Left vs. right in anti-science

By Razib Khan | June 21, 2012 9:31 pm

In the comments Chad says:

The Right is not inherently anti-science. Yes there are some morons out there who glorify in their ignorance, but lets recognize them for who they are, extremist idiots. This does not describe the majority of those on the Right. It doesn’t even describe the majority of creationists who are for the most part more concerned with work and children to be bothered to think about the origins of life in an average week. One can also point to similar kooks on the Left. Not just the genetic denialism described here, but also rejection of animal research, genetic engineering, organic farming, anti-vaccinations, etc.

First, I’m going to reiterate something: the majority of the human race consists of individuals who are not very smart. This is not meant as an insult, but it’s basically the truth. We may not be talking about idiots, but the average person on the street can not come close to reasoning like A. V. O. Quine. But the main issue I have with these equivalences is that though there is a valid point here, the reality is that it seems to be that the political Right in the USA has taken a bolder anti-science stance than the Left.

And that basically comes down to evolution. If you presuppose that the Left opposes animal research, by and large you will note that the arguments against this are normative. Yes, there are some arguments about the lack of utility and informativeness of this research, but really you are talking about values. In contrast, though some Creationists have made the argument that evolution is about values, you are really talking about a major analytic framework in biology. In fact, evolutionary processes are riddled throughout biological phenomenon. Rejecting evolution is not in the same league as rejecting Newtonian mechanics, but it is rather close.

Not only that, my perusal of the General Social Survey suggests that the gap between liberals and conservatives is likely far greater than between liberals and conservatives on other scientific topics, with the exception of highly politicized ones such as anthropogenic climate change. Unfortunately I haven’t found information on vaccination, but there are some questions about nuclear weapons and genetically modified organism. Compare & contrast.

Liberal Moderate Conservative
Humans developed from animals 69 52 39
Humans developed from animals (non-Hispanic white) 77 55 38
Humans developed from animals (college educated) 86 66 47
Strongly favor nuke power 16 13 12
Favor nuke power 49 50 64
Oppose nuke power 28 27 16
Strongly oppose nuke power 7 9 8
Don’t care whether or not food has been genetically modified 15 20 18
Willing to eat but would prefer unmodified foods 56 53 55
Will not eat genetically modified food 29 27 27

My own prediction is that on something like vaccination & autism you won’t see a major Left-Right difference. Rather, a small subculture on the Left as taken up this cause, and is rather vocal, but it is not a major group conformity marker like evolution vs. creation. The GMO question illustrates here that there isn’t a strong Left-Right difference either. This doesn’t mean that differences don’t exist. But we need more quantitative, and fewer impressionistic, examples.

Note: In the post below I suggested that sex differences is a major area where the Left is far less reality based than the Right. The proportional gap may be large on these topics, but this is not nearly as significant a scientific issue as evolution.

  • chris w

    I’ve read some right-wingers attempt to make a distinction between science and engineering, only regarding the latter as trustworthy due to its pragmatic application even though it has no basis at all without the former. Reproducible experiments in university laboratories sound like a form small-scale engineering to me. Microevolution can be engineered, whereas theory regarding macroevolution relies upon an interpretation of incomplete data using more basic theories that have withstood testing. However, much of the right seems to regard the latter as little more than a speculative discipline, akin to metaphysics. Stupid, of course, although I don’t know if leftists understand it any differently. They are more likely to defer to the expertise of the scientist, but neither they who “support” evolution nor the rightists who “oppose” it understand the mechanics of it works — a point that I believe you’ve made in the past.

  • http://contemplationist.wordpress.com Contemplationist

    What about the big one – race denialism, IQ denialism, sexual differences denialism?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #2, do you read my posts? i addressed that in my notes. if you don’t read my posts, don’t comment on them again.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    . However, much of the right seems to regard the latter as little more than a speculative discipline, akin to metaphysics.

    the border between micro and macro evolution is a matter of semantic sugar. IOW, it’s a human-imposed category boundary. the processes which drive evolution are pretty much scale independent….

  • Syon

    Strongly favor nuke power 16 13 12
    Favor nuke power 49 50 64
    Oppose nuke power 28 27 16
    Strongly oppose nuke power 7 9 8

    Well, the Left does seem somewhat more stupid when it comes to opposing nuclear power (28 vs 16). Frankly, I’ve never been able to take environmentalists seriously when they are anti-nuclear power.


  • Chad

    Razib, what I was really trying to get at is “what does it mean to be anti-science?” We tend to be quick to dismiss people as anti-science based on views of a singular issue. I don’t think that necessarily or inherently makes a person anti-science though.

