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False Equivalence

by Donald Prothero, Sep 06 2014

In recent months, we’ve heard a number of prominent people (from Michael Shermer to Neil DeGrasse Tyson) say that there’s no real difference between the political parties when it comes to science denial. According to this argument, there is  bad thinking and “woo” on both sides of the political spectrum. To counteract the fact that science deniers like creationists and climate deniers are overwhelmingly Republican, they point to other types of “woo” like anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOs, anti-frackers, and the like, and claim that these are largely found on the left wing. It turns out, however, that contrary to myth, anti-vaxxers tend to be more right-wing than left-wing (especially among the people who fear government, the large religious crowd that rejects modern medicine, and the home schoolers who don’t want to let their kids be vaccinated).

For example, in his 2012 book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why they Deny Science—And Reality, Chris Mooney admits that not all examples of science denial are on the right wing. There are certain ideas, such as the  fears of nuclear power, or of scary oil company practices like fracking, that are predominately held by liberals and environmentalists. But there are important differences here. Adherence to pseudoscience and anti-science is not symmetrically distributed between the left and the right. Ideas such as anti-vaxx, anti-nukes, and anti-fracking are not held uniformly by the majority of liberals or progressives, but only a tiny subset, whereas studies show that the ideas of creationism and global climate change denial are virtually universal among American conservatives now.

A recent PPP poll showed that pseudo-scientific beliefs and conspiracy thinking is much more common among GOP voters:

Republicans are more likely to believe in aliens and in bigfoot, that aliens crashed at Roswell and shape-shifting reptiles rule our world, that Saddam Hussein played a role in 9/11 and a secretive power elite secret rules the world, that the government adds mind control messages to TV signals, sprays evil chemicals into the air, and fluoridates water for nefarious purposes, that bin Laden is alive and Oswald didn’t act alone, that pharmaceutical companies invent new diseases to make money and vaccines cause autism. They also are more likely to think President Obama is the anti-Christ and global warming is a hoax. Republicans endorse more conspiracy theories, and with greater fervor, than Democrats.

More importantly, none of these ideas are held by the major leaders of the Democratic Party, nor are they being actively written into law across the nation by Democrats. By contrast, nearly all conservative politicians in the modern GOP must at least pay lip service to a litany of dogmas, from lowering taxes, cutting spending on the poor, and boosting military spending, to opposing abortions, birth control, and stem-cell research, to homophobia—and, in this last few years, they must also toe the line with denying global climate change, and throw at least a bone to creationism. For example, in the 2008 GOP presidential race, a majority of the candidates were openly creationist, and all doubted climate change. In the 2012 GOP race, all but one of the presidential candidates were both climate deniers and creationists (the exception was Jon Huntsman in both cases). All of the GOP members of the House Science committees are climate deniers, and most are creationists, including Rep. Paul Broun, who called evolution and cosmology and embryology “lies from the pits of Hell.” The Texas GOP platform is one long laundry list of right-wing evangelical talking points, including climate denial, creationism, and even attempting to ban critical thinking.

This is a crucial difference. When GOP politicians gain power, science denial gets passed into law. We’ve all heard about the repeated efforts to slide creationism in the back door of public education. They may disguise it, but the courts have ruled over and over again that  creationism (in ANY form) is clearly a particular dogma of a religious minority and thus does not belong in public school science classes, according to our Constitution. These efforts have come about entirely through GOP state legislatures and governors (Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and others), not in states that have Democratic governors and legislatures. We’ve seen the absurd efforts by the King Canutes of the North Carolina GOP-run legislature to pass laws forbidding scientists to mention the true rise of sea level expected in the near future, all to placate rich landowners in low-elevation areas on the Carolina coast who don’t want it officially acknowledged that their property will be under water some day soon. Ironically, the Virginia legislature, which tried to pass similar laws, is now forced to retract them and acknowledge the fact that sea level rise (especially strong storm surges) are already affecting tidewater Virginia.

As Mooney (2012) reminds us, one personality trait that characterizes most American liberals is an open, questioning attitude about their beliefs, and a respect for science. In the case of fracking, nuclear power, and anti-vaxxers, the scientific community has either spoken clearly (vaccines do not cause autism), or the scientific data are not in favor of the diehards and fearmongers (nuclear power is not perfect, but all forms of energy have drawbacks, and we need power from somewhere; fracking might lead to a few cases of groundwater contamination, but so far there is no sign that it is always a problem). When scientists speak clearly and present their evidence, and liberal politicians respect their opinions, only minorities of liberals end up holding the unscientific or pseudoscientific views, and no policy changes occur. By contrast, when conservatives were or are in power (as in the Bush years of 2001-2009, or in many state governments now), laws are passed either hindering scientific reseach or outright denying scientific reality, from climate change, to evolution, to stem-cell research, as well as laws about abortion, birth control, and homosexuality.

So the argument that “they’re all the same” is false equivalence. What really counts is that their leaders are NOT the same, and that the GOP leaders have been actively forcing anti-science on the country anywhere they have the power to do so. There is only one party hurting our country with backwards policies that will backfire in the long run, and will cause lots of pain and suffering that could have been averted with planning and forward-looking policies and acknowledging reality.

