Who "hearts" science among liberals

By Razib Khan | April 20, 2011 2:34 pm

First, if it is clear that you haven’t read the post itself and leave a comment I won’t just not publish it, but I’ll ban you. Second, if you complain about this in the comments, I’ll ban you too. Now that you feel appropriately welcome, I want to explore some of the issues beneath Chris Mooney’s post, Vaccine Denial and the Left:

So I want to further explain my assertion that vaccine denial “largely occupies” the political left. It arises, basically, from my long familiarity with this issue, having read numerous books about it, etc.

First, it is certainly true that environmentalists and Hollywood celebrities have been the loudest proponents of anti-vaccine views. To me, that is evidence, although not necessarily definitive. So is the fact that we see dangerously large clusters of the unvaccinated in places like Ashland, Oregon, and Boulder, Colorado, which are very leftwing cities.

What’s tricky is, there’s not a standard left-right political ideology underlying this. Rather, it seems more associated with a Whole Foods and au natural lifestyle that, while certainly more prominent on the bicoastal left, isn’t the same as being outraged by inequality or abuses of the free market.

This is a tricky issue. There is a stereotype that liberals who reject religion tend to gravitate toward New Age/environmentalist spirituality. “The mind abhors a vacuum” model. I used to accept this, but if you poke around the General Social Survey the reality is more complicated. For example, you can look up attitudes toward genetically modified food and astrology. The results don’t fall neatly into a Left-Right dichotomy. Part of the issue is that there has been aggregation of distinct groups into on catchall category. Consider me. I identify as a conservative, which would indicate a far higher odds of me being a Creationist, but I’m clearly not.

There aren’t any questions about vaccination in the General Social Survey, but there are several about trust and faith in science, or lack thereof. First I pruned all of the questions which were before 1998. So the results below are for the 2000s by and large. After that I had a set of variables to play with, to serve as replicates in terms of observing trends. Below are three tables with my results.

Table #1 is just a set of results which shows how political ideology, party identification, and educational attainment, correlate with attitudes toward science. So in that table the columns add up to 100%. So below 4% of liberals strongly agree while the assertion that “we trust too much in science,” and 21% strongly disagree.

The second table is limited to self-identified liberals. I wanted to query how attitudes toward science vary by demographic among liberals. In this case the rows add up to 100% on the margin (rotated from the first table). So in terms of those who strongly agree that we trust too much in science, 29% are male and 71% female, among self-identified liberals. Remember that in some classes there won’t be a 50/50 breakdown, so look for the variation in relative trends.

Finally, for the third table I have a regression. I now divided the sample into liberal and conservative groups, and ran a set of variables to predict opinions on the questions which I’ve covered so far. The first row has the R-squared, the magnitude of which illustrates how much the listed variables predict variation on the question. Subsequent rows have beta values for the variables, which indicate the direction and magnitude of the effect from that given variable. The questions are all easily numerical, or recoded as numerical (e.g., atheist, agnostic…to total belief in God is 1, 2…6). To get an intuition as to what’s going on, just look at each variable and its value. Those which are bold are statistically significant at p = 0.05. For example, among liberals confidence in belief in god seems to decrease trust in science. Socioeconomic status seems to increase it.

Please note that I’ve omitted some categories for variables where the sample size is too small, so some rows/columns may be less than 100% (e.g., Jews in “religion”). Additionally I’ve removed some response classes where N < 25, as the noise can confuse the trend line.


TRUSTCIWe trust too much in science
POLVIEWSLibModCons

Strongly agree4810
Agree162328
Neither223025
Disagree372829
Strongly disagree21118
PARTYIDDemIndRep

Strongly agree789
Agree222326
Neither243127
Disagree322430
Strongly disagree14149
DEGREENon-collegeCollege


Strongly agree93
Agree2616
Neither2723
Disagree2934
Strongly disagree824
NEXTGENScience & tech. give more opportunities to next generation
POLVIEWSLibModCons

Strongly agree423540
Agree485753
Disagree886
Strongly disagree211
PARTYIDDemIndRep

Strongly agree383441
Agree545652
Disagree7106
Strongly disagree111
DEGREENon-collegeCollege


Strongly agree3645
Agree5550
Disagree85
Strongly disagree10
SCIFAITHBelieve too much in science, not enough in faith
POLVIEWSLibModCons

Strongly agree10915
Agree324037
Neither232825
Disagree241820
Strongly disagree1153
PARTYIDDemIndRep

Strongly agree111012
Agree383837
Neither232927
Disagree211820
Strongly disagree754
DEGREENon-collegeCollege


Strongly agree135
Agree4127
Neither2527
Disagree1729
Strongly disagree411
TOOFASTScience makes our way of life change too fast
POLVIEWSLibModCons

