Politics versus science

I’ve always been reluctant to attribute antiscientific attitudes to one political persuasion or another–and justly so, or so I thought. While it’s true that antiscience on the right is definitely more prominent these days, with the Republican candidates conducting virtual seminars on how to deny established science. Evolution? They don’t believe in it because, apparently, Jesus told them not to. Anthropogenic global warming? they don’t buy that, either, because to admit that human activity is resulting in significant climate change would be to be forced to concede that industry isn’t an unalloyed benefit and that maybe, just maybe, something needs to be done to decrease carbon dioxide emissions, which would require putting some checks on industry. Be that as it may, the ability of highly educated ideologues to hold viewpoints that are at odds with reality and to defend their beliefs against evidence and science is sometimes known as the “smart idiots” effect, and, these days, there appear to be a lot of smart idiots.

Traditionally, or so I used to assume, the left had blind spots of similar intensity, just in different areas. The most commonly cited example is the antivaccine movement, which gives the appearance of being made up largely of affluent, educated liberals. Of course, this is a simplification, as I’ve discussed time and time again. Antivaccine beliefs are bipartisan and span the political spectrum from left to right and everything in between. On the left, there are antivaccinationists who fall prey to the naturalistic fallacy, believing vaccines to be an affront to nature, plus a heapin’ helpin’ of distrust of big pharma, while on the right there are antivaccinationists whose antivaccine beliefs derive from “health freedom” beliefs that are often a combination of the naturalistic fallacy with good, old-fashioned libertarian contrariness that leads to an intense belief that the government shouldn’t be able to tell them what to do. Other examples of antiscientific beliefs thought to be more prevalent on the left include genetically modified organisms (GMOs), although once again it’s not just liberals who are highly suspicious of GMOs. I suppose there is always nuclear power, which is frequently thrown back as an alleged example of serious antiscience on the left.

All of this is why, although I thought it was a good book that made strong arguments, Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science didn’t fully convince me that there was something about Republicans that made them more antiscience than anyone else. Of course, the book came out nearly seven years ago, and in the interim I’ve managed to observe a number of occurrences that have made me wonder whether Mooney wasn’t on to something after all. Yes, I realize that Mooney has caught a lot of flak over the last few years for what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as his being too willing to defend or make excuses for religion as a source of a lot of antiscientific beliefs. I’ve also on occasion had my problems with him when he has taken a “blame the scientists” attitude in discussing why so much antiscience belief exists and, in particular, his breathtakingly naïve admonition that we should try to “build bridges” with leaders of the antivaccine movement.

Still, occasionally Mooney makes some observations that ring true, such as his latching on to motivated reasoning as a reason why science often loses when it bumps up against ideology. I’m not yet convinced that this is one of these times, but the other day Mooney built on those observations and the phenomenon of the “smart idiot” in his article The Republican Brain: Why Even Educated Conservatives Deny Science – and Reality. First, he starts out with the frustration that so many scientists experience when they discover that evidence doesn’t always persuade:

I can still remember when I first realized how naïve I was in thinking–hoping–that laying out the “facts” would suffice to change politicized minds, and especially Republican ones. It was a typically wonkish, liberal revelation: One based on statistics and data. Only this time, the data were showing, rather awkwardly, that people ignore data and evidence–and often, knowledge and education only make the problem worse.

I can’t recall how many times I’ve pointed out this problem, albeit without the political angle. This is nothing more than a variation of the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which highly educated people have a hard time realizing their own limitations. It’s what I’ve referred to as the “arrogance of ignorance,” in which a person is just educated enough to think he knows what he’s talking about with regard to an issue (or, more accurately, to think he can educate himself about an issue) even though he’s spectacularly wrong. This education leads to an illusion of deep knowledge when in fact what this person is good at is selectively discovering and internalizing evidence that supports his preexisting world view and finding ways to reject evidence that doesn’t go along with that world view. We see this, again, in antivaccine activists. From what I’ve been able to gather looking at the evidence and from my years of involvement combatting antivaccine misinformation, it’s seldom the uneducated who are antivaccine. The uneducated, who are frequently in lower socioeconomic classes, might not get their children vaccinated, but it’s far more often because they lack access to adequate health care, particularly preventive care. Educated, affluent parents, on the other hand, tend to reject vaccines more based on their education leading them to the University of Google, where they find all sorts of fear mongering that seems to be based on science. Unfortunately, their education leads them astray, providing compelling evidence of how a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Not surprisingly, the same thing is going on with anthropogenic global warming (AGW):

Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.

