The Left and Science: A Call for Point of Inquiry Guest Ideas

By Chris Mooney | June 10, 2011 11:38 am

Following on my last post, I want to do a show that really gets into the political left and its relationship with science. That relationship is not without its problems–GMOs, nuclear, vaccines–though I believe it is nothing like the current relationship with the political right.

But the question is, which guest would have the most insight into this question? I’ve already interviewed Yale’s Dan Kahan so he’s out, though obviously he has much insight.

I would welcome your suggestions. I’m very open to interviewing a conservative who has thought deeply on this question. In fact, that would be the ideal choice.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, point of inquiry

Comments (20)

  1. John Kotcher

    You should interview Dan Sarewitz. I know he’s been critical of your “war on science” meme and he has great things to say on this topic.

    See his commentary in Issue in Science and Technology:

  2. Francis Wheen, gotta be. Amazing guy. Find it odd that he isn’t better represented in the skeptic scene.

  3. It’s pretty faded now, but the left seemed to fight science on the ineffectiveness of bilingual education versus immersion techniques. Also some on the left sometimes seem to be refusing to admit that nature has any role in the nature versus nurture debate on human behavior, except for homosexuality.

    No specific suggestions on people though, and it’s slim pickings compared to the bounty offered by our conservative brethren.

  4. Brian D

    I had originally thought Michael Specter would be another good choice. I lost a LOT of respect for him citing Gavin Menzies in Denialism, but the reason behind this recommendation is simple: He chose to ignore “obvious” examples of denialism (creationism, climate change inactivism… he covered antivax, but it was pretty rudimentary) in favor of devoting quite a bit of time to the left’s opposition to GMO and promotion of organics (although he has been accused of twisting the evidence in favor of his narrative on that point). If nothing else, he’ll probably know who to talk to.

    Downside: You talked to him on Point of Inquiry before (I’d forgotten about that and thought the squaring off was mostly here and in Slate). Upside: It was over a year ago, so it wouldn’t be as fresh as Kahan.

  5. Michael Payton

    Jonathan Haidt, psychologist at University of Virginia has spoken at length about a liberal american bent to certain psychological literature particularly in his field of moral psychology. He would be an excellent guest.

  6. I have always believed that part of the blame for any anti-science bent on the left stems from the influence of Noam Chomsky on the language of politics. This is Chomsky’s opinion of science:

    Science talks about very simple things, and asks hard questions about them. As soon as things become too complex, science can’t deal with them. The reason why physics can achieve such depth is that it restricts itself to extremely simple things, abstracted from the complexity of the world. As soon as an atom gets too complicated, maybe helium, they hand it over to chemists. When problems become too complicated for chemists, they hand it over to biologists. Biologists often hand it over to the sociologists, and they hand it over to the historians, and so on. But it’s a complicated matter: Science studies what’s at the edge of understanding, and what’s at the edge of understanding is usually fairly simple. And it rarely reaches human affairs. Human affairs are way too complicated. In fact even understanding insects is an extremely complicated problem in the sciences. So the actual sciences tell us virtually nothing about human affairs.

    With that as the word of an almost sainted thinker, one would be greatly surprised if the ideological left paid much attention to science at all.

  7. Chris Mooney

    thanks for all these suggestions. no real conservatives here, though….or at least that’s my cursory impression.

  8. Mary

    Ah, based on the tweet I said Stewart Brand and David Brin (who posts at dkos sometimes). But for conservatives–I would say Roscoe Bartlett.

  9. ATFF

    Every ideology attracts stupid people. Or smart people that believe weird things lets face this, at least 50% of any given human population is below the average. So why should we not expect the bell curve to apply to political leaning?

    If anything the left is associated with secularism, respect for science, freedom from religion. All good things from a political point of view. A lot better then the religious right in Canada and the US with our crap leaders manipulating the gullible bible believing end timers that have serious effects on state policy.

    Lets just admit it – many people on the right and the left are clearly insane in their own ways, but this all comes down to the quality of the persons biological characteristics that govern the quality of other things like behaviour, ability to think clearly, etc.

    Most people can’t think straight at all and science has shown most of our thought is unconscious, i.e. a vast sea of thinking is going on when we believe we are not thinking of anything.

  10. Well, I’m not a conservative, but a capitalist internationalist, but I’m game if you’d find it helpful. Alternatively, if you want a real conservative, maybe John Derbyshire, who has written really well on evolution and climate change and the politics that are around them? Perhaps Bill Whittle too…

  11. Eric the Leaf

    I second Roscoe Bartlett.

  12. David Brooks, if you could get him

  13. Somite

    Starting to realize the difference is when the left is anti-science is out of ignorance, fear or a desire to protect. When the right is anti-science it is to promote an agenda like religion or corporatism.

    I don’t want to imply they are equal in extent. The anti-science agenda of the right is vastly more reaching and it includes its authority figures at the highest level, including presidents.

  14. ernesto

    Alan Sokal or Richard Lewontin would be great. They are of course no conservatives, but I think and insider would be more insightful. (The same goes for the right). Their respective heydays may be in the past, but Sokal did publish a book a couple of years ago.
    Elliott Sober might also have something interesting to say on the issue.

  15. GregM

    It depends on what you mean by “political left”, “science” and “conservative”. There are no clear boundaries around any of these terms. David Frum might be an interesting possibility, for a couple of reasons. It was on David Frum’s web site that D.R. Tucker announced his conversion from climate change skeptic. Also, while at National Review, Frum produced this blog posting about Republicans and science

    Frum seems to be a conservative who is concerned about the conservative lean against science and has created a space where at least one prominent conservative has publicly changed his position in favor of the scientific consensus on climate change.

    Another possibility, although remote, is Charles Krauthammer, who has a medical degree from Harvard.

    Another possibility, although I am not sure if he is conservative or not, might be Neil Gross, at U of British Columbia, who has written about the political views of university faculty with some attention to variation by discipline.

  16. Chris, if you want a good conservative, besides Bartlett, I would suggest Jim DiPeso of Republicans for Environmental Protection (

  17. Nick

    I’ll put in another vote for John Derbyshire. He’s an atheist/agnostic conservative (i.e. not exactly a conservative archetype, yet writes for National Review) with a mathematical bent (author of “Prime Obsession”) who’d have some interesting things to say about science and the left. He’s had some nice takedowns of the intelligent design crowd too.

  18. TTT

    Jim Manzi–I don’t love his stance on climate risk assessments, but he at least proved himself serious by standing up to Mark Levin’s talk-radio denialism. Another good choice would be Matt Scully, author of “Dominion”.

  19. Ken Hedlin

    I’m late very late to this post, but my impression is that much of “alternative medicine” comes from the left. Homeopathy would be one example.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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