Classic False Equivalence on Political Abuse of Science

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.

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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.

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Chris Mooney in a Science Progress cross-postJR: 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.

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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.