Why I Don’t Believe Science is a Liberal Conspiracy, nor Anti-Science Thinking the Property of the Right.

I say this because I am both a scientist and a woman who grew up in a rural area, because I know and love many people on the right and on the left, and because I keep an eye on social media and the news. I am writing this post because I think it’s important to clear up misconceptions about science and politics, since science benefits all of us.

First, let’s define “anti-science”. This label is frequently thrown at conservatives who aren’t sure climate change is primarily caused by humans. However, strictly speaking, a truly anti-science person would have to believe all science was worthless and be hostile to it. Most people I know like and value at least some outputs of science. Take cancer research, for instance. Regardless of their stance on climate change, few people dispute that research on how to prevent and cure cancer is valuable. Few people think we should fund less of it. They may dispute the pricing/incentives for developing expensive new treatments, but they still want research on cures.*** For this reason, I think “non-scientific thinking” is a better description than “anti-science”.

That said, examples of non-scientific thinking are found on both the right and the left in almost equal measure. For instance, homeopathic medicine (it does not follow the rules of logic, for starters) is embraced by both the far left and the far right. So is extreme anti-vaxxer ideology. This movement believes that vaccines are dangerous (i.e., cause autism, etc) and should not be used, an idea which does not take into account the extremely dangerous nature of some of the diseases the U.S. commonly vaccinates for, such as diphtheria and tetanus.  Finally, the anti-GMO movement is also at least as prevalent on the left as the right, though there is no evidence that GMOs have adverse affects in humans, and they have the potential to help solve worldwide food shortages.

Second, “liberal conspiracy”. I’m not a big fan of conspiracy theories, mostly because I think they’re a futile attempt to tidy up an incredibly messy and complicated world by attributing everything to one or two factors (the Illuminati, the Liberals, the New World Order, the vast Right Wing Conspiracy, etc…). So while liberal thought definitely emphasizes the benefits of increased government control and input in managing some things (such as climate change prevention initiatives), I think it’s unlikely to produce the End Times or FEMA death camps anytime soon.

Definitions aside, here are some ways I think both sides are falling short in the ways we think and talk about science politically:

  • Liberals: viewing science as a totally fixed thing which always has the right answers, rather than a constantly evolving set of best theories.
  • Conservatives: viewing science as being unreliable because theories change and evolve.
  • Liberals and Conservatives: choosing one or two areas of science (e.g., climate change science) and making them hills to die on or political litmus tests.
  • Liberals and Conservatives: portraying science as a quasi-religion or article of faith, rather than a set of best tools for understanding the world.
  • Liberals: setting themselves up as champions of science
  • Conservatives (some): pushing back against science because if the liberals like it, it must be a bad idea.

Proposed solutions:

  • Educators: we need better K-12 and beyond education on the limits and methodology of science. Focus on the scientific method vs facts. Science is a process of failure and discovery. Sell the kids on that.
  • Scientists:  we desperately need better engagement with the public. It’s a lot harder for people to believe in Big Pharma or Big Ag conspiracies when they get to know the scientists doing this research. It’s also important for us to explain our findings accurately, in simple language, so that the public can understand both the rationale for and the value of our work. We do this for grant funding, we can do it for taxpayers whose money provides the grant $$.
  • Politicians: focus on areas of agreement with science, like cancer research, food security, food safety, infectious disease research, and research on antibiotic resistance, rather than focusing so heavily on politically disputed areas like climate change (this isn’t to say that climate change isn’t an important area to study, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus). Talk to scientists, educate yourself on the valuable research being conducted with government funding, and please, please, don’t use our funding to score political points.
  • Scientists: I get the rationale behind the march for science, but I think it may backfire, by cementing in people’s minds that science is associated with a liberal ideology and not an area for conservatives. Reach across the political spectrum with your research and try to find ways to work with people of other political parties.
  • Evangelicals/Fundamentalist Christians: embrace the glory of understanding the world through God’s good gifts of scientific tools. Regardless of where a person stands on evolution or creation, science can be used to understand the world, and to see the beauty, creativity, and glory in it which reflects the mind and character of God. Don’t view science as the enemy or as a way to prove creation or God’s existence. You miss so much when you embrace either of those approaches.

Feel free to comment or contact me with your thoughts on this.

 

***There are definitely some anti-science people, but they’re equally spread out on the right and left, in my experience.

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