By Keith Kloor, a freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in a range of publications, from Science to Smithsonian. Since 2004, he’s been an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. You can find him on Twitter here.
Greens are often mocked as self-righteous, hybrid-driving, politically correct foodies these days (see this episode of South Park and this scene from Portlandia.) But it wasn’t that long ago—when Earth First and Earth Liberation were in the headlines—that greens were perceived as militant activists. They camped out in trees to stop clear-cutting and intercepted whaling ships and oil and gas rigs on the high seas.
In recent years, a new forceful brand of green activism has come back into vogue. One action (carried out with Monkey Wrenching flair) became a touchstone for the nascent climate movement. In 2011, climate activists engaged in a multi-day civil disobedience event that has since turned a proposed oil pipeline into a rallying cause for American environmental groups.
This, combined with grassroots opposition to gas fracking, has energized the sagging global green movement. But though activist greens have frequently claimed to stand behind science, their recent actions, especially in regard to genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, say otherwise.
For instance, whether all the claims of fracking’s environmental contamination are true remains to be decided. (There are legitimate ecological and health issues—but also overstated ones. See this excellent Popular Mechanics deconstruction of all the “bold claims made about hydraulic fracturing.”) Meanwhile, an ancillary debate over natural gas and climate change has broken out, further inflaming an already combustible issue. Whatever the outcome, it’s likely that science will matter less than the politics, as often is the case in such debates.
That’s certainly the case when it comes to GMOs, which have been increasingly targeted by green-minded activists in Europe. The big story on this front of late has been the planned act of vandalism on the government-funded Rothamsted research station in the UK. Scientists there are testing an insect-resistant strain of genetically modified wheat that is objectionable to an anti-GMO group called Take the Flour Back. The attack on the experimental wheat plot is slated for May 27. The group explains that it intends to destroy the plot because “this open air trial poses a real, serious and imminent contamination threat to the local environment and the UK wheat industry.”
By Chris Mooney, a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the just-released The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality and the New York Times-bestselling The Republican War on Science. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund, and is a host of the Point of Inquiry podcast.
Voting image via Shutterstock
One of the first questions that usually comes up when people ask me about my book The Republican Brain is: “How do you explain my Uncle Elmer, who grew up a hard core Democrat and was very active in the union, but now has a bumper sticker that reads ‘Don’t Tread on Me’?”
Okay: I’m making this question up, but it’s pretty close to reality. People constantly want to know how to explain political conversions—cases in which individuals have changed political outlooks, sometimes very dramatically, from left to right or right to left.
When I get the standard political conversion question, the one I ask in return may come as a surprise: “Are you talking about permanent political conversions, or temporary ones?”
You see, Uncle Elmer is less interesting to me—and in some ways, less interesting to the emerging science of political ideology—than the committed Democrat who became strongly supportive of George W. Bush right after 9/11, but switched back to hating him a few months later. What caused that to happen? Because it certainly doesn’t seem to have much to do with thinking carefully about the issues.
Indeed, the growing science of politics has uncovered a variety of interventions that can shift liberal people temporarily to the political right. And notably, none of them seem to have anything substantive to do with policy, or with the widely understood political differences between Democrats and Republicans.
Here is a list of five things that can make a liberal change his or her stripes:
Distraction. Several studies have shown that “cognitive load”—in other words, requiring people to do something that consumes most or all of their attention, like listening to a piece of music and noting how many tones come before each change in pitch—produces a conservative political shift.
Julie Sedivy is the lead author of Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You And What This Says About You. She contributes regularly to Psychology Today and Language Log. She is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary, and can be found at juliesedivy.com and on Twitter/soldonlanguage.
There’s been a good bit of discussion and hand-wringing lately over whether the American public is becoming more and more politically polarized and what this all means for the future of our democracy. You may have wrung your own hands over the issue. But even if you have, chances are you’re not losing sleep over the fact that Americans are very clearly becoming more polarized linguistically.
It may seem surprising, but in this age where geographic mobility and instant communication have increased our exposure to people outside of our neighborhoods or towns, American regional dialects are pulling further apart from each other, rather than moving closer together. And renowned linguist William Labov thinks there’s a connection between political and linguistic segregation.
Dialect regions as defined by the Atlas of North American English
In the final volume of his seminal book series Principles of Linguistic Change, Labov spends a great deal of time discussing a riveting linguistic change that’s occurring in the northern region of the U.S. clustering around the Great Lakes. This dialect region is called the Inland North, and runs from just west of Albany to Milwaukee, loops down to St. Louis, and traces a line to the south of Chicago, Toledo, and Cleveland.
Thirty-four million speakers in this region are in the midst of a modern-day re-arrangement of their vowel system. Labov thinks it all started in the early 1800’s when the linguistic ancestors of this new dialect began to pronounce “a” in a distinct way: the pronunciation of “man” began to lean towards “mee-an”, at least some of the time. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that this sound change began to trigger a real domino effect.
The Future has stalled. Sure, some snazzy new gadgets came out this year, but all the Next Big Things are still just over the horizon. Neal Stephenson and Peter Thiel both have depressing articles trying to pin down the culprit for our technological stagnation. They both take some shots at government, at education, and at how technological progress has become self-defeating. One passage from Stephenson crystallized the argument:
Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable. Possible outcomes that the modern mind identifies as serious risks might not have been taken seriously—supposing they were noticed at all—by people habituated to the Depression, the World Wars, and the Cold War, in times when seat belts, antibiotics, and many vaccines did not exist. Competition between the Western democracies and the communist powers obliged the former to push their scientists and engineers to the limits of what they could imagine and supplied a sort of safety net in the event that their initial efforts did not pay off. A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.
We’ve stopped innovating in big, world-changing ways. Clean energy, health care, and space travel are all roughly where they were in the ‘70s. So what’s missing? Why is it not just the West, but seemingly the entire world has suddenly shuddered to a crawl in terms of technological progress?
Oddly enough, the beginnings of an answer to our innovation woes can be found in another cultural throwback: the massive protests that are Occupy Wall Street.