the official site of Michael Shermer

top navigation:
Scientific American

The Left’s War on Science

published February 2013 | comments (14)
How politics distorts science
on both ends of the spectrum
magazine cover

Believe it or not—and I suspect most readers will not—there’s a liberal war on science. Say what?

We are well aware of the Republican war on science from the eponymous 2006 book (Basic Books) by Chris Mooney, and I have castigated conservatives myself in my 2006 book Why Darwin Matters (Holt) for their erroneous belief that the theory of evolution leads to a breakdown of morality. A 2012 Gallup Poll found that “58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years,” compared with 41 percent of Democrats. A 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 81 percent of Democrats but only 49 percent of Republicans believe that Earth is getting warmer. Many conservatives seem to grant early-stage embryos a moral standing that is higher than that of adults suffering from debilitating diseases potentially curable through stem cells. And most recently, Missouri Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin gaffed on the ability of women’s bodies to avoid pregnancy in the event of a “legitimate rape.” It gets worse.

The left’s war on science begins with the stats cited above: 41 percent of Democrats are young Earth creationists, and 19 percent doubt that Earth is getting warmer. These numbers do not exactly bolster the common belief that liberals are the people of the science book. In addition, consider “cognitive creationists”— whom I define as those who accept the theory of evolution for the human body but not the brain. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker documents in his 2002 book The Blank Slate (Viking), belief in the mind as a tabula rasa shaped almost entirely by culture has been mostly the mantra of liberal intellectuals, who in the 1980s and 1990s led an all-out assault against evolutionary psychology via such Orwellian-named far-left groups as Science for the People, for proffering the now uncontroversial idea that human thought and behavior are at least partially the result of our evolutionary past.

There is more, and recent, antiscience fare from far-left progressives, documented in the 2012 book Science Left Behind (Public Affairs) by science journalists Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell, who note that “if it is true that conservatives have declared a war on science, then progressives have declared Armageddon.” On energy issues, for example, the authors contend that progressive liberals tend to be antinuclear because of the waste disposal problem, anti–fossil fuels because of global warming, antihydroelectric because dams disrupt river ecosystems, and anti–wind power because of avian fatalities. The underlying current is “everything natural is good” and “everything unnatural is bad.”

Whereas conservatives obsess over the purity and sanctity of sex, the left’s sacred values seem fixated on the environment, leading to an almost religious fervor over the purity and sanctity of air, water and especially food. Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs—genetically modified organisms—in which the words “Monsanto” and “profit” are not dropped like syllogistic bombs. Comedian Bill Maher, for example, on his HBO Real Time show on October 19, 2012, asked Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg if he would rate Monsanto as a 10 (“evil”) or an 11 (“f—ing evil”)? The fact is we’ve been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years through breeding and selection. It’s the only way to feed billions of people.

Surveys show that moderate liberals and conservatives embrace science roughly equally (varying across domains), which is why scientists like E. O. Wilson and organizations like the National Center for Science Education are reaching out to moderates in both parties to rein in the extremists on evolution and climate change. Pace Barry Goldwater, extremism in the defense of liberty may not be a vice, but it is in defense of science, where facts matter more than faith—whether it comes in a religious or secular form—and where moderation in the pursuit of truth is a virtue.

topics in this column: , , , , ,

14 Comments to “The Left’s War on Science”

  1. KevinJ Says:

    Do these liberals object to Monsanto because they scientifically modify food, or because they claim ownership in perpetuity over the living things they modify – to the extent that they sue farmers whose crops have become cross-pollenated by their patented protected crop species?

    My hunch is that most of the folks that object to the Monsantos of the world mostly object to their politics (i.e. creating “round up ready” crops that require round up, and no other brand; preventing farmers from saving part of their harvest to seed next year’s crops). Their politics really are egregious and deserving of scorn, IMO. Imagine if Monsanto had followed the lead of the free-internet activists: created genetically superior soybeans, and allowed them to be freely propagated around the world.

    I think then the criticism of GMO would be limited to a few bull-goose loonies that would be much easier to ignore.

