How Progressive Politics Are Killing Science


In the never ending war between the political parties in this country, each side has a set of canned arguments they love to hurl at the other. Many on the left, for example, are fond of the idea that they love science while Republicans hate it. It's a ridiculous notion, one we've spent a lot of time on at PolicyMic, but now major players in the world of science journalism are beginning to take shots at the "Republicans are anti-science" myth.   

In their just-released title Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left (SLB), science writers Hank Campbell and Alex Berezow set out to bring some balance back to the discussion about science and politics. Yes, there are crazy, anti-science conservatives, but there are also crazy, anti-science progressives. And the truth, the authors say, is that "... of all of today's political philosophies, progressivism stands as the most pressing problem for science in our country." (p. 5) 

In the debate over who is the biggest group of anti-science hacks, I'm happy to call the contest a draw. Whether we frame the debate as Democrats vs. Republicans or progressives vs. conservatives, no influential political organization on either side — whether a party, think tank, or special interest group — takes scientific stances on every relevant policy issue. So, what evidence have Campbell and Berezow brought forward in support of their thesis, and is it enough to justify their conclusion? Let's take a look at some examples from the book. 

Making food cheaper and more plentiful is an admirable goal, and thanks to genetic engineering it's an effort that has progressed at an impressive pace. But not without detractors. Lead by influential environmentalist groups, "kooky progressives" have waged a scare campaign against genetically modified food, despite the fact "... that there is not even a single documented case of GM food causing a stomachache, let alone any lingering health problems." (p 40) 

If that wasn't enough, the authors also explain that genetic engineering has been the focus of rigorous testing for several decades. So far, researchers haven't found any evidence that GM food is harmful. And if that still wasn't enough, any GM product that makes it to market has undergone an FDA evaluation known as "substantial equivalence," which compares the nutritional content of that product to its natural counterpart. Conclusion: GM food is safe. And if it wasn't, we'd find out quickly. Though this hasn't stopped fear fueled attempts to label, ban, or otherwise restrict the production and consumption of the foods we eat every day. 

Arguably the best part of the book is the chapter documenting the hypocrisy of supposedly pro-science progressives, particularly the Obama administration. While lambasting his Republican predecessor for his hostility to science, President Obama maintained an almost identical policy on embryonic stem cell research. Similarly, while attacking the right for dragging their feet on climate change, the president and his party did absolutely nothing about climate change when they had control of Congress in 2008. The administration likewise took consensus-defying positions on issues including ethanol subsidies, nuclear power, and vaccines.

Many readers will feel the urge to dismiss this book because the authors are making a controversial argument. Nonetheless, Berezow and Campbell are quick to point out that they're not going after all progressives, just the "loony ones" who would enlist science as a soldier in the culture war. The authors also readily admit that some conservatives embrace anti-scientific positions, especially when it comes to climate change and evolution. And they further explain that they have no dog in the Democrat vs. Republican fight. So if you happen to be a progressive and also embrace science, this book is really no threat to you. 

But the people who are skeptical of the benefits of vaccination or think that organic food is healthier will undoubtedly find SLB problematic. And they should. The prominent activists and politicians highlighted in this book are spreading misinformation and causing serious harm in some cases, and it's good to see scientists and science writers making some noise about it. You should read what they have to say. Go buy this book.