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Environment

When Science Gets Politicized, Do Journalists Play Favorites?

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In a Slatepiece several months ago, I explored the pro-nuke argument from an environmental perspective. Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan made the case succinctly:

If your concern is climate change, and you believe that slowing or preventing it is your fundamental priority, then nuclear power should be high up on the list for energy-production.

He was responding to a reader who castigated liberals for their dogmatic stance on nuclear power, fracking and genetically modified crops. The exchange reminded me of Chris Mooney's recent argument that conservatives are way more hostile to science than liberals. Mooney, being the author of a book called The Republican War on Science, is not exactly an impartial observer of this debate. Nor has his argument gone unchallenged. Last year, Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell published their rejoinderScience Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left.

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Their objective, as they write in their introduction, is to "call out" progressives who "bogusly wave the banner of science while peddling pure mythology," a phenomenon that goes "strangely underreported." After all, they note:

The conservative "sins" against science (e.g., ethical concerns about human embryonic stem cell research, skepticism about climate science, and fringe religious opposition to evolution) are widely reported and well known.

That charitable characterization of conservative attitudes towards science suggests to me that the two authors are no less impartial than Mooney. Nonetheless, they convincingly demonstrate that influential progressive activists

misinterpret, misrepresent, and abuse science to advance their ideological and political agendas.

Anyone who follows the debate on GMOs, for example, will find plenty of evidence of that, as I discussed in this Slatepiece. And Science Left Behind serves as a useful corrective to the notion that liberals are more science-minded than conservatives. To be fair, though, Mooney does say in his recent Mother Jonespiece:

 I've never argued that the left is innocent of science denial or abuse.

But he does insist that mainstream conservatives (and the positions they take) are influenced by anti-science attitudes to a much larger degree than the mainstream left. To argue otherwise, he says, is to make a false equivalency between the two sides. If there is a counter-argument to this claim, then Alex Berezow, a co-author of Science Left Behind and the editor of the Real Clear Science website, stands ready to make it. In a recent email interview, he argues that liberals are just as hostile to science as conservatives and that the media often overlooks this. My Q & A with him: Q: Chris Mooney agrees that elements of the left are "anti-science." But he argues that the anti-science strain is much more monolithic on the right. For example, he says that denial of evolution and denial of global warming--is mainstream on the right, that conservatives don't push back on it. Whereas the anti-GMO and anti-vaccine attitudes on the left are not mainstream and, in fact, vigorously challenged by liberals. Do you agree?Berezow: He's wrong. The California Democratic Party wanted to label GMOs [regarding the unsuccessful Proposition 37]. Several Democratic senators opposed the AquAdvantage genetically modified salmon. Democrats are opposed to natural gas, even though it's cleaner than coal and oil. [This is a sweeping statement that would be more accurate if he substituted environmentalists for democrats--KK] A prominent Democrat, Tom Harkin, was nearly single-handedly responsible for creating an agency which studies alternative medicine. Besides, politicians are just one part of an ideological movement. The grassroots can be very powerful and can change society. Look at organic food, for instance. The Left loves to eat at Whole Foods, despite the fact that most scientific evidence suggests it isn't superior to conventional food. Chris Mooney's thesis, boiled down, is essentially a schoolyard taunt: "Yes, the Left can be dumb, but the Right is dumber." That doesn't really inspire a lot of confidence in his argument. He also typically uses the term "false equivalence," a logical fallacy that doesn't actually exist. Q:In one of your book chapters, you argue that science journalists have a double standard when it comes to challenging "anti-science" beliefs. You ask: "Why does the right get crucified, while the left gets a free pass for its anti-science quackery?" You really think this is the case? What would be some obvious examples?Berezow: Yes, I really do think that's the case. Consider the following: The reason the NIH [National Institutes of Health] has an entire agency dedicated to studying quackery (otherwise known as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine) is because of progressive Senator Tom Harkin. The California Democratic Party endorsed the recent proposition to label genetically modified food in the state, despite the fact that the world's best scientific (AAAS) and medical (AMA) societies oppose GMO labels. On the campaign trail [in 2008] , Barack Obama said that vaccines might cause autism. Once he became president, his administration withheld information from scientists during the BP oil spill. (Imagine if George W. Bush had done that!) Also, the Obama administration interfered with the FDA's approval of a genetically modified salmon, and they shut down the Yucca Mountain facility for essentially political reasons. Yet, most people believe Bush was anti-science, while they believe Obama is pro-science. The truth is, Obama has thrown science under the bus whenever he finds it convenient. That's what most politicians do. Q:How would you characterize yourself, politically? Republican? Democrat? Independent? Libertarian? Do you think your own worldview--your ideological and political predispositions--influence how you view scientific issues?Berezow: That's tough to say. I don't fit in well with either Republicans or Democrats. My opinion depends on the specific issue, and when the facts change, my opinion changes as well. To give you an idea of how disparate my views can be, I favor merit pay for teachers (a conservative position), a carbon tax (a liberal position), and drug legalization (a libertarian position). A friend of mine once told me that my opinions would cause people's heads to explode. (I took that as a compliment.) So, by default, I would have to say I'm Independent. Essentially, I try my hardest to allow science to inform my ideology, not the other way around. Q: How do we overcome the rejection of science--by both liberals and conservatives? After all, as you write in your book: "If we are really honest with ourselves, the truth is that all of us can be anti-science at times. The reason is because we are not cold, calculating robots, nor are we uber-rational ants in a heavily structured society; we are sentimental beings who are often too easily persuaded by emotional arguments." How do we overcome that?Berezow: Well, that's the $64,000 question. I wish I had a good answer for you. We need better science journalism, for sure. There's now a trend toward more and more scientists becoming bloggers and writers, and that is absolutely fantastic. As harsh as this might sound, we need fewer English majors in science journalism and more people with actual scientific training. If a journalist can't tell a bacterium from a virus, or doesn't understand the methodological differences between the rigorous "hard" sciences and the "softer" social sciences, then maybe he shouldn't be writing about science. If journalists can't get the story straight, then how can we expect the public to do so? Science journalism needs to get its house in order first. I think that will greatly assist the public in learning more about science, technology and health.

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