratives, and aside from the predictable “man bites dog” stories, they tend to stay within the framework of that narrative so that they don’t appear to be getting “scooped” by their competition AND it makes investigating the issues so much easier. If everyone else is saying something similar, you can cut corners and never have to worry about getting called out on it! That only “partisans” like Dr. Romm and Mr. Mooney here bother to even try and dismantle the narrative serves to reinforce their tendency to color within the lines and not question the public’s perception of how the world works.

    News organizations and individual broadcasters are so eager to avoid the “liberal bias” label that they resort to bending over backwards to find some way of equivacating what has become mainstream within the Republican Party with ideas way out of the main stream that Democrats for the most part don’t even support. In short, these reporters lack the guts to take a stand and present the truth without trying to deflect allegations of bias first.

    Another factor at work is the huge advertising buys that dirty energy companies take out in ALL kinds of media, INCLUDING MSNBC. In addition, opposition to action that mitigates climate change impacts is much broader and deeper on the Right as it is on the Left. Hence, Rush saying that Romney can say, “Bye, bye nomination!” because he gives tepid support to established science (though no support for concrete solutions). Obama’s record on climate change leaves something to be desired, but I know for certain that any alternative will be MUCH worse for the climate. It’s a sad situation, but it is also a testament to the power of corporate lobbying and the level of dysfunction in the U.S. Senate.

  3. Michael Tucker says:

    False equivalence or a blatant lie… Berezow knows exactly what is meant when someone is accused of being anti-science…exactly what Huntsman meant when he said it. No one is talking about vaccine denial. Concerns about nuclear power are mostly about safety and public health and that really comes down to trusting, or distrusting, the engineers, not the science. I can think of some levees, a bridge, and at least one dam that had been given the engineer seal of approval that eventually proved to be overly optimistic. The concerns about GMO’s are still ongoing and some biologists are still concerned about modified organisms escaping into the wild and breading with natural species.

    But if Berezow what’s to stay inside the Beltway where “[science] ignorance has reached epidemic proportions” let’s line up Republican congressional leaders with Democratic leaders to see how the denial of climate science and evolution matches up.

  4. John Tucker says:

    Wait a minute, you are blaming purely financial considerations for slowing nuclear growth in the energy sector post TMI?

    With no ¨litigation feedback¨ there?

    Also is calling this administration ¨pro Nuclear¨ considering what happened with Yucca and every NRC press release published lately?

    I would like to see the reasoning that funding for nuclear energy would even have to come out of renewable coffers – especially as it is supported POLITICALLY by opposing factions.

    As a proven technology it is successful at carbon reduction at much higher rates than any other available technology when considering power delivered (as well as reducing major pollutants).

    But beyond that the argument made was a anti science perspective was in play and considering the misinformation released just in the last few months I think that accusation as been throughly justified. Just by the posts here.

    The tea party may be eminently worse but that still doest excuse it.

  5. SecularAnimist says:

    It’s ironic that Berezow would assert that “vaccine denial” is a Democratic view, since the most recent notable instance of an actual politician making blatantly bogus and utterly unsupported claims about vaccines is Michele Bachmann talking about the HPV vaccine.

    And while I realize that ClimateProgress is not really the appropriate venue for in-depth discussion of the other issues that Berezow refers to, I would note that there are very legitimate criticisms of animal experimentation, nuclear power, and genetically engineered organisms — and whatever the merits of those criticisms, they have nothing whatever to do with denial of basic scientific facts, as is the case with denial of anthropogenic global warming and evolution.

    Also, it’s worth pointing out that there is a pattern here:

    Large, wealthy, politically powerful corporations make a lot of money from carbon pollution, animal research, GMOs, nuclear power, and vaccines. And in each case, the Republican position is simply to support the profit interests of those corporations, regardless of what science has to say about the matter one way or another.

    • John Tucker says:

      ¨ClimateProgress is not really the appropriate venue for in-depth discussion of the other issues that Berezow refers to¨

      Perhaps that needs to be clearly outlined and stated by the owners.

      Anti Nuclear groups in the form of gas interests probably have FAR more influence. Considering the NG capacity installed recently and that ¨renewable¨ projects thus far presented are the majority of time covered by other means of generation. (up to 90 percent gas co generation)

      Is any of that disputed?

      Look at the posts here today. The one on setbacks to rooftop solar – a ready made low environmental impact, finance-able carbon reduction bonanza, that has access to huge swaths of 20 percent capacity factor markets – Its crickets, one post – arguably the most relevant issue here – no one cares.

      Then look to the right – Its no nukes and solar happiness on face-book popularity.

