Antiscience Beliefs in the Left and Right
Extremes within both parties prioritize ideology over facts
“Science commits suicide when it adopts a creed.”– Thomas Huxley
Webster’s Dictionary says that antiscience is “a set or system of attitudes and beliefs that are opposed to or reject science and scientific methods and principles.” Though, as detailed later, I take some issue with his definition, Baylor College of Medicine Professor and Dean Peter J. Hotez says that “Antiscience is the rejection of mainstream scientific views and methods or their replacement with unproven or deliberately misleading theories, often for nefarious and political gains.” (Hotez 2021)
While rejection and skepticism of science are often associated with the political Far Right, they also exist in the Far Left. This essay looks at areas and aspects of rejection and skepticism of science, and the reasons behind and considerations of it.
Antiscience isn’t really a matter of the Right or Left, but of the extreme of fringe Right and Left. Surveys have shown that moderate or centrist liberals and conservatives embrace science similarly. (Shermer 2013)
Antiscience in the Far Right is commonly associated with creationism and climate change denial. Areas of anti-science in the Far Left include being anti-GMO (Genetically Modified Organism), anti-nuclear and the rejection of science that conflicts with social justice ideologies. While the Right tends to be more religious, Democrats are twice as likely to believe in astrology. (Salzberg 2016) (Pearce 2012) (Shermer 2013)
There are areas of science skepticism that are shared by both the Right and the Left. (Higgins 2021) Though often for different reasons, anti-vaccination sentiments are found in both the Right and Left. While zealous anti-GMO advocacy comes from the fringe Left, disagreement with standard scientific views about GMO exist about equally amongst Democrats, Republicans and Independents. (Pew Research Center 2015) (Charles 2016) Though climate change deniers and creationists are most likely to be Republicans or politically Right, a Gallup Poll showed that 38 percent of Democrats are creationists and 19 percent of Democrats doubt that the Earth is getting warmer. (Gallup 2008) (Fischer 2013)
CONTRIBUTING FACTORS BEHIND SCIENCE SKEPTICISM
Science illiteracy and lack of critical thinking skills
Much rejection, skepticism and misinterpretation of scientific findings are due to misunderstanding of science. There can be misunderstanding of what are theories, provisional knowledge, falsificationism and the scientific method. Some confuse the casual versus scientific meanings of the word “theory.” Some confuse causation with correlation. During the Covid pandemic, scientists changing their views with new information was a strength of science. However, some in the public saw this as evidence that one cannot trust scientific reporting because it “changes its mind.” (Miller 2016)
It is a problem when public officials and lawmakers are scientifically illiterate. Scientifically illiterate people and people who don’t use critical thinking are more easily swayed by pseudoscience and propaganda. (Lazarus 2017)
Medical researcher and science philosopher Henry I. Miller writes, “The beauty of the scientific method, when done right, is that it protects us from ideology and bias, and helps us understand what is true and what really works. At its best, science can inform sound public policy. But when we ignore or misinterpret science, we move backwards toward a time when irrationality and superstition prevailed.”(Miller 2017)
Lay people are making assessments of science reports and science in the news and on social media using their biases. Cognitive biases lead people to misinterpret information. Confirmation bias involves accepting and dismissing information based on how it supports one’s preconceptions. Laypeople’s scientific views are psychologically swayed by peer pressure, sensationalism and prevailing social and political trends. Scientific results can surprise and theories can be counterintuitive, so intuition and expectations can lead to false conclusions. (Blanke 2015)
Many people follow science in some areas but not others.
One is not necessarily always all pro-science or all anti-science. The Right is often characterized as antiscience by those who focus on specific areas such as evolution and the climate. However, the Right can be more pro-science in areas where the Far Left is not, such as GMOs, nuclear energy and funding of technology research.
Writing about anti-GMO activists, biologist and Nobel Prize winner Randy Schekman, wrote, “I find it surprising that groups that are very supportive of science when it comes to global climate change, or even, for the most part, in the appreciation of the value of vaccination in preventing human disease, yet can be so dismissive of the general views of scientists when it comes to something as important as the world’s agricultural future.” (Schekman in Achenbach 2016)
Scientific information can be distorted for political, ideological and commercial reasons
This can be done for nefarious reasons or altruistic reasons. During the Covid pandemic, United States government health officials mischaracterized some information with the altruistic motive of getting the public to not overbuy the scarce masks. (Woodhouse 2021)
This is not only a problem in and of itself, but leads to public skepticism. Many people are not skeptical of science, but of the government, media and even academics that report it. When it is discovered that the government or institutions aren’t entirely straightforward, public trust erodes. Cambridge University psychology professor Simon Baron-Cohen says that “Media distortion harms both science and journalism . . . For starter, every time the media misreports science, it chips away at the credibility of both enterprises.” (Baron-Cohen 2009)
Further, when the press or other institutions have a perceived political or ideological bias or agenda in non-science areas many people will assume this bias extends into science topics. Republicans are skeptical and even reject scientific reporting from Left-leaning media because they believe their reporting is politically biased in general. Many people on the Left will initially reject information if the news source is conservative.
