When Science Gets Politicized, Do Journalists Play Favorites?

By Keith Kloor | May 8, 2013 11:59 am

In a Slate piece 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.

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 Slate piece. 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 Jones piece:

 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. 

  • JonFrum

    “Democrats are opposed to natural gas, even though it’s cleaner than coal and oil. [This a sweeping statement that would be more accurate if he
    substituted environmentalists for democrats--KK]”

    “if he substituted environmentalists – who vote democrat…”

    Fixed.

    While all democrats are not hair-on-fire anti-natural gas, all hair-on-fire anti-natural gas environmentalists are democrats.

  • harrywr2

    This is a standard lazy brain/survival instinct issue.

    We all recognize subtle differences within our own family/tribe/race. I.E. brothers and sisters don’t think they look similar…but brothers and sisters from other families look similar to us.

    Hence…a ‘left leaning’ person easily recognizes the breadth of variance that exists in the left ideological spectrum but tosses all right leaning people into a single sorting bin.

    Dismissing Chris Mooney’s book as somehow based in science is easy because it ignores his own cognizant brain functions. He is incapable of recognizing the breadth of variance in the Right leaning political spectrum.

    The more alien a group is the more ‘they all look the same’.

  • Tom C

    I fail to see how “ethical concerns about human embryonic stem cell research” qualifies as “anti-science”. Can anyone explain?

    • M Benson

      Such people feel it holds back scientific progress due to ideology based on myths.

    • bobito

      I agree, “ethical concerns” is the wrong term. The people trying to stop stem cell research are (largely) fundamentalist Christians. And they do so because they believe that the soul is given to the person at the time of conception; thus, you are killing one of gods valuable souls to get the fetus.

      There is certainly room for having “ethical concerns” about abortions and being pro stem cell research. And, with that, being pro science.

    • http://www.facebook.com/mark.hoofnagle Mark Hoofnagle

      When they did oppose ESC they did it with the usual anti-science techniques. They denied the potential of ESC, they claimed adult stem cells were superior or were pluripotential as well (they are not). Being ethically opposed to ESC is actually totally fine. Lying about the science, not so much.

      It’s kind of like animal rights’ opposition to science research. If you’re against animal experimentation, that’s your right, go for it. But it’s wrong to then claim biology can be performed without animals, by computers, that all biology is wrong because the models are wrong (all models are wrong) etc.

      Possessing the ideology is fine. But when the ideology hits the hard brick wall of reality, what you do then defines whether or not your pro-science or anti-science.

      • Keith Kloor

        Yup, that’s why I referred to “ethical concerns” as a charitable way of putting it. And maybe I was being charitable there.

        • Brian Schmidt

          “Charitable” is one way to put it. Hackery is another to describe the authors. Show me where Mooney is as charitable to the left.

          What’s unfortunate about Keith is how he’ll acknowledge there are some legitimate issues with GMOs when forced to like in the Nature piece, but otherwise (as here) ignore them. If there are some issues, as you have to concede, then you can’t draw the conclusion that all hesitation about GMOs is unscientific.

          My guess is Keith does this in order to justify his false equivalence between left and right.

          • Keith Kloor

            Brian,

            I think you’re inferring too much from my write-up of that recent Nature special issue.

            Additionally, please be more specific and state what you apparent “hesitation” is about GMOs. Once you do that, I’ll be happy to tell you whether I think you’re being unscientific or not.

      • dogctor

        It’s kind of like animal rights’ opposition to science research. If you’re against animal experimentation, that’s your right, go for it. But it’s wrong to then claim biology can be performed without animals, by computersI

        That is an oversimplification of opposition to animal experimentation. It is pretty well known that a significant portion of animal experimentation is of very low value to science. As an example, today’s veterinary schools teach non survival surgery to all 4th year veterinary students, which is wholly inadequate to preparing them to perform surgery in the real world, as technical skills are acquired through practice, practice and some more practice. Most are developing partnerships with shelters in order to teach surgeries on patients who actually need it, instead, which does not instill loss of respect for the sanctity of life while teaching much better technical skills.

        In addition, there are contract research organizations (CRO)s conducting experiments on sentient beings purely for profit, such as Huntington Life Sciences; videotaped abusing animals while publishing little more than “grey literature”.

        So while being similar in the sense that both ESC and animal experimentation invoke bioethics, opposition to SEC is rooted in religion, while opposition to animal experimentation, not so much, given the fact that the most commonly practiced religions in the US (Judeo-Christian) teach that man has dominion over animals, thus giving animal experimentation a pass.

  • Tom Scharf

    What question is the sort on climate science derived?

    1. Do you believe the earth has warmed over the past 100 years?

    2. Do you believe humans are responsible for more than 50% of the warming in the last 50 years?

    3. Do you believe AGW is a clear and present danger to the human way of life?

    The impression is given that the sort is based on #1, which would leave me “pro-science”, but the policy question is based on #3, which would leave me as “anti-science”.

    The partisan labeling movement is simply there to tar and feather opponents, not to expand our knowledge or convince anybody of anything.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mark.hoofnagle Mark Hoofnagle

    Be fair to Chris, in the introduction to his book he specifically describes how anti-science was actually actively coming from the left in the 60s and 70s with postmodernism.

    Anyway, this is a tough problem to describe, because it requires one to quantify how well-aligned a population is with various scientific consensus positions. It also ends up being very variable in terms of the distribution of anti-science on the left and right depending on which questions did you ask.