    I agree that the results show that there is a definitive split on human evolution, the emphasis being humans. This is my problem with these surveys. Due to my political and religious I regularly interact with creationists, and I know that there is actually quite a diverse range of views within this group. Quite a few accept evolution in animals but make a distinction when it comes to humans. I have searched, but cannot find any more nuanced poll regarding such beliefs, let alone one that also accounts for politics.

    I am not defending creationism by any means, I have done my active part to educate people in evolution, which typically involves more time dispelling myths regarding Evolution=Atheism as it does addressing the science. I will reiterate what I have previously said, that most of these people are simply not concerned with the issue, they don’t think about it more than once a year, they are just ignorant of the matter and blindly follow the majority view of their subculture. Of those who have given more serious thought, I find most of them find nature and science interesting. They do not oppose science, but they are typically mislead by the writings of individuals like Behe. You and I can both agree that their opinion is wrong, but I disagree that these people are necessarily anti-science because they have a wrong opinion on a single issue.

    I also think that opposition to Evolution has more to do with “values” than with science. In my original reply I explained this in greater detail. Most creationists are led to believe by truly anti-science creationists, but also by confrontational atheists, that there is no difference between Evolution and Atheism. That a belief in God and Evolution are completely in opposition. But if you can actually dispense with this myth, right up, then I generally find that they are very receptive to Evolution.

    Because of my experience, I believe that all of it has very little to do with an inherent opposition to Science or its goals, but rather all of the philosophical baggage that has been tied to it.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #5, yes. but the quantitative difference is not that large relative to evolution.

    #6, in general, i agree. though i don’t put much emphasis on philosophical, as opposed to cultural, baggage. most people are stupid, so it ain’t the philosophy. evolution has gotten caught up in the anti-modernist vs. modernist conflict among protestants (contrast with relative acceptance of evolution among catholics). i’ve actually posted quantitative data showing minimal left vs. right difference in knowledge of science fwiw.

  • E

    What about human embryonic stem cell research? This hasn’t been as much of an issue lately, but I do distinctly recall supporters of research strongly asserting that opposition to experimentation was tantamount to an “attack on science.” They did not merely argue that the moral concerns of opponents were misguided.

    But the argument against experimentation (like those against animal experimentation) was normative; no one was denying the science of embryo development or claiming that reproduction was actually due to a small dwarf consuming humors, or something. Outside of evolution, I reckon most conflicts with the “scientific community” probably do boil down to normative, rather than doctrinal, considerations. Even skepticism of (catastrophic) anthropogenic global warming seems motivated by fears of what (potentially) radical steps governments might take to thwart it, and the moral conflicts that would follow from them.

  • Eric Kelley

    Historically, the right, conservatives, have found it in their interest to shape or control the direction of inquiry into the unknown; but the same can be said about the left as well. Dilatants of Political/Social interests have used science, or more specifically, baseless ideas in the name of science to further their political agendas. The only agenda pure science has is to discover the unknown, and to satisfy the human trait of understanding their environment and origin. If there is any social agenda of science, that would be to use that knowledge gained by the practice of science to improve the human condition and quality of life as determined by what has been discovered by reason and logic. Hopefully, there will be a time through Human evolution that the base human quality that drives people to control or rule others will dissipate like the tails and fins our species once had. Dogma, superstition, and myth is the science of tyrants and the bliss of the ignorant.

  • John Smith

    Great article. What settings did you use to pull the numbers from the GSS data? I was trying to recreate that table, but seem to get minor variations in numbers. I’m guessing it has something to do with sample weights or some such issue.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    i did use weighted samples, but i also changed the decimals so it shouldn’t show. and combined very liberal, liberal, and slightly liberal, into one big category (and same for conserv).

  • Nathan Taylor

    Explaining the science left-right belief gap by intelligence or temperament seems true but seems less robust over history (50 years ago left-right science belief was the same). Jonathan Haidt’s spin on this is that certain groups hold certain belief’s sacred, and denialism happens when sacred beliefs and reality conflict. This frame seems widely useful. Is there a way to use the GSS to test out that hypothesis? Maybe pick some sacred liberal beliefs that conflict with science. Here’s a short video where Haidt talks to David Sloan Wilson on this topic.

  • Justin Giancola

    I think you could say with more certainty that the majority of the human race consists of individuals who are not very interested in many of the things – or at looking at things: reason, math what have you – in the way that yourself and others more similar to yourself find most valuable. Their brains may be optimized toward dealing with other types of information. That may not mean that they lack the capacities to see things in “your” ways through appropriate stimulation, but the die was cast so that they were not naturally disposed to prioritizing those things – say over sculpture, cooking, poetry, being an athlete, actor, warrior, etc. Or their station in life put them down a different path of where certain persuits were essentially not an option.

