A Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson:  Some Statistics on Political Ideology and Anti-Science Views.

 

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Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson (NDT) was on Real Time with Bill Maher and argued that “there are certain aspects of science-denial that are squarely on the liberal left.”  Unfortunately for him, this statement is objectively false.

Specifically, while there are certain scientific domains the liberal left and conservatives right are equally culpable for espousing anti-science views, the issues discussed do not fall ‘squarely’ in the liberal left.

Let me be clear.  I am not disagreeing with NDT’s general point, which is that we shouldn’t just blame conservatives for anti-science views and policies.  Conservatives don’t have a monopoly on anti-science views and educating everyone is vital.  What I am arguing against is the commonplace view that certain issues are analogous to global warming denial and creationism, which have a strong conservative majority – just on the left.

Liberals do hold anti-science views and it’s would be equally mistaken to suggest that anti-science views are squarely on the right.  If that’s all that NDT was trying to articulate but simply misspoke, then I agree with him.

Ultimately, though the idea that certain anti-science beliefs are held squarely on the left is one that is held by many, but one that is false, and it’s that belief I try to rectify here.

Three issues were argued in the video to be predominantly a problem for liberals: vaccinations, alternative medicine, and GMOS.  Let’s look at the data on each of these.

Anti-vaccinations: The anti-vaccination movement might seem to be the product of those on the left, with the outspoken celebrities ostensibly identifying with that side.  However, the research suggests that there is little correlation between political ideology and this view.  In fact, if anything, the data would suggest that conservatives are more likely to agree with this sentiment.  For example, this report by public policy polling shows  that whereas 19% of Obama voters believe that vaccines cause autism, 22% of Romney supports did.  Similarly, this Pew Research Center Report shows that 60% of Democrats would get a swine flue vaccine compared to only 41% of Republicans.  Lastly, this paper makes the claim explicitly:

“A different popular claim attributes concern over vaccine risks to a left-leaning political orientation. “Vaccine hesitancy” is, on this account, held forth as the “liberal” “anti-science” analog to “conservative” skepticism about climate change (e.g., Green 2011). The survey results suggest that this position, too, lacks any factual basis. In contrast to risks that are known to generate partisan disagreement generally—ones relating to climate change, drug legalization, and handgun possession, for example—vaccine risks displayed only a small relationship with left- right political outlooks. The direction of the effect, moreover, was the opposite of the one associated with the popular view: respondents formed more negative assessments of the risk and benefits of childhood vaccines as they became more conservative and identified more strongly with the Republican Party” (Kahan, 2014,  p.28-29)

Ultimately, not only are anti-science views about vaccinations, clearly not squarely on the liberal left – they are actually more likely to be associated with conservatives.  With Donald Trump also espousing this rhetoric, I imagine the magnitude of the effect will only get larger.

Vaccinne

 Alternative Medicine:  Alternative medicine is a more difficult domain to define because it expands a large set of different views that have different levels of evidence.  For example, belief in homeopathy is completely anti-science, whereas acupuncture or marijuana may have some efficacy.  As the joke goes: what do you call alternative medicine that works? Medicine.  Indeed, many chemicals that were likely once seen as  ‘alternative medicine’ have been, over the past century, tested and developed into actual pharmaceuticals – a point that NDT made.

Ultimately, the question becomes – what does one have to believe to be anti-science with respect to alternative medicine? Do grey areas like medicinal marijuana count? If someone uses the modern medical system but also tries some alternative medicine too, is he/she anti-science?

This Pew Poll  has some statistics on alternative medicine but doesn’t break down by liberals or conservatives.  I’m open to be proven wrong here, but currently it doesn’t seem that there is any difference between liberals and conservatives with respect to their scientific beliefs on medicine.

GMOs: Despite overwhelming evidence that GMOs are safe, that technically everything we eat is genetically modified in some sense, and that GMOs are extremely important for feeding a growing population, many people hold anti-GMO views.  But is this a liberal problem.  Once again, the data says no.  Accordingly, 56% of conservatives and 55% of liberals think that GM foods are unsafe to eat, although 56% of democrats feel that way while only 51% of republicans.

Ultimately, the fact that most people are anti-science with respect to GMOs is definitely a problem and one that we can’t place primarily on the right.  But just because it’s not a conservative problem, does not mean that it falls “squarely on the liberal left”

Conclusion

At the beginning of the video, John Avlon makes the comment: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not everyone is entitled to their own facts.”  Ultimately, the fact remains that while there are certain aspects of science-denial that we cannot place squarely on the conservative right, these issues cannot be placed squarely on the liberal left.

As NDT is as a man of science I hope that he corrects his opinions to be in line with the facts.

 

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3 thoughts on “A Letter to Neil deGrasse Tyson:  Some Statistics on Political Ideology and Anti-Science Views.

  1. hopdavid June 7, 2016 / 1:50 am

    ” that technically everything we eat is genetically modified in some sense, ”

    In this video Tyson argues most of the domestic plants and animals we eat have been genetically modified by artificial collection.

    But genetic modification as practiced by Monsanto is not the same the artificial selection mankind has practiced for millennia. Artificial selection encourages traits that already exist in a population’s gene pool. Monsanto will take DNA from one species and splice it onto the genes of another, something which could not occur with artificial selection. See this primer.

    I’m not arguing GMOs are bad. I’m say Tyson is ignorant when it comes to biology. And so are those who echo his poorly informed opinions.

    I will give Tyson credit for calling out liberals who think Republicans have a monopoly on stupidity. There are left wingers as well as right wingers who are innumerate and scientifically illiterate.

    • playdevilsadvocate June 7, 2016 / 6:24 pm

      Thanks for your comment.

      I agree that what we (as humans / Monsanto) are doing now is different than artificial selection in the past. However, that obfuscates the point. There has been no evidence that what we are doing now is dangerous or bad, while conversely there’s evidence that it is helpful and good. I don’t think NDT would argue that artificial selection and gene splicing are the same. His point is simply that most people don’t like GMOs because they are unnatural. And yet, in some way, all the food we have is ‘unnatural’

      Secondly, I agree that calling out liberals is good. But you’d have to be extremely closed minded to think that no liberals hold silly views on science. Indeed, some liberals don’t believe in global warming either. The problem is, and my point was, that his specific comment was false. He asserted a statement as a fact, but that particular statement was untrue.

      If instead of saying: ““there are certain aspects of science-denial that are squarely on the liberal left.”, he said “there are certain aspects of science-denial that are equally on the liberal left” that would be fine – but that’s not what he said.

      • hopdavid December 16, 2016 / 4:04 pm

        Rereading your post I see a point that I missed. Some of the non-scientific beliefs Tyson characterizes as left wing are held by conservatives as well as liberals. Okay, I’d agree with that. I’ve met Republican anti GMO, anti-vaxxers, alternative medicine enthusiasts, etc.

        Again, I’m not saying gene splicing is bad. I have no problem eating GMOs that have been tested. I’m saying Tyson’s argument is sloppy and biologically ignorant.

        It is very much like a syllogism my high school algebra teacher gave us. “Dogs bark and dogs are mammals. Cats are mammals therefore cats bark.” Which led to a discussion of sets and subsets as well as universal quantifiers. Well, Tyson’s argument is very similar. The gist of it: “Selective breeding has been around thousands of years and selective breeding is genetic modification. Gene splicing is genetic modification therefore gene splicing has been around for thousands of years.”

        Tyson’s argument could be a text book example of bad logic.

        I’m not arguing for the left vs right or the safety of GMOs. My point is that Tyson is a sloppy scholar. I put together a list of his errors: Fact Checking Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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