Today’s NYT has Thomas Edsall’s What the Left Get’s Right, the follow up piece to last week’s What the Right Get’s Right, and what’s fascinating is how even conservative commentators think liberals get science right more often than conservatives. Or at least they are less likely to view it ideologically:
A few conservative concessions to liberalism’s strengths were made without qualification; others were begrudging. Nonetheless, in the conservative assessment, common themes emerge:
Liberals recognize the real problems facing the poor, the hardships resulting from economic globalization and the socially destructive force of increasing inequality.
Liberals do not dismiss or treat as ideologically motivated scientific findings, especially the sharpening scientific consensus that human beings contribute significantly to climate change.
Liberals stand with those most in need, and believe in the inclusion of such previously marginalized groups as blacks, Hispanics, women and gays.
As I sifted through the responses, it became clear that a widely shared view among contemporary conservatives is that liberals are all heart and no head, that their policies are misguided — thrown off track by an excessively emotional compassion that fails to recognize the likelihood of unintended consequences.
But is this really the case? I disagree, liberals are just as likely to to disbelieve science that challenges their ideology, only the issues where liberals tend to deny aren’t quite as earth-shattering (although anti-vax is a serious public health problem) and not as much in the media spotlight. And recent cognitive studies on why people believe what they believe support the likelihood that all of us, liberal, conservative, or moderate, are poor rational actors in the evaluation of science.
Chris Mooney points out this morning yet another article showing that people are more inclined to judge science based on cognitive biases rather than a rational evaluation of the facts. The study, trying to demonstrate a correlation between knowledge of evolution and accepting of the theory, failed. Instead, people are led by their irrational brains into believing what “feels” right:
“The whole idea behind acceptance of evolution has been the assumption that if people understood it — if they really knew it — they would see the logic and accept it,” said David Haury, co-author of the new study and associate professor of education at Ohio State University.
“But among all the scientific studies on the matter, the most consistent finding was inconsistency. One study would find a strong relationship between knowledge level and acceptance, and others would find no relationship. Some would find a strong relationship between religious identity and acceptance, and others would find less of a relationship.”
“So our notion was, there is clearly some factor that we’re not looking at,” he continued. “We’re assuming that people accept something or don’t accept it on a completely rational basis. Or, they’re part of a belief community that as a group accept or don’t accept. But the findings just made those simple answers untenable.”
Haury and his colleagues tapped into cognitive science research showing that our brains don’t just process ideas logically — we also rely on how true something feels when judging an idea. “Research in neuroscience has shown that when there’s a conflict between facts and feeling in the brain, feeling wins,” he says.
This is just one of many, and similar to Michael Shermer’s skepticism theory we discussed last week. The sad fact is, humans are irrational, and their evaluation of scientific claims is just as subject to their irrationality as anything. And why should we think liberals aren’t just as subject to this universal human failing as conservatives? Clearly they are not. You just need to ask them the right questions.
For instance, I’ve found liberals are far more likely to be interested in “greening our vaccines” (note the liberal pull of the label “green”). There are conservative anti-vaxxers but they come to it ideologically as well from the “the guv’mint can’t tell me to vaccinate” standpoint. Liberals are far more likely to buy into altie-med, to believe “toxins” cause all illness, to engage in “big pharma” conspiracy-mongering, to express paranoid delusions about GMO foods or irradiation, to espouse insane theories about food in general, or to believe Bush was behind 9/11.
What’s very interesting is when ideologues meet on denialism, and how for each group their ideology leads to an extreme view and rejection of science. For instance, with HIV/AIDS denial, liberal ideology can be a factor as many of these denialists reject modern medicine, and believe in the big pharma conspiracies that HIV/AIDS is invented to sell expensive medications. The conservatives, as we discussed last week, like HIV/AIDS denial because it allows them to blame the homosexual lifestyle and drug use for the disease rather than transmission of a virus. Even holocaust denial is an example. There are right-wing ideologues who admire fascism or are anti-Semitic who will deny or diminish the deaths of Jews in concentration camps, but also there are those on the extreme left, for example many truthers and others that have allowed their opposition to Israel devolve into frank anti-Semitism, that will deny the holocaust. Interestingly the first prominent holocaust denier, Paul Rassinier, was a French Socialist who was trying to defend socialism in general from the stigma the totalitarian Nationalist Socialist Party did to his cause.
The ideological lines can be generalized thus, liberals are obsessive about preserving the environment, physical purity, and paranoid about corporate malfeasance and anything President Bush has ever done. Conservatives are obsessed with preserving social institutions, sexual purity, and are paranoid about government malfeasance and anything Obama has ever done. As with all generalizations, there will be exceptions, so I don’t need an anecdotal recounting of every variation on this theme, but I think these generalizations are a starting point for a potential test of this hypothesis.
I would like to see a paper comparing liberals versus conservatives, but rather than singling out a single scientific issue, testing their belief on multiple areas where denialism emerges. I think you’ll find that the liberal group will trend to believe science that is perceived to reinforce their biases towards increased environmental regulation, will not object to science showing homosexual parents are just as good as heterosexual parents, and will be more likely to object to research demonstrating equivalency between bioengineered GMOs and standard strains (frankly all food is GMO, the sticking point is whether more advanced technology is used), reject vaccine research, or be generally suspicious of biomedical research. I believe the conservatives will tend to believe science that reinforces efficacy of corporate products such as drugs or GMOs, will totally dismiss science showing that homosexuals are anything but destructive to society, and lose their minds when global warming is demonstrated to be real, again, and again. I did some google scholar searching for such a paper, and while many papers on bias exist, I would like to see one try and test if there really is a difference between liberals and conservatives in terms of their bias overall. Many of these papers purporting to show less bias in liberals I think are just asking the wrong questions.
I suspect the answer such a paper would find would be that disbelief of established scientific facts would be more or less equal between groups, but that the topics disbelieved will depend on individual ideology. It’s ideology that’s the problem. If you identify with a particular ideology, frankly, you’re announcing you’re bound by heuristics, or intellectual shortcuts, in making decisions or evaluating facts. To some degree, this type of thinking can not be avoided, it’s built into us, very deeply in the way our brains function. This is likely for a very good reason, as it speeds up decision making dramatically. But clearly it can be overcome, and biology is not destiny. Some of us can overcome the need to belong to one group or the other, reject what our guts tell us for what the data shows, and shelve ideology altogether in favor for what can be proven to work.
Sadly, my belief must remain a hypothesis until someone actually tests this, but in the absence of such a test, I don’t think it can be claimed that liberals believe science more than conservatives either.