    It’s almost like saying humans living in the pleistocene were not what we’d call “smart”. How are we defining smart? Of the modern period’s smart? That requires a lot of training – prior knowledge. “G”? They might have had more, with their bigger brains and all. Sort of like the dog wolf thing; especially taking into account different breeds of dog and the things some can be trained to do when you “speak their language” toward their dispositions.

    This is not to say that no one is of less attitude compared to others and it all essentially evens out, but I think it is a necessary nuance when talking about intelligence to avoid narcissism, elitism or some ubermensch-land. “Gotta make way for the homo superior!”

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    This is not to say that no one is of less attitude compared to others and it all essentially evens out, but I think it is a necessary nuance when talking about intelligence to avoid narcissism, elitism or some ubermensch-land. “Gotta make way for the homo superior!”

    elitism is fine by me. what’s the problem with that? yes, i have my own priorities and that’s why i’m not an NBA basketball player!

    no, the reality is that most of the human race are stupid, and when they try to talk intelligently about things that require some cognitive heft they come off as sounding like retards. that’s my experience, but then you might have a different one. introduce me to these people. i don’t see enough of them in these comments. by stupid i mean they lack a high level of general intelligence.

    if the majority of the human race was not interested in things i’m interested in life would be nice. i wouldn’t have to listen to inane ignorant bullshit.

  • Justin Giancola

    lol. oh man… well I should’ve just quoted and made a joke about ‘feeling “less wrong” today?!’ :) But seriously, just as an example I know a lot of musicians that do things that seem (and feel to me) quite heavy in the load their brain is dealing with. If they applied themselves to other things with the tenacity they bring to music: using verbal, memory, mathmatical and/or patern rec. intelligence, they might be quite astute at a number of other tasks. Thus Bowie; seems like a smart dude.
    Obviously not everyone is as sucessful, but many people devote huge amounts of time to their interests and might be quite the resource. But that last line I do feel ya on! :D

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #15, my point is that a lot of people try and talk to me about shit they know jack shit about. i know they know jack shit because there are some things i know stuff about. as for stuff i don’t know much about, i can’t judge. people actually do talk a lot about history, science, etc. if they’re not interested enough to read a bit about these topics they should keep their mouths shut. though oftentimes it’s clear even if they read about a topic they can’t keep track of all the threads in their heard (i.e., i can make the argument they’re making to me better than they can).

  • Randall

    no, the reality is that most of the human race are stupid, and when they try to talk intelligently about things that require some cognitive heft they come off as sounding like retards. that’s my experience

    This is partially my experience. What’s your take on distinction between people with low or mediocre intelligence and people who are imply ill-informed? In post #16, you seem to focus on ignorance as the problem rather than low intelligence. My experience is that when people try to discuss my professional field, I almost always find their analysis and discussion superficial. But, many of these people are otherwise quite intelligent and usually educated. A physicist with a phd is not going to be able to discuss history with the same depth and sophistication as a historian with a phd, although I would venture a guess than phd physicists have higher average IQs than phd historians.

  • MCA

    What about the elephant in the room: climate change?

    Climate change denial is clearly anti-science, yet the GOP has made it official party platform. Between that and creationism, the idea that the left and right are equally anti-science (at least in the US) is ludicrous on its face.

    Yes, there are plenty of morons on both sides. But only the GOP has made the viewpoints of morons de-facto requirements for major national candidates.

  • prasad

    Very nice post. As a political liberal, my own view is that on the whole the right does have worse issues with being anti-science than the left (plenty of exceptions and caveats, which i’m not going to bother noting). However, the academy is basically liberal, so liberal blind-spots and biases can ramify with disproportionate impact.

    One example is ‘whole language’. The idea that children should learn english spelling the way they might learn hieroglyphics (I parody only slightly) is extremely silly. Actual linguists are probably not affected themselves – Language log is pretty uniformly dismissive for example. But go a few buildings down to the education school, and the movement can really catch on, because it flatters the prejudices of the left. I think if you skim through this post and comments, you get a sense of where a decent chunk of the academic left sits, and this after decades of research demonstrating what a moment of reflection should suffice to show.

  • http://contemplationist.wordpress.com Contemplationist

    You’re right you addressed the sex difference issue in the note. Apologies for missing that.
    But not the race issue. I understand your evaluation of the issue of sex differences (and race differences? not putting words in your mouth, just asking) as not significant compared to evolution from a science perspective. But how about it from a instrumental/utilitarian perspective? As in, how much of a negative effect would be engendered by the spread of anti-evolution perspectives vs. how much harm is the current race-iq-and-gender-difference denying perspective contributing to (e.g. Trayvon-Zimmerman, black on white crime in general, persistent sexual anti-wage-gap activism, affirmative action etc)?

  • Razib Khan

    #20, fair point. though talking about utility is a whole different game. after all, both left and right agree on the importance of parents. this is actually tendentious…


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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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