A criticism of Michael Shermer and the Scientific American: political left is NOT at war with science, unlike political right

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I love the Scientific American. It is absolutely my favorite magazine. And I owe it a lot for what I have learned over the years. But I do not like the idea of infallibility, and Scientific American does make errors, some of which I have pointed out in the past. This time, though, the error is more glaring, and it is made by none other than the skeptic I admire the most, Michael Shermer. The title of Shermer’s piece is “the liberals’ war on science”.

The gist of the claim is that the political left is no better than political right, or, if anything, it is worse, when it comes to handling matters of science. Shermer starts by laying out the bad things on the right: denial of climate change and evolution. He then points out that creationism and climate science denial exist among Democrats as well. Here are the first two errors. First, The problem is not comparable among the Democrats to the Republicans by its scope: yes, it is pretty bad among the democrats, but it is not as dominant, as is the case for the Republicans. Unlike Republicans, Democrats at least pay lip service to climate change. Second, as everyone knows, “liberal” and “Democrat” are not synonymous. Creationism and climate change exist among Democrats but tend to be more dominant among the more conservative ones.

Shermer then goes on to talk about denial of evolutionary psychology among the liberals. It is true, and it is unfortunate. Yet again, I don’t see popular liberal characters in the media attacking evolutionary psychology, or calling the teaching of evolutionary psychology “fascism”, like conservatives such as Bill O’Reilly do for evolution as a whole.

Shermer then proceeds to tear up liberals, for more alleged misdeeds.

On energy issues… 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.

I don’t believe this is true. Concerning nuclear power, it does have very serious public safety problems, not necessarily limited to waste disposal (have we forgottenFukushima already?). As for global warming, well, let’s just say action is long overdue. And as it pertains to renewables, despite whatever isolated incidents you can find of someone objecting to hydroelectric or wind power, liberals are often accused of having done too much when it comes to renewables, not too little.

Written By: SkepticInk
continue to source article at skepticink.com

22 COMMENTS

  1. When SkepticInk says, “Creationism and climate change exist among Democrats,” s/he says “climate change” instead of “climate change denial”. This slip-up illustrates just how pervasive the denial has gotten in its power; it’s treated in the national subconscious as if it’s the default position. Of course, the correct phrase is annoyingly long; that may be why it’s sometimes called “climate denial”, which is misleading because people like Anthony Watts admit there is a climate. I’d nonetheless like to thank this author (whose name I don’t know) for pointing out some objections neither I nor Shermer identified:

    I don’t see popular liberal characters in the media attacking evolutionary psychology, or calling the teaching of evolutionary psychology “fascism”

    despite whatever isolated incidents you can find of someone objecting to hydroelectric or wind power, liberals are often accused of having done too much when it comes to renewables, not too little

    Conservative condemnation of gay and premarital sex stems from the fact that it is against their religious doctrines, not that it harms anyone. Contaminants in air and water and food affect public health and safety. Should we bring back lead poisoning and asbestos, so we won’t be compared to the conservatives?

    Maher’s views on issues such as vaccination and GM foods have made him controversial, even among liberals. Hence, it is not like Fox “News” where anti-science propaganda is pushed by about all the evening anchors, hour after hour after hour

    As for the teachers unions being allies with Democrats, while there may be problems with that, it is not exactly the same as Democrats actively using their political offices to subvert science as Republicans such as governor Jindal of Louisiana

    Shermer’s piece, and the book, reminded me of a 2007 debate among republicans. So, why is it that while fringe ideas, like anti-vaccination nuttery or denial of evolutionary psychology, exist among liberals, that Democrats do not get asked what they think about such issues on stage, or they don’t see a reason to come out and proclaim that they do accept the science once they have discovered there is no way they are going to win, like Jon Huntsman? It is precisely because anti-science stances are fringe among liberals, whereas they are mainstream among conservatives.

    The ending, “Shermer’s piece is an example of the fallacy of false equivalence”, is an especially succinct summary of the points I made earlier today.

  2. You could reduce his article down to two sentences:

    1) 58% of Republicans are Young-earth Creationists.

    2) 41% of Democrats are Young-earth Creationists.

    These are very frightening statistics. 4 in 10 Democrats do not believe in evolution, think the earth is 10,000 years old or less, and that God poofed man into existence in present form. 6 in 10 Republicans believe the same.

    Sure, Republicans are worse. But I think the main point of Shermer’s argument is that Liberals are embarrassingly pathetic too when it comes to scientific fact vs. primitive fictional myths.

  3. In reply to #2 by MilkyWay:

    You could reduce his article down to two sentences:

    1) 58% of Republicans are Young-earth Creationists.

    2) 41% of Democrats are Young-earth Creationists.

    These are very frightening statistics. 4 in 10 Democrats do not believe in evolution, think the earth is 10,000 years old or less, and that God poofed man into existence in present form. 6 in 10 Republicans believe the same.

    Sure, Republicans are worse. But I think the main point of Shermer’s argument is that Liberals are embarrassingly pathetic too when it comes to scientific fact vs. primitive fictional myths.

    I’ll hope that America stands alone with these frightening statistics, at least in the Western world.

  4. In reply to #3 by ArloNo:

    I’ll hope that America stands alone with these frightening statistics, at least in the Western world.

    By my knowledge America scores highest (or is it lowest?) and with considerable margin. However, if you look at similar statistics in the rest of the Western World without comparing them to the US, they can be quite scary too.

    Switzerland, of all places, boasts a 30% of the population rejecting evolution all together (80% if you believe Pro Genesis, but we all know they are overcompensating for their small members(hip)). In Germany this number lies around 20%.

    And then there’s Russia, where 51% of the population want to ‘teach the controversy’ in schools. Sigh…

  5. Even if it is accepted that liberals tend to be more pro-climate change, pro-evolution, etc.., that does not necessarily indicate that anti-science strains are absent from the left. The Sokal Hoax did not lay to rest the postmodernist attacks on science. Even today there are liberal social constructivists who continue to promote the view that there is no objective reality governed by physical laws. That reality is socially constructed and areas like modern physics reflect a reductionist, white, androcentric ideology. Never mind the accuracy of these laws. They are still products of an anglo-patriarchical hegemony of scientific thought. This sort of crap reminds me of the time when genetics did not conform to the Marxist dialectical materialism in the former Soviet Union. If Shermer wants to deliver a valid critique of liberals on science that is strawman free, he should have focused his efforts on po-mo anti-science.

  6. There is a marked difference in terms of whether you can convince somebody who is “liberal” to change their mind when given new evidence. As the book “The Republican Brain” highlights, left-leaning voters are more likely to be able to change their minds and accept new evidence when facts are presented to them. Presenting facts and evidence however will often cause “blow-back” from anyone who leans to the right…

  7. I don’t thing Shermer is trying to keep score on which political football team is more rational. Liberals do not have super reasoning powers and we do have preconceptions. We can and do make reasoning errors. There aren’t too many days where I don’t get into an argument with one of my liberal friends about the dangers of vaccinations, the superiority of organic foods, or the evils of GMOs. Many of these errors I’ve notice, like your own inability to except nuclear power as an alternative energy source that will help prevent climate change, are due to a lack of understanding about risk analysis. Nuclear power, like vaccines and GMOs, are not without issues but sometimes you have to pick your