      • Joe Romm says:

        We focus on climate and energy here. So the other (absurd) claims Berezow makes aren’t something we focus on here.

  6. Kris says:

    Re: vaccine denial – you may suspect it skews liberal, but I can tell you that a platform plank proposed by the Republican party in the Iowa state convention in 1992 was to eliminate mandatory vaccinations. If I recall correctly, it was voted down but not without a fight. That particular brand of nuttery been around a while and it’s bipartisan. Anyone who believes in medical conspiracy theories, left or right, is suceptible.

  7. Mark Shapiro says:

    I’m happy to oppose nuclear power for purely conservative reasons: I’m ill disposed towards concentrated power, bureaucracy, regulation, subsidies, and socialized risks.

    Nuclear power concentrates political and economic power. It also creates unnecessary security risks that grow exponentially as it proliferates (cue Tom Lehrer).

    And its uneconomical.

    Chalk me up for efficiency, renewables, and good old-fashioned conservation, thanks.

  8. john tucker says:

    Here we are again.

    First of all solar PV is not a base-load option that I know of. The full replacement options are nuclear and regional solar/renewable or solar/renewable and gas.

    Is there some other mix available for steady power and if so what are the specifics?

    Fuel costs factored in I believe Nuclear and solar are probably just slightly more expensive and are about a tenth of the carbon investment of gas alone. Solar and gas would be only half at best.

    It could actually be cheaper considering future price rises in NG.

    I know of no instance of a American reactor being a proliferation issue or risk. I know of no issue or accident involving radiation that comes close to comparison with climate change, safety and mishaps involving all three fossil fuel options. And thats direct mishap deaths AND scientifically projected casualty estimates.

    “Argument is meant to reveal the truth, not to create it.” – Edward De Bono

  9. Bill Green says:

    Science deniers are NOT equal on the left and the right. However, one energy area where some on the left seem to be intent on denial in the face of a strong scientific consensus is a focus on the direct “through the frack” groundwater contamination risk associated with fracking that is separated from aquifers by thousands of feet of impermeable strata.

    Of course, there are very legitimate concerns associated with natural gas development activities involving well casings, surface handling of fracking fluids and produced water, etc.

    It is the insistence/focus of some opponents of natural gas development on “through the frack” contamination notwithstanding massive evidence to the contrary that represents “denier-type” behavior.

  10. I oppose nuclear power of the sort we have now and for which permit applications are pending. I support research and development of Thorium-based nuclear power. I am a progressive (liberal) with a Ph. D. specializing in nuclear physics. So did my opposition make me completely forget everything I learned? Maybe I just learned enough to know how dangerous uranium/plutonium based reactors are and I was reminded of what I might have forgot by events in Fukushima.
    Surely the writer could have found some better example of progressive ignorance. I’ll bet some of us believe in alien abductions. I know a few just plain don’t-know-nuttin-about-science-and-don’t-care liberals.
    The main issue I would point out is that the progressive agenda is substantially reality-based in spite of the human frailties of individual progressives and the tea-party agenda is fantasy junk.

    • Steve Metzler says:

      I support research and development of Thorium-based nuclear power.

      Yep. There’s an abundance of the stuff, it’s safer than uranium/plutonium, and much less waste accruing. So… why are we dragging our feet on gearing up for these new generation reactors?

      I certainly hope we are past the point where we need to have weapons grade plutonium as a by-product of power generation.

      Mind you… I would prefer concentrated solar. But thorium reactors could certainly help fill the gap until we get ramped up on the large scale solar.

    • John Tucker says:

      Hopefully you would use peer reviewed since in making decisions as opposed to organizations like Greenpeace basing ideas on unverifiable former east block studies, science from books with no formal review, and claiming conspiracy when vast groups of professionals come to a different conclusion than the one they desired.

      Commercially available thorium reactors are not in existence.

  11. Andy says:

    I oppose GMO crops and animals because of the ecological damage they can cause. GMO salmon, for example, have been shown (published works) to escape pens in large numbers, breed with wild, non-GMO salmon, have a breeding advantage (due to sexual selection for large individuals) over their wild competitors, and produce off-spring which aren’t suited to survival in the wild; thus decreasing the population and viability of wild salmon populations. This cause and effect has been shown through every step by peer-reviewed science.

    Similarly the escape of herbicide resistant genes from crops into wild weeds causes concern that herbicide use against invasive species, one of our best natural resource management tools, will become ineffective. This view was supported by the USDA as they contemplated the licensing of roundup resistant bentgrass for use by golf courses.