Strongly agree1089
Agree314238
Disagree484345
Strongly disagree1278
PARTYIDDemIndRep

Strongly agree10107
Agree384236
Disagree434148
Strongly disagree978
DEGREENon-collegeCollege


Strongly agree115
Agree4031
Disagree4350
Strongly disagree614
SCISPECScience is too concerned with theory and speculation
POLVIEWSLibModCons

Strongly agree476
Agree233336
Disagree505352
Strongly disagree2376
PARTYIDDemIndRep

Strongly agree675
Agree293433
Disagree505253
Strongly disagree1577
DEGREENon-collegeCollege


Strongly agree73
Agree3523
Disagree5154
Strongly disagree720

Opinions of science of self-identified liberals. Rows = 100% or less
We trust too much in science
MaleFemale
Strongly agree2971
Agree4258
Neither4357
Disagree4654
Strongly disagree4951
WhiteBlack
Strongly agree4047
Agree5928
Neither7713
Disagree8011
Strongly disagree861
Non-collegeCollege
Strongly agree8614
Agree8119
Neither7228
Disagree6436
Strongly disagree4060
ProtestantCatholicNone
Strongly agree65216
Agree58259
Neither363222
Disagree382723
Strongly disagree301839
Science & tech. Give more opportunities to next generation
MaleFemale
Strongly agree4159
Agree4357
Disagree5545
WhiteBlack
Strongly agree7313
Agree7218
Disagree6920
Non-collegeCollege
Strongly agree5941
Agree6634
Disagree6733
ProtestantCatholicNone
Strongly agree332429
Agree402525
Disagree541627
Believe too much in science, not enough in faith
MaleFemale
Strongly agree3367
Agree4060
Neither3961
Disagree3961
Strongly disagree5347
WhiteBlack
Strongly agree5237
Agree6026
Neither7416
Disagree847
Strongly disagree912
Non-collegeCollege
Strongly agree8416
Agree8119
Neither7030
Disagree5446
Strongly disagree3961
ProtestantCatholicNone
Strongly agree522114
Agree473110
Neither343029
Disagree372128
Strongly disagree15660

Regression results









TRUSTSCINEXTGENSCIFAITHTOOFASTSCISPEC
Liberals
R-squared0.2070.0260.1780.0880.149
Age0.014-0.0040.04-0.05-0.037
Socioeconomic index0.2790.0480.040.1590.13
Educational attainment-0.047-0.2120.1070.062-0.019
Vocab score0.1550.0860.1120.120.306
Confidence in belief in God-0.2750.069-0.314-0.083-0.135


Conservatives
R-squared0.0960.020.130.060.087
Age-0.0520.029-0.071-0.11-0.06
Socioeconomic index-0.017-0.0340.0320.0070.072
Educational attainment0.05-0.0360.1410.115-0.031
Vocab score-0.057-0.0260.1090.1450.245
Confidence in belief in God-0.3270.044-0.266-0.091-0.18

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Social Science
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Comments (21)

  1. i realize that no everyone knows the numeric coding of the GSS demographic variables off the top of their head like i do, so i will say this: the sign of the beta in all of these variables is absolutely not surprising in terms of the nature of the correlation. e.g., the coding for “TRUSTCI” is such that higher values are associated more pro-science categories. and socioeconomic index is such that higher values are higher statuses. so the two numbers track together, and you see a positive beta. in contrast, the higher the confidence in belief in god number, the lower the trust science value, so you see a negative correlation.

  2. Well damnit, what can I complain about?

    I’ve mostly been annoyed by the ~Whole Foods Movement~ in the left, probably because I was raised on Chef Boyardee and Kraft. Now that I’m getting older I’m starting to see the health benefits of those weird natural foods I never ate as a kid, but I still don’t buy into the lifestyle that comes with it for so many people. I like drugs (the prescription kind, I mean) and processed foods, and I’ll be vaccinating my kids, tyvm.

    fwiw I haven’t felt the need to replace religion with anything else after I became an agnostic, either.

  3. michelle, ppl with a natural science background a different set. i’m not a liberal, but generally i can have intelligible conversations with people who are science-focused of any political orientation even where we disagree. it gets really hard when i talk to religious conservatives or non-science liberals. there’s a lot less “hook” of common grounding.

  4. For the most part, yes, I agree with you. I can think of one girl I know who was a neurobiology major who didn’t believe in vaccines or antibiotics, though. She was also one of those granola crunchy earth people.

  5. John Emerson

    Around 1973-5 when the 60s left started breaking up one big chunk went into death and health and natural living. There they encountered old-fashioned conservatives such as Adventists, Mormons, etc. and people talked about a left-right convergence. By and large these were from the hippieish life-style left which could be quite anti-intellectual, but not always, and I know several very bright college friends who went that way.