  2. Randy Grein Says:

    Actually Michael, it’s worse than just a legal monopoly on critical food infrastructure. The much larger problems are engineered overuse of pesticides and monocultures. Roundup is just (pardon the pun) the first round. Already weeds are showing remarkable resistance to it so farmers have to use even more. At what point will we discover that too much roundup causes problems that took time to uncover? And of course, by then it will have become completely ineffective and we’ll need something else with insufficiently tested safety. In the meantime fields are saturated with so much roundup the Monsanto monopoly is the only crop that will grow; any new seed will need immunity to both roundup and whatever the replacement will be, a difficult task.

    Monocultures are the biggest longterm problem, and we have seen this for many years. With a uniform genome any disease that develops an advantage sweeps rapidly through the population, destroying much or most of the crop. (See dutch elm disease, wheat rusts or AIDS for examples.) The reality is the search for ever more efficient crops hits a long term limiting factor and the only choice is short term gain or long term viability. But understand this is not ignorant fear of science, it’s higher math. Statistical models can easily show that, like the economic bubble we just experienced this strategy of trading efficiency for risk is not viable long term.

  3. Jeffery Says:

    I wouldn’t be as opposed to GM crops as I am if it weren’t for the obvious fact that the profit motive (as well as the fear of the loss of money already invested in them)has resulted in what I see as a serious lack of long-term safety testing of these “products” before they were dumped on the market and a serious lack of interest in looking for potential problems with them. The scientists who work for Monsanto aren’t stupid; they knew that weeds would eventually develop resistance to Roundup. What the company’s marketing strategy appears to be is (1)develop a new crop. especially one that requires other products you make, (2)flood the market with it to the point where older varieties of seed become unavailable, and (3) ignore any problems with it, as you are already busy developing the next “quick money-maker” (which, in this case, is drought-resistant corn).

  4. Andrew Says:

    I just wanted to point out that “Tabula Rasa” is slightly misunderstood here.

    In philosophy, the Lockean idea of “Tabula Rasa” isn’t that “there is no such thing as human nature.” Rather, it is the idea that there is no ABSTRACT KNOWLEDGE in the mind at birth.

    It is quite possible to accept both (Lockean) Tabula Rasa and evolutionary psychology.

    I think that associating Tablua Rasa with extreme social constructivism (which is what Pinker and Shermer are in fact criticizing, and IMO correctly) is a mistake.

  5. AbyNormal Says:

    The ‘beauty’ in Genetic Modifications is ‘the jury remains out’. Thriving through the era of ‘Profits Before People’ should keep all of us ‘Questioning Everything’!

    Regulators Discover a Hidden Viral Gene in Commercial GMO Crops
    http://independentsciencenews.org/commentaries/regulators-discover-a-hidden-viral-gene-in-commercial-gmo-crops/

    (Gene VI) viruses that infect plants are often not that different from viruses that infect humans. For example, sometimes the genes of human and plant viruses are interchangeable, while on other occasions inserting plant viral fragments as transgenes has caused the genetically altered plant to become susceptible to an animal virus (Dasgupta et al. 2001). Thus, in various ways, inserting viral genes accidentally into crop plants and the food supply confers a significant potential for harm.

  6. rjs Says:

    most on the left would put BP at 10 on the evil scale too; doesnt have much to do with science denial..

  7. Yndrd1984 Says:

    I don’t mean to be rude, but it’s frustrating to read this stuff from people who have no experience in agriculture:

    “creating “round up ready” crops that require round up, and no other brand”

    Round-Up Ready crops don’t need glyphosate (the active ingredient in Round-Up), they’re just resistant to that pesticide. They grow quite happily without it. And the patent has expired, making generic glyphosate readily available.

    “In the meantime fields are saturated with so much roundup the Monsanto monopoly is the only crop that will grow”

    Glyphosate was widely used before GM crops existed and tends to break down fairly quickly.

    “flood the market with it to the point where older varieties of seed become unavailable”

    Monsanto will be glad to sell you lots of different varieties of GM seed or non-GM seed. As will their competition.

  8. KevinJ Says:

    Frustrating when shills pimp their non-sense in comment sections like these.

    “Glyphosate was widely used before GM crops existed and tends to break down fairly quickly.”

    According to wikipedia: “…the glyphosate metabolite aminomethylphosphonic acid has been found in Swedish forest soils up to two years after a glyphosate application.[52] Glyphosate adsorption to soil varies depending on the kind of soil.[53]” Two years is quickly? Geologically speaking, I suppose it is.