15 Responses to “False Equivalence”

  1. Karen says:

    You lump concerns held primarily by liberals (anti-nukes, anti-fracking, anti-GMOs) in with “woo” because the science is well-understood. I would argue that most liberal concerns regarding those issues are about execution, or technology, rather than science. There have been some dismal failures of execution in placing and maintaining nuclear power plants. GMO concerns are often bound up, not with the scientific safety of the GMOs themselves, but with large-scale agricultural practices. The “few cases of groundwater contamination” associated with fracking seem to be mushrooming.

    By comparison, conservatives seem to reject the science itself. That’s a whole different order of magnitude of rejection. One can have a rational argument about what it takes to secure a nuclear power facility. That’s impossible with someone who rejects the scientific fact and theory of evolution.

  2. oldebabe says:

    Yes, I agree. Just because something is proven to be so doesn’t mean everyone will like it in every way, and that it will always be utilized in exactly the same way. Lots of discussion here… and that’s a good thing, ISTM.

  3. Jan says:

    Liberal folks worried about fracking or GMO foods do not deny that you can frack or that you can create GMO foods – they believe the science is possible. They are worried about ramifications or consequences. This is a huge difference from people who discount the fossil record or climate science.

    • I agree with you, Karen, and OldeBabe–liberals are more likely to reject the consequences of things like GMOs and tracking, while conservatives reject the basic science of evolution, climate change, and vaccinations. Those are even bigger differences, as you all pointed out. My main point goes beyond this: when people say that both sides embrace “woo”, they neglect to point out the asymmetry of the two sides: the GOP LEADERS embrace science denial, and when they have power, they put anti-science policies into practice. That is an even more serious difference between the two sides.

      • Max says:

        Conservatives reject the basic science of vaccinations, and liberals don’t? Even though they’re equally likely to believe that vaccines cause autism and other diseases?
        Equating thimerosal with mercury is not rejecting basic science?

    • Max says:

      Conservative folks who oppose embryonic stem cell research don’t deny that you can experiment on embryos. They think it’s immoral, kind of like liberals who oppose animal experimentation.

  4. Max says:

    Your own source says, “unlike the general vaccination safety question, there was almost no divide between the parties on the veracity of the link between vaccines and autism.”

    Is that a false equivalence too?

  5. Max says:

    The PPP survey found that 6% of Obama voters believe that the moon landing is fake, versus 5% of Romney voters.
    But that’s a small minority that politicians can ignore.
    On the other hand, 58% of Republicans believe that Global Warming is a hoax, while 77% of Democrats disagree, so the GOP can’t ignore that.
    And 72% of Democrats believe that the Bush administration
    intentionally misled the public about WMDs to promote the Iraq War, while 73% of Republicans disagree, so the Democratic Party can’t ignore that.

  6. tmac57 says:

    There appears to be a strain of self identified conservatives that embrace reality challenged ‘thought’ leaders such as Glenn Beck and Alex Jones,as well as a host of nutjob ‘Christian’ bloggers and radio hosts that traffic in hyperbolic rhetoric and conspiracy theories that do include things such as anti-GMO and anti/distrust of vaccines too. They mostly coalesce around the distrust of ANY authority (except the Bible,of course!),and that includes distrust of many of the mainstream conservative leaders who they now dismiss as RINO’s. They seem to move more and more toward the most extreme elements that once were easily dismissed as the fringe.
    There is a fringe on the left as well,but they don’t seem to have much political capital or organization enough to sway the mainstream of the Democratic party to pay them too much attention. Fringes have always existed,but the GOP does seem to be fighting for some coherent message that doesn’t leave them looking like a party to either mock,or be feared by rational citizens.

  7. Helena Constantine says:

    Wonder why I’m persona non grata here?

  8. Richard says:

    Tom Harkin, the Democratic senator from Iowa, was the leader in setting up the NCCAM, which has wasted billions of dollars studying implausible medical modalities. So liberals can also put anti-science policies into practice.

  9. Trimegistus says:

    Mr. Prothero screams and points at Republicans, while frantically denying all the anti-scientific ideas among liberals. Disgraceful and dishonest.

    When did this blog about skeptical inquiry turn into a weekly political soapbox rant by Prothero?

    And now he’s trying to excommunicate his fellow bloggers for not being as loyal to the Party as he is. If you ever wanted to see Lysenkoism in action, look no further.

    The old rule is apparently true: every organization eventually gets taken over by strident leftists and turned into a leftist political machine. Sad to see it happen here.

  10. Thomas says:

    “As Mooney (2012) reminds us, one personality trait that characterizes most American liberals is an open, questioning attitude about their beliefs, and a respect for science.”

    I would say the following would be more accurate: Most people with an open, questioning attitude about their beliefs, and a respect for science are liberals.

    There are plenty of liberals who buy into anything their like-minded friends pass along and are selective about which scientific findings they’ll accept.