Question: Quick, what is the fastest way to make the term “false equivalence” appear?
Answer: Contend that whatever side of the political spectrum the person you are talking to is on is more anti-science than the other side. Or even equal.
The Left is More Anti-Science than the Right
Ken Green, writing in The Enterprise Blog, recently endured this go-around when he claimed the left had its anti-science kooks too. What was the response? Well, the usual, like that PETA is not anti-science, they simply have ‘moral’ positions that disagree with science. Huh??? A decade ago when some Republicans had ‘moral’ positions on human embryonic stem cell research, they were anti-science. How is it different? hESC research has yet to benefit a single human whereas animal testing has literally made all of modern medicine possible. Willingness to dismiss the anti-science of the same side is simple rationalization, we could even call it “like voter bias”, so while Green engages in nuances about Republicans denying ‘some aspects of evolution’ his left-wing counterparts can claim not standing up kooky environmentalists and animal rights people is not acceptance of anti-science in their ranks, it is acceptance of allowing their intellectual freedom to be all anti-corporation-y. It’s basically Sweet Lemons Equivalence.
Green’s response list is much funnier, especially his bit about ‘if the media reports that Republicans are more anti-science, they must be more anti-science’. The progressive bias of science writing is the big white elephant in the media room but only two people acknowledge it. Maybe three.
Yet he found that if you point out that the overblown partisan nature of these claims the derision and scorn erupt, especially since dissing Republicans is a cottage industry in science media. It isn’t solely in science, of course. Joe Nocera at the New York Times says Solyndra isn’t a scandal at all, just wholesome capitalism at work – despite the fact that Solyndra got government rates a percentage point lower than other companies, which is not capitalism, the government subordinated taxpayer debt to billionaire venture capitalists, which is not capitalism, the IRS bypassed their own policies and gave the company a pass on the laws the rest of us must follow, which is not capitalism, and then Energy Secretary Steven Chu personally made the decision to keep giving them taxpayer money after they had already defaulted – apparently the fact that one of the investors was a key Obama fundraiser was just coincidence. No scandal? If a Republican had done that? No, funding a known technology failure and calling that a fundamental aspect of basic research is ‘advancing science’ when a Democrat does it, despite the fact the CIGS technology isn’t new at all and it was never viable and the government should not be in the venture capital business anyway.
Green can defend himself, and does, though his responses will be unsatisfactory to the partisan people after him, including those scientists who wanted to believe partisan rhetoric. It’s just sort of funny to see his critics demanding a standard of evidence when ‘Republicans are anti-science’ is evidence they happily accept without qualification. Green has a Master’s Degree in genetics and a Ph.D. in environmental science so seeing him called anti-science by Chris Mooney, whose science credentials are writing a book saying all Republicans hate science, is as funny as Knight Journalism Tracker’s Paul Raeburn declaring a similar piece by Dr. Alex Berezow invalid because a Google search found Berezow wrote a guest piece for National Review once – which makes him an evil conservative and therefore invalid to Raeburn. Does a scientist have to forfeit his Ph.D. if he disagrees with the progressive manifesto?
The Right Is More Anti-Science Than The Left
Science 2.0 fave Phil Plait, the rightfully legendary Bad Astronomer, takes the “Republicans are anti-science” tack as well, though he has more credibility than the political bloggers dabbling in science that responded to Green, so he gets to represent. Love ya, Phil!
His contention is that the most dangerous anti-science of the left, things like being anti-vaccine and anti-GMOs, are not core tenets of the Democratic party, which would seem to imply that being skeptical about global warming is a tenet of the Republican party and that no candidate can get elected disagreeing with that – sort of like abortion for Democrats is – yet I have never seen it in a campaign platform. Barack Obama himself claimed concern about a link between vaccines and autism in 2008. Does he think that now? I certainly hope not. But there is also no Republican campaigning on a platform against hESC research yet that same tired argument gets dragged out over and over, even in 2011. No Republican objected to stem cell research for three decades but their leader limited federal funding of hESC research to existing lines – partisans spinned that it was banned, a blatant lie, and ignored the fact that the law that limited hESC funding was actually signed by Democrat Pres. Clinton. Partisans don’t like specifics, they prefer vitriol, but it brings back the question, why is PETA simply taking a ‘moral’ position when they are against science while Republicans are simply labeled anti-science? GMO foods have not caused so much as a single stomachache in a decade of use, we could feed the world easily using science, but the ranting against evil scientists and invoking “Frankenfood” is invariably left wing and no Democratic candidate stands up to them or gets media attention for not denying them. Republicans are held to an artificial standard on that one.