    Some of these people stayed left and some went all the way and became nativists and anti-urban fanatics.

    In food politics, lifestyle hedonism, health beliefs, environmentalism, and localist politics have converged into a very complicated system. It’s become so differentiated that it’s hard to throw a party or decide which restaurant to go to.

    Vaccination is an issue of trust and also personal control of one’s life, and people who feel threatened by the greater world are afraid of vaccination. Not clinical paranoids, but in that direction.

  6. Several weeks ago, just after the Japan EQ/tsunami, I predicted (somewhat sarcastically) on twitter that those people in the US who were needlessly stocking up on iodide pills because of fear of radiation fallout from Fukushima were precisely the same people who don’t vaccinate their children. I’ve no data, just cynical anecdotes, but my underlying point is that these sorts of decisions, which can often be in contradiction with each other, aren’t made on the basis of a consistent underlying philosophical, theoretical, or political perspective, but rather they’re made on the basis of fear. I wonder, is there a variable in the GSS that measures something like that?

  7. duende

    I don’t even care where I fit on the political or religious landscape anymore but I think that although science is our best tool for understanding the universe it has yet to explain everything.

  8. Glidingpig

    Ok, first, I think you need to make a distinction between you calling yourself a conservative. Is it a fiscal or social conservative? I doubt you are a social conservative, IE the religious right. I don’t see you wanting abortion banned, even if IMO, it is a poor choice. (But perhaps the best of poorer choices) Ahh, your response to a post answers that question.

    Ok, catch all groups misses many points. Conservatives really are 2 groups. This is looking at political conservatives. one, the fiscal conservatives, including the libertarians want Government out of our lives, but the social conservatives want Government to regulate our lives, by banning abortion, limiting birth control, and limiting porn (strip clubs, ect) Tho only thing these 2 groups really have in common is not wanting liberals to be in power. This is the modern conservative movement.

    I gotta be honest tho, many of your posts require me to think too much, considering I read them when I should be working. Don’t stop tho, I like them when I have the time to puzzle them out. My background is not science, but history.

  9. Ian

    “Science & tech. Give more opportunities to next generation”

    How are you even supposed to answer a question like that? Opportunities for what – toxic waste clean up, yes. Living past 50, yes. Making a living as a blacksmith? Probably not.

  10. Solitha

    I see where you went here, Mr. Khan… but I can’t help but think this tree ain’t the one the dog should be barking up.

    The heart of the anti-vax movement is not rejection of science, but trust in flawed science. There is still trust, and still a belief that science is providing the answer being sought.

    What seems to separate anti-vax from the rest is trust in *where* the science in question comes from, and this boils down to pure conspiracy theory. Anything from Big Pharma can’t be trusted. The critique (and subsequent fall) of studies such as Andrew Wakefield’s lies not in scientific fault, but in monetary or political motivation. Big Pharma will work to discredit anyone that supports anti-vax science simply to protect their profits.

    From what I’ve seen, not only in anti-vax but also in AGW, the problem seems to lie not in distrust in science (because “science” that says otherwise is gleefully embraced) but in a distrust of the source.

    Am I off-base here?

  11. I see where you went here, Mr. Khan… but I can’t help but think this tree ain’t the one the dog should be barking up.

    i didn’t go anywhere.

    How are you even supposed to answer a question like that? Opportunities for what – toxic waste clean up, yes. Living past 50, yes. Making a living as a blacksmith? Probably not.

    most people are stupid and ignorant. pretend you are, and don’t outfox yourself when it comes to what they were thinking when they answered.

  12. Solitha

    Drat. Is that the best I’m going to get? I’m usually not brave enough to try posting here, but I thought I had a good point.

    Oh well, maybe I was off-base after all. My apologies if so.

  13. but I thought I had a good point.

    your point was fine. i simply wasn’t trying to draw much of a conclusion. got bored by the time i’d collected and posted the results. so i left it to you guys 🙂 as someone who is moderately skeptical of the “experts” in medicine i understand where the distrust is coming from. but sometimes the right reasons can still be wrong.

  14. A British perspective: we had an anti-vaccination movement based around the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism; started in about 1998 and really peaked about 2003; it’s now still around but relegated to the fringes. In 2003 most newspapers were reporting it as a serious hypothesis.

    IIRC there was no simple left/right element. You did have the natural-is-good lefty element, and I think they accounted for most “grassroots” supporters, but in the media there was a definite right-wing/almost libertarian stream to the whole thing.

