The Sciences

Deep Confusion About the Left, the Right, and Science

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJan 18, 2011 1:10 PM


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Recently I came across this Ed Driscoll post at Pajamas Media, riffing on this editorial in Investor's Business Daily. While the arguments advanced in these paired right wing science commentaries aren't particularly nuanced, the basic theme is clear--it's the left that abuses science! In particular--and this is something I discussed with Seth Mnookin on the latest Point of Inquiry--the vaccine-autism claim is becoming Exhibit A in a developing "Democrat War on Science" style argument. What do I say to this, as the person who coined the phrase "Republican War on Science"? First, I fully admit that a type of "war on science" has occurred with respect to vaccination over the last ten years; and furthermore, I agree that the animus against good science in this case tends to be located, broadly speaking, on the political left. However, I don't see how the vaccine-autism case study refutes my broader argument, which was about the relationship between the right and science in modern U.S. politics. The political "left"--in this country or elsewhere--can certainly serve as a haven for science denialism. Soviet Lysenkoism is by far the most famous case, as was discussed in The Republican War on Science; but there are many, many others. But just because denialism occurs sometimes on the left does not mean that in the U.S. today--and particularly in mainstream U.S. politics--it's predominantly a left wing phenomenon. Having left wing science problems crop up occasionally is only to be expected, because people on both sides of the spectrum are wont to develop strong convictions that they can't easily let go of--this is just human nature. However, the argument about the U.S. right today is a different one. It is this: Modern conservatism wedded itself quite deliberately to the Christian right and corporate America, leading to a very systematic and even predictable set of political science problems. And these are institutionalized now in one of our chief political parties. Now, you might argue back that left wing science abuses also spring from a coherent set of political impulses or a worldview--and I might even agree with you. But you'd be hard pressed to show me how these tendencies are currently dominant in the Democratic party. Even in the vaccine case, I don't see many Democratic politicians scoring points by denying the science on this issue; rather, it's more part and parcel of a "natural", Whole Foods lifestyle. Ditto for something like irrational left-wing resistance to genetically modified foods. This is, however, an argument that could use further developing. I'm sure this post will prompt some comments--so that will be the beginning of that process.

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