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.
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”
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.