    The feeling being “the government says this vaccine is safe, and want to vaccinate everyone for the common good, but you can’t trust the government!” One should note that the government at the time was centre-left so the whole thing was a good stick for the right to beat them with…but I don’t think you can explain it all as political tactics. There is plenty of genuine anti-science on the right, just like there is on the left.

  15. Teapot

    Any reason why you did two regressions, rather than one regression with Lib/Con as a factor, potentially with interaction terms? Similarly, those R^2 terms are very low, suggesting you need quadratic terms etc. Also worth a go with the variables treated purely as categorical rather than as pseudo-numerical. Was this treating the response as straight numerical as well? I’m pretty sure R has packages for ordered categorical responses which might do better.

    I assume this is all US data, given the apparent conflation of “left” and “liberal”. I recall commenting on a post a few months ago that by the usual (non-US) definition you are a liberal rather than a conservative, what we would call an “orange-book” liberal. We all know that left/right or lib/con is massively simplistic, and at the very least we need the two axes of economic liberal-socialist and social liberal-authoritarian, and even that’s far too simple.

    PS Interesting post, before I forget to say.

  16. Mercy

    The british issue is a bit complicated because of our Murdoch controlled media, any bullshit scaremongering is gonna be coming from them, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect their *political* biases. And a lot of it came from Private Eye who are pretty consistently nonpartisan anti-establishment (editors a liberal conservative but plenty of the journos are communists).

    Ultimately I suspect something like grid-group cultural theory might underly these differences, it’s not a case of being risk averse or risk neutral per se but a case of which risks we overestimate. And as with AGW the conclusions are probably more important than the source, conservatives are likely to buy conspiracies about how the villains want to tear down the successful and the strong, leftists about how the villains want to fuck over the weak and vulnerable for profit. Of course, if that’s true we’d expect leftist opinion of scientists to have risen since the 60s, and conservative to decrease,- a trend genetics research might buck.

  17. Any reason why you did two regressions, rather than one regression with Lib/Con as a factor, potentially with interaction terms? Similarly, those R^2 terms are very low, suggesting you need quadratic terms etc. Also worth a go with the variables treated purely as categorical rather than as pseudo-numerical. Was this treating the response as straight numerical as well? I’m pretty sure R has packages for ordered categorical responses which might do better.

    since moderates are stupid i didn’t want to confuse the issue. i didn’t want to do complicated regressions since i didn’t plan on the post in the first place. the response was treated as numerical too.

    I assume this is all US data, given the apparent conflation of “left” and “liberal”. I recall commenting on a post a few months ago that by the usual (non-US) definition you are a liberal rather than a conservative, what we would call an “orange-book” liberal. We all know that left/right or lib/con is massively simplistic, and at the very least we need the two axes of economic liberal-socialist and social liberal-authoritarian, and even that’s far too simple.

    i have libertarian tendencies, but i don’t deny the validity of some social conservative viewpoints. on a fundamental level i lean against the individualism which is at the heart of right and left liberalism as determinative, though as an oddball myself i think it mustn’t be discarded in a communitarian order.

  18. Mercy

    The two axis thing only really makes sense from the perspective of the liberal/liberterian camp I think. They fail to notice that leftists are usually more radically opposed to the current social order than committed to not having one, and conservatives more directly supportive of the economic order than they are opposed to interfering in it (allowing for thoughtful dissent by the less tribally motivated of course, not to mention the influence of liberalism on both sides).

    I haven’t really heard any conservatives or socialists complain about the left-right axis: we want to tear the old order down, you want to shore it up, and the liberals want to manage things so as to get rid of such conflicts. Simple, and not conveying as much information as the double axis but, given the poisonous mental routines that get activated for any issue that fits neatly into the left-right conflict, making it easier to slot things in doesn’t strike me as a particularly wise course of action.

  19. ackbark

    Are there not a lot of subtleties missed with these questions, like a distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘blind faith’? I would suggest that most liberals in regard to faith would say it includes mostly an idea like ‘this is a good recipe for how it can be better’, where most conservatives would say it includes a lot more of ‘acceptance of authority’.

    They are really completely different ideas.

    But, mostly, I do not understand how anyone who values science and the scientific method could rationalize voting for a Republican or a conservative Democrat. That is simply more a leap of blind faith than transubstantiation.

    Do you believe business, environmental, safety, food and health regulations should be thought of as ‘guidelines’ rather than rules or laws?

    Do you believe government should exist in principal but not in fact, that every court decision should be biased toward maximizing the harshness of any punitive measure or that public officials should have no accountability, and that any laws that do exist should be draconian, untempered and unquestionable?

    Do you believe that corporations are people, and that global warming is a hoax? That gun ownership is a personal right?

    Because these are all things that you get when you vote conservative, every single time. How many times does it take before you notice who’s doing it?

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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