    But what poll would separate my scientifically defensible views from those who reject science?

  12. Ken says:

    “Is there some other mix available for steady power and if so what are the specifics?” Several plausible pathways to carbon free energy exists. Perhaps though you do not agree with them. If you have not yet, please for example see Joe Romm’s post on the Princeton Wedge Strategy here – http://thinkprogress.org/romm/2011/01/10/207320/the-full-global-warming-solution-how-the-world-can-stabilize-at-350-to-450-ppm/
    – for one plan. Other carbon free pathways are concievable; all more expensive than current market costs, true, but technologically doable right now. Also, in time, obviously the cost of carbon free energy will decline while all fossil fuel energy will rise with population growth, increasing extraction costs, and natural economic inflation not to mention the cost of climate change externalities.

    The obstacles to carbon free energy generation are economic,and political not technologic: These carbon free schemes all overturn the current fossil fuel industry plutocracy which controls 8% of the total global GDP. That group will not go quietly into the night, if ever.Shifting to a carbon free economy will also disrupt the jobs of millions, a political nightmare.

  13. John Tucker says:

    Here is a good example of how anti nuclear sentiment and unimaginable competition between clean energy technologies is fostered on the left:

    For Insight On Solyndra Loan, Ask The Nuclear Industry, Markey Says

    Edward Markey (D-Mass.) argued during Friday’s hearing before the House Energy Committee — and in a letter sent to Upton and Stearns this morning — that subordinating taxpayers’ interests to those of private investors on DOE loan guarantees arose in large part due to complaints from the nuclear power industry that the loans, created under the Bush administration, were trickling out too slowly for their own projects.

    That view was endorsed by the industry’s congressional backers, Markey noted. ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/23/for-insight-on-solyndra-l_n_978188.html )

    Solyndra failed because it had to compete with heavily subsidized Chinese products and the US government isnt offering renewable incentives or even making it possible for people to easily finance renewables­. Period.

    And if you want to read a lead in setup for a gas commitment read his calls for ¨investigation¨ of NG projections:

    “We don’t need near-sighted industry optimism. Instead, let’s discover the reality of our domestic natural gas reserves, and plan our energy future accordingly.” ( http://markey.house.gov/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4409&Itemid=141 )

    Yea – sounds like hes really going after the fossil fuel industry. This anti nuclear sentiment is not grounded in concern for the environment.

    • Joe Romm says:

      Your weakest comment to date.

      • John Tucker says:

        You think? Perhaps, you can delete it of course. But that really got me irritated, then thinking about the motivational origins of this kind of thing, then reading his comments about gas. He has made up his mind on purely economic supply side reasoning.

        Thats the artist in me thinking from a bit of a different angle too – The study of Art is, after all, the study of the expression of motivation.

        Those loans, businesses and markets are apples and oranges. There is a incongruity about his comment that really bothers me.

        I dont see how that mindset is ever going to facilitate large scale renewable or clean energy either. I dont see how everything that can be made into a political argument to affirm a pre conceived political world view or satisfy political donors and/or maintain a triangulated kind of populist ¨environmentalism¨ wont be.

        • John Tucker says:

          I mean its easy to say things like ¨anti science¨ as a negative motivator to push some argument or agenda. I think everyone actually does that. This article lumps it to that on several levels. But the nuts and bolts of it are always much more complicated and probably have both contributing beliefs and narrative circumstances that together are stronger than part of the reasoning of whatever is being scientifically and/or logically argued.

          Those beliefs and narrative circumstances have more to do with motivations and learned mechanical approaches to them.

  14. Russell says:

    I’m surprised that Chris has not looked into the educational origins of the demographic divide he describes- specifically the rise of home schooling and the evangelical universities it populates, like Liberty and Oral Roberts. Their alumni in turn carry their scientific prejudices or sheer ignorance forward into their professions, ( the religious captivity of the Federalist Society is a case in point ) creating organizations that insofar as they identify science with materialism are indisposed to engage seriously in science policy debates .

    Chris is in effect tarring the historically technophilic Republican party, which historically gave the nation the NAS , with an antiscience brush whose broader strokes were better aimed at the evangelical ‘base’ that has emerged along with neoconservatism over the last few decades.

    It is wrong to equate religious zeal and politicized science because in order for the latter to exist , both parties must have some realistic sense of what it is that they are trying to politicize.

    Blowhards like Limbaugh, Perry , and Bachman clearly fail that test, but it is disappointing to find Chris ( and Joe) in active denial as to the bipartisan nature of theocratic ambition – the Dominionists’ agenda encompasses your party as well as the Republicans .