    And when you say “Round-Up Ready crops don’t need glyphosate (the active ingredient in Round-Up), they’re just resistant to that pesticide. They grow quite happily without it. And the patent has expired, making generic glyphosate readily available…” you miss the point. Grow happily without pesticide? Right, like any other crop grows happily without pesticide. The crop may be perfectly content, but the farmer may have a different opinion. He wants to increase yield at decreased costs. He knows that round up works in conjunction with his monsanto seeds where other herbicides do not.

    Interesting how you avoided tackling my assertion that Monsanto will litigate if farmers keep some of the seed to reseed next years crop. That is well-documented. Keep cherry picking, and missing the point. The main point here is that it is monsanto’s ethics more than it’s science that is worthy of skepticism here.

  9. Justin Says:

    Kevin,

    2 years is rare for the metabolite to remain in soil, to my knowledge.

    Regarding litigation, “keeping seed” is referred to as patent infringement. Farmers are contractually obligated to use the seed for one season, but in a few cases they keep it to try and get ahead of the competition without paying. It’s illegal, well documented, and no farmer going to trial has ever won.

    So who’s unethical now?

  10. Carlos Says:

    “Imagine if Monsanto had followed the lead of the free-internet activists: created genetically superior soybeans, and allowed them to be freely propagated around the world.”

    Yes, because ulterior-motive less altruism is so despicable [/sarcasm]

  11. DStev Says:

    I am disappointed that KevinJ insists that there is a monster list of Monsanto’s litigation battles against poor simple farmers for cross pollination, and that this list is “well-documented”,yet, fails to provide a single example. How about Monsanto Vs. Percy Schmeiser? His crop was 95 – 98% patented seed which should have cost him roughly $15,000 to purchase and plant. But he stole it, by spraying his entire crop with round-up and harvesting only the ones that survived. He rightfully lost his case and 2 appeals, yet, this gem goes on lecture tours telling everyone that the seeds were unwanted by contamination and that he won the court case. The lefts obstinant and bigoted distrust of all large business, and fanatical championing of small business and large government is not anti-science, but it doesn’t always make a lot of sense either.

  12. Doug Hoyer Says:

    I don’t have any problems with GMO’s. I agree with the article that we’ve been genetically modifying plants & animals since the dawn of agriculture.

    But I’m not a big fan of Monsanto. I worry about concentrations of power in big corporations. I don’t like to see our food supply controlled by a few big companies like Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midlands, and a few others.

    Big corporations first interest is profits and not the good of the public.

  13. Chad White Says:

    I’m not a fan of Monsanto or corporations. IME defending biotechnology in my community and on the internet I have to begin by separating myself from the corporation, and I always have to make the clear distinction between the corporation and the science involved. I am a hippy, living in a hippy town, and I know one other person that is in favor of GMO for people and the planets health. I’m not only beginning to feel alienated, but the fervent irrationality is starting to frighten me. Every argument that gets thrown at me just falls to pieces… First it’s Seralini, then that bogus ‘Entropy’ study, then it’s suicides by farmers who turns out were committing suicide just as often prior to GMO’s. I don’t know what to do! I despise corporate propaganda, and now I am seeing my own peers being more guilty of it then Monsanto. You can’t just throw facts at these people (who seem to be under the influence of some zombie like cult). I share their ideals, but I see them fighting for the health of the earth , and for poor people. Yet their efforts are causing real harm, and a real threat. By fighting against unknown risks while ignoring known benefits. In my town, the only voices being heard are from the anti’s. I wish skeptics would get further involved in the GMO conspiracy theory, before more food is obstructed from poor kids in the third world. I’m being drowned by all the bullshit, and need help. I think the whole thing may be worse then what rational people think.

  14. Giddian Beer Says:

    There is a huge difference (and the examples show it) between the conservative and the progressive attitudes. Conservatives reject the most important knowledge and understandings provided by science. Progressives do not; instead they reject what we do with that knowledge and understanding. So theirs is a war on technology, on the applications of science, rather than on science itself.

    Liberal rejection of technology is enabled by consternation, misinformation and defective reasoning; it inhibits or prevents us from realizing many of the benefits of technology. Conservative rejection of the findings of science is enabled by willful ignorance; it propels us towards extinction.

Leave a Comment