    I’m personally of the belief that everyone who is ideological has some anti-science lurking in the wings, because blind ideology will always trump reason and data, and all ideology will ultimately encounter a situation in which its rules don’t conform to reality. When we face those tests those that are truly anti-science will stick with the ideology, and those that are non-ideological pragmatists will modify their views.

    As a result I’m frequently accused of creating the false-equivalence problem, even though I’m one of the loudest critics against false equivalence when it comes to reporting of the science vs antiscience positions. I then try to find data that supports my position, other than my personal observation of which ideologies are attracted to which crankery, and it’s somewhat lacking, or flawed.

    Some of the most interesting research on this comes from Dan Kahan who evaluates the different risk assessments of individuals who come from broadly conservative, or broadly liberal positions. Interestingly, his research appears to show that I am indeed wrong, and when it comes to the risk assessment that he has examined so far, conservatives truly do seem to be further off the deep end. Much of what we ascribe to being the left wing anti-science (GMO, antivax etc.) we see is more or less equally shared among conservatives according to his data. I think conservative news sources are what are responsible for the apparent difference on GMO or nuclear power. They just don’t latch onto it like left wing media sources do so it doesn’t look like there is as much of a problem, but when polled individually, they have similar numbers to the lefties on these issues..

    I’ve come to the conclusion from the available data that all ideology will one day make you a crank if you believe it blindly, but the data appear to show conservatives veer to the extremes of crankiness more frequently than the liberals do. Also, they have a lot of untapped crankery that is being ignored by the right wing media, possibly because their media is more corporate oriented.

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I’m torn about this. I wish we could fix journalism with some science blogging–but that’s not the way it’s looking to me.

    Although the recent egregious Roundup story at Reuters was particularly absurd, I don’t know if that’s the worst of it. The same crockery went out to the regular channels–Mercola, Mike Adams. the anti-GMO activists groups, food book writers, etc. Whether or not it went out via Reuters it was out there and was latched onto as gospel. I saw it making the rounds before the MSM.

  • Douglas Levene

    A recent empirical study casts some doubt on the meme that conservatives are knuckle-dragging, uneducated, science-deniers. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2193133. This paper found, among other things, that “[m]embers of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change.”

  • http://twitter.com/UltraVerified UltraVerified

    Supporting nuclear fission power plants with the myriad of problems that they have is confusing science and technology. It’s not even a case of ‘finding a solution’ when the cure is about as bad as the disease.

  • dogctor

    I would argue that to the extent that religion is a more prominent feature of the right, the right views GMOs as negatively, because clearly Frankencorn is not as God made it, and the public uses religion as a heuristic ( mental short cut) to making decisions on complicated scientific issues, along with deference to scientific authority, trust/ lack of trust in institutions and perception of benefit to risk.

    Unfortunately for GMO cheerleaders, the influence scientific authority often has in shaping the public opinion on complicated scientific issues is annihilated by the fact that the quarter back on Team -GMO is Monsatan, a corporation with a horrid reputation.
    The corporate ties might not have as much influence on the business-friendly right, while influencing anti-corporate left.

    However, when one considers benefit to risk of this technology and concludes that there is zero benefit to consumer with the currently commercialized products, while risks are incalculable, it is quite clear that based upon a benefit/risk analysis to consumer the issue would be non-partisan.

    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. Sure, so long as journalists actually get out and get science training– a couple of years of upper division biochemistry/ molecular biology and a few years in medical school if they intend to write seriously about health implications of this technology, in contrast to simply spinning this issue.

    • http://twitter.com/andrewadams99 Andrew Adams

      Yeah, in the UK anti-GMO attitudes are just as prevalent on the right as on the left. The most vocal proponent of the “Frankenfoods” meme is the (very right wing) Daily Mail. Also Keith’s piece mentions anti-vaccination people but they are almost exclusively on the right here (again the Mail is particularly guilty).

      • dogctor

        Thanks Andrew.
        I don’t see how being anti-vaccine has anything to do with agriculture, but it sure enlarges the “anti-science” tent, which is more than ironic, when one makes a living giving vaccines.

  • kdk33

    Well this is a lazy piece.,, of bait that is, and it seems many have taken it – let the name calling begin.

    BTW, liberals aren’t anti-science, they are just wrong.

  • Skeptico

    “He also typically uses the term “false equivalence,” a logical fallacy that doesn’t actually exist.”

    Huh? Of course it does – it’s declaring things to be equivalent when they’re not.

  • http://twitter.com/AgBioEye Andrew Apel

    ‘Anti-science’ covers a multitude of sins, one of which is just plain self-satisfied ignorance, and you can find that regardless of political disposition. As such, there’s a fair amount of what’s called anti-science that isn’t opposition to science per se.

    There are, nonetheless, people who are anti-science and actually say so. It’s not hard to find people who point at a litany of perceived horrors, who lump together thalidomide, vaccines, GMOs and fluoridation, and then make all of them accusations against science. Perhaps in order to make the overt rejection of science more palatable, many of them refer to ‘corporate science’ or ‘capitalist science’.

    For these people, a denial of scientific facts is perfectly appropriate if the facts were discovered or are asserted by persons or groups considered “bad”.

    They even offer alternatives to science, such as ‘natural wisdom’.

    While this problem is not uniquely liberal, it *is* overwhelmingly liberal.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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