Greenpeace, a leftwing group, claims scientists are to believed when it comes to global warming yet are out to kill us when it comes to food. Phil dismisses that irrationality as “anti-corporate” and not anti-science, the same way other anti-science positions are dismissed as ‘moral’ and not anti-science – it is rationalization and therefore terrible logic.
In 2008, the partisan Science Debate 2008 group (which I endorsed anyway – they put science in the name) didn’t ask either candidate about evolution. Their important question vital to public understanding of candidate science positions that made the list instead of evolution in schools? Fish hatcheries.
Why? Because the answer from both candidates would have been exactly the same, and that was unacceptable in the goal of framing Republicans as anti-science, so they picked safe questions, like about global warming, and then completely useless ones like about fish hatcheries. Only 16% of Americans agree with the statement that evolution is solely science – no religion, just atheist science. That’s a lot of Democrats who do not accept evolution. In 2008, candidate Obama could not come across as anti-religion, so ScienceDebate carefully picked their questions to make one guy look bad and one look good.
Phil likes Chris Mooney’s article on equivalence but had it been written by someone he didn’t agree with politically in advance, he would have noted there was no data, just dismissal of anti-science positions on the left as trivial. And that’s the problem; those kinds of articles are written by true believers for true believers, the kind of echo chamber thinking that supposedly only happens with Republicans.
Phil lays down the gauntlet and says if you are a pro-science conservative, you need to ‘talk to your leaders’ to shuck off the stereotype progressive political writers have invented and continue to perpetuate about their opponents – I would argue that is like telling black people they should talk to their leaders about changing so they can shuck off the claims of the KKK. I live in California so there aren’t many Republicans (though we have Nancy Pelosi, Barbara Boxer and Maxine Waters and thus plenty of kooks who do for the left what Rick Perry does for the right) yet I haven’t found one who takes Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann seriously or regards them as a ‘leader’ and I don’t know any Republicans who are anti-science. I can accept my bias in a way progressive political pundits cannot and accept that an anti-science Republican would get goat noises made at them the same as an anti-science Democrat will, so they likely avoid me.
Phil does not say Democrats need to stand up to their crazy people on the left who undercut equality in academia or promote real danger in their anti-vaccine positions, like he does Republicans. Evolution denial is a concern but it isn’t endangering children’s lives like vaccine boycotts do. Why not demand Democrats stand up to their leaders and make them call out the anti-science hippies in their midst?
Phil does make a good point at the end of his piece that I have often made; there was a time when the right was far more pro-science than the left. It isn’t simply that the right has been taken over by crazy people, though those that exist are certainly being pumped up by the media, it’s instead that the political demographic of science shifted wildly to the left. As a result, it’s safe for Republicans not to stand up to Young Earth Creationists because it makes no difference;scientists are not voting for a Republican no matter what. Ronald Reagan gave the greatest defense of basic research that any president has ever given and Pres. George W. Bush boosted NASA after a decline during the Clinton years and doubled funding for the NIH – but he was still labeled anti-science for taking the same kind of ‘moral’ position Mooney and Plait say is legitimate for PETA and others.
Likewise, Democrats do not stand up to their anti-science kooks because it would make no difference. People on the left can rationalize that all they want, but it is still just rationalization.
So who wins? Is the left more anti-science than the right or vice-versa? There is no way to find reliable data for this but we kind of know because we are all in science media and know the audience and read a great deal. If I am submitting a 68% confidence interval answer based on experience, the left will have more anti-science positions than the right but the right will have more anti-science people. Whichever side you regard as a greater threat is largely a matter of your personal preference.