Democrats and their science problem – Politico

When news of the rapidly melting Antarctic ice sheets came out a few weeks ago, I braced myself for what was sure to be a flood of right-wing commentary questioning the supposed climate alarmism, followed by the inevitable left-wing mockery of those anti-science Republicans going at it again. But neither happened. In fact, Fox News covered the story with—dare I say it—fairness and balance, actually reporting this was “settled science.” Long the punching bag of moderate and liberal pundits, conservatives might finally be learning not to make themselves such easy anti-science targets.

Still, given the objections to climate science and evolution heard so often from the right, articles lamenting those anti-science views remain commonplace. Less common, though, are those pointing out the donkey in the room: that, when it comes to certain issues, Democrats, too, conveniently ignore science or promote agendas that contradict the scientific consensus. Those examples just aren’t as easy to see.

In fact, I will freely admit I had trouble at first finding examples. Concerns about vaccine safety and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are often held up as evidence of anti-scientific beliefs among liberals. But opinion polls about those two issues rarely ask about political affiliation the way polls about climate change and evolution do. The exception is a 2009 Pew Research survey, which indicated that Democrats and Republicans appear to support child vaccination equally (71 percent of both favor it). Interestingly, the same survey reveals that there is less difference than one might think between political affiliations on views about evolution. More Democrats (36 percent) than Republicans (23 percent) believe in natural evolution, but Republicans lead by only 4 points in believing in evolution by “supreme guidance.” Only 9 points separate Republicans (39 percent) from Democrats (30 percent) in believing the earth has always existed “in its present form.” These results undermine the common assumptions that vaccine hysteria is limited to the left, and creationism is limited to the GOP.

The few times writers have attempted to point out the left’s problems with science, they have gotten shot down for “false equivalence”—for holding up both parties as equally anti-science so as not to seem biased when one of those parties is in reality more anti-science than the other.

But such cries of false equivalence miss the point. The issue isn’t whether the Democrats are anti-science enough to match the anti-science lunacy of Republicans. The point is that any science denialism exists on the left at all. If there is grime in my bathroom and grime in my kitchen, I don’t stand there and contemplate which one has more filth; my house won’t be clean until I have scoured both.

The fact is, there’s plenty of anti-science grime on the left that needs to be cleaned up. To understand why we don’t hear about it, consider the different styles of the parties, which illustrate why denial percolates differently through each. The more centralized, top-down Republicans regularly push for unity, and their platform, on issues ranging from abortion to taxation, is clearly recognizable. Even if there’s not a plank specifically about climate change in the Republican platform, it speaks for itself that whenever a Republican bucks the party trend to say climate change is man-caused, he makes news.

One might argue, rightfully so, that the rise of the Tea Party is responsible for much of the Republican anti-science craziness. But that argument only drives home my point: The Republican Party has—until very recently—moved further and further to the right to accommodate Tea Partiers. Party unity trumps rejecting ludicrous ideas. And today, Republicans’ anti-science views—from embrace of creationism in schools to climate “skepticism”—are front and center.

Liberals are far less coordinated. Why would we expect to see Democrats unified around any anti-science beliefs when they rally around little else? The lack of unity within the more fragmented, bottom-up left, alternately a strength and a weakness, dilutes the anti-science views that are actually thriving among their ranks. As one of those who claims science denialism is more egregious among Republicans than among Democrats, the journalist Chris Mooney has argued that the small amount of anti-science views found on the left does not drive policy. But digging a little deeper reveals plenty of bills that ignore the scientific consensus. Sure, they are mostly at the state level. But then, so are the Republicans’ bills pushing creationism into schools.

Take anti-GMO sentiment, for example. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) notes in its statement on the issue that “25 years of research involving more than 500 independent research groups” has found genetically modified foods to be no riskier than foods resulting from conventional breeding. Eating a GM tomato is just as safe as eating a non-GM tomato. The AAAS therefore opposes GMO labeling because it could “mislead and falsely alarm customers.” Though some polling has shown GMO labeling support to be about equal among Republicans, Democrats and Independents, looking at GMO-related legislation tells another story.

Tara Haelle is a freelance science journalist who also blogs at Red Wine & Apple Sauce. She has a forthcoming book on evidence-based parenting and can be followed at @tarahaelle.

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