There are people on both the Far Left and the Far Right who reject science, scientific research and scientific information when they conflict with their ideological or political beliefs
People on both political sides can be dogmatic and irrational.
Religious dogmatists may reject information that conflicts with their dogma and Biblical world views. Fundamentalists may use the Bible, not logic or science, as arbiter. Some conservatives will rotely reject scientific findings, say on climate change, that conflicts with their economic or social priorities. Some in the Far Right have stopped scientific research in areas of abortion, human embryos and gun violence. (Hagel 2021)
Many extreme anti-GMO and anti-nuclear energy activists reject mainstream scientific findings due to their utopian belief that “natural is best” and a “return to natural earth” ideal. This dogmatic, zealous approach can hurt their own causes, as nuclear and other energy and GMOs can help the environment and human health. (AAU 2017)
Some radical racial and gender social justice activists reject scientific findings and opinions and try to suppress research that will conflict with their social justice agenda. For example, radical gender feminists, who wish to believe that gender is an entirely social construct, push back against scientific findings that show that biology influences differently boys’ and girls’ minds. (Buhle 2017) (Sopelsa 2018) (Goldhill 2018) (Kraus L 2020)
Neuroscientist Debra Soh writes, “In the world of radical identity politics, two groups with very different philosophies have been ignoring science in the name of advancing equality: gender feminists and transgender activists . . . It’s never a good idea to dismiss scientific nuances in the name of a compelling argument or an honorable cause. We must allow science to speak for itself.”(Soh 2017)
Critical race theory scholars push back against science, mathematics, logic and the Western Enlightenment because they feel it has historically been used to uphold racist and patriarchal structures. (Lindsay 2021) (Narizny 2017)
“ANTISCIENCE” OFTEN IS THE WRONG TERM
Antiscience is a strong word, and often is incorrectly applied to describe skepticism and contrarian views.
There indeed is direct rejection of science by some. Rush Limbaugh said that government, academia, science, and media were the four “Four Corners of Deceit,” and some religious fundamentalists overtly reject science. (Roberts 2017) However, someone being misinformed or having an eccentric interpretation of a scientific report, or even going against the prevailing scientific wisdom doesn’t in and of itself make them against science.
The problem with Peter J. Hotz’s definition of anti-science at the start of this post (“Antiscience is the rejection of mainstream scientific views and methods or their replacement with unproven or deliberately misleading theories, often for nefarious and political gains.”) is that scientists disagree with each other, scientists sometimes have radical and against-the-grain ideas. Mainstream scientific views can turn out to be wrong.
Einstein’s theories of relativity were radical rejections of mainstream scientific views. Nobel Prize winner Howard Temin’s theories on DNA were initially ridiculed by the academy but later shown to be correct.(Nicholson 2015) Philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend and Physics Nobel Prize winner Charles Townes said that science can get into ruts and groupthink, and that radical, contrarian scientists are essential for innovation. Kuhn wrote that important new paradigms in science are usually initiated by outsiders or young scientists who are not committed to the old rules.
Hotez’s definition of science and anti-science is too conservative and would rule out innovators and contrarians such as Einstein, Galileo, Kurt Godel and Temin.
Being skeptical of mainstream views and theories does not make one antiscience. Being wrong or having a wildly unpopular opinion about a scientific finding or theory does not make one antiscience. Having strong skepticism of the truthfulness of government agencies, the press and even academia does not make one antiscience.
Writing for the Genetics Literacy Project, science journalist Marc Brazeau says that few people are truly antiscience, and that labeling people as “antiscience” is perceived as an insult, making it an ineffective way to educate them on science (Brazeau 2019)
Further, science has a particular scope, methodology and purpose and there are areas outside of this scope, methodology and purpose. Science can inform but cannot answer questions in the areas of morality, ethics, and quality of life. You may disagree with a conservative who prioritizes the economy over the environment but his view is a value-judgment not anti-science. You may have problems with radical social justice activists who reject the influence of science on society, but their concerns are larger than the domain of science. Most large political and social topics, including ones that involve science and medicine, involve more than just science, and cannot be answered using just science.
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