When the Fukushima disaster struck, I wrote the following, suggesting this would be a “natural experiment in the politicization of science”:
Today’s Republican Party has evolved to the point where the denial of climate science is mainstream within the party, or even dominant. Scarcely a day goes by without a Republican politician uttering something demonstrably incorrect on the subject.
So here’s the question: Will leading environmentalists, elected Democrats, and other influentials on the other side of the aisle be caught engaging in similar abuses in the unfolding nuclear debate? Will they say things provably incorrect, in the service of trying to tank nuclear power?
Or are liberals and conservatives today truly different when it comes to handling scientific information, no matter what their core political impulses may be?
I, for one, am betting on the latter outcome. Just read comments at my blog: It’s a bunch of old lefties saying how they’ve come around about nuclear power and how they’re willing to credit the benefits as well as the costs. Or just look at Matthew Yglesias: A good liberal who has just written, “I do think it’s worth speaking up for a nuclear industry a bit. The question is safe compared to what?”
Now David Ropeik, who writes about risk assessment, and has cautioned against the exaggeration of nuclear risks, has answered:
Blogger Chris Mooney writes on Desmogblog “Are Liberals Science Deniers? Now’s a Good Time to Find Out.” He refers to the nuclear debate as ”…a natural experiment in the politicization of science,” and optimistically bets that anti-nuclear liberals will be more open minded and respectful of the scientific evidence than conservatives. And indeed some of his respondents, and comments elsewhere, come from self-identified liberals who are open to consideration of nuclear power.
But liberal inflexibility about nuclear power is still widespread. Peter Canellos of the Boston Globe writes about strident anti-nuke Helen Caldicott trying to “…brace up wobbly liberals who look to nuclear energy as a cure for global warming.” Writers responding to a blog I wrote for NPR, “Nuke-O-Noia Could be the Greatest Threat to Japan,” in which I suggested the health impacts of fear could do more harm than the radiation – as the UN found was the case after Chernobyl – said; “Do you need references to other studies that show different statistics for TMI and Chernobyl? I’m stunned.” Another commentator wrote: “Nuclear Propaganda Radio. I’m giving my financial support to Democracy Now,” a liberal radio program that’s avowedly anti-nuclear.
More thoughtful liberals maintain their anti-nuke positions by saying it’s unaffordable, or we haven’t figured out how to dispose of the waste, or that spending on nuclear denies economic support for renewables. Much of which is rooted in a fear of nuclear radiation that flies in the face of the biological facts. Nuclear radiation is dangerous, but not as much as those rooted fears believe. That puts the tradeoffs of nuclear power compared with other energy sources in a whole new light.
Two points. 1) I don’t doubt there are some unreconstructed lefties from the 1970s who oppose nuclear power and exaggerate the risks. But I don’t consider them to be representative of today’s liberals on this matter–and I don’t think that has been shown.
2) Economics arguments don’t count. You gotta abuse the science to get past my filter, in a demonstrable way. So I’m skeptical that economic arguments are, as Ropeik says, “rooted in a fear of nuclear radiation that flies in the face of the biological facts.”
In sum, I remain pretty unconvinced at this point that the left abuses the science on nuclear power in the same way or to the same extent that the right does on climate change.