So far, this is nothing surprising, although the difference strikes me as less compelling than I had expected, given the buildup. It’s not as though 90% of educated Republicans are AGW denialists while only 30% of non-college-educated Republicans are. So let’s see what else Mooney has to say:

For Democrats and Independents, the opposite was the case. More education correlated with being more accepting of climate science–among Democrats, dramatically so. The difference in acceptance between more and less educated Democrats was 23 percentage points.

OK, so the education-based differential in rejection of AGW science is 12% in Republicans, compared to 23% more educated than uneducated Democrats accepting AGW science. That appears significant, but there appears to be more going on here. An absolute difference in rejecting AGW associated with higher education appears significant, but is it such a dominant factor? Here’s some more evidence presented by Mooney. He cites a study that compared the attitudes of conservatives towards AGW with the attitude of liberals towards nuclear power, which is often thrown back by conservatives as an example of liberal “antiscience.” Here’s what another study found:

Nuclear power is a classic test case for liberal biases–kind of the flipside of the global warming issue–for the following reason. It’s well known that liberals tend to start out distrustful of nuclear energy: There’s a long history of this on the left. But this impulse puts them at odds with the views of the scientific community on the matter (scientists tend to think nuclear power risks are overblown, especially in light of the dangers of other energy sources, like coal).

So are liberals “smart idiots” on nukes? Not in Kahan’s study. As members of the “egalitarian communitarian” group in the study–people with more liberal values–knew more science and math, they did not become more worried, overall, about the risks of nuclear power. Rather, they moved in the opposite direction from where these initial impulses would have taken them. They become less worried–and, I might add, closer to the opinion of the scientific community on the matter.

You may or may not support nuclear power personally, but let’s face it: This is not the “smart idiot” effect. It looks a lot more like open-mindedness.

So is Mooney on to something here? From my perspective, yes and no. To the extent that he points out how educated people are better at motivated reasoning (i.e., cherry picking evidence to support their biases and constructing more reasonable–or at least reasonable-seeming–arguments), it’s hard to argue with him. However, I’m worried that he might be making too much of these data. I harped on the 12% difference between educated and uneducated Republicans in whether or not they reject AGW science. Look at it this way. It’s the difference between 81% of educated Republicans and 69% of less educated Republicans rejecting AGW science. That boils down to education making a Republican only 17% more likely to reject AGW science. Compared to the observation that over 2/3 of less educated and 4/5 of educated Republicans rejecting AGW science, that strikes me as a relatively small contribution to the ideologically-based rejection of AGW science on the right.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s probably not insignificant and it is an interesting observation that education in liberals was more correlated with the acceptance of science than in Republicans. I do, however, question how generalizable to many broad areas of science and knowledge this observation is. I don’t know if such studies exist, but based on my experience, I’d be willing to bet that if this study were repeated with liberals regarding vaccines education would not correlate with being more accepting of science. It also wouldn’t surprise me if this correlation would not hold regarding GMOs. Until I see more evidence that these observations are generalizable to more areas of science, I remain somewhat skeptical, even though I realize that, when it comes to evolution, climate change, and certain other areas of science there is no doubt that Republicans are, hands down, more antiscience than any liberal. I’m just not convinced that this is true of everything, and too much of Mooney’s arguments come off sounding to me very much like, “Republicans are smart idiots, and liberals are so much better.” Even if that were true, it wouldn’t be a winning message to win over the antiscience crowd, such as a commenter who wrote:

I happen to have a lot of formal education — PhD and MD — and I really care about figuring out what’s true. I don’t happen to doubt human-caused global warming or the urgency of changing our planet-ruining ways. But I do question various other party lines. I believe that vaccines have sometimes been the triggering event for the onset of autism in some vulnerable children, which is contrary to the “educated” perspective. I believe GMO food is a travesty that adds to our collective burden of illness, again contrary to the holy pronouncements of the “scientific consensus.” And as I’ve looked into it, I cannot accept the official version of why three buildings imploded into rubble on 9/11/01 despite relentless pressure by “experts” to label me as wacko because facts lead me to that reluctant conclusion.

No, he’s a whacko because he buys into all sorts of dubious antiscience nonsense. At least he’s proof positive (as if we needed any after Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski) that an MD/PhD does not inoculate one against pseudoscience. Nor does any political or religious orientation. That’s not to say that there might not be fruitful observations in the research cited by Mooney, but I fear its significance might well be overstated. It is, after all, very tempting if you’re a liberal to latch onto research that makes you feel a lot smarter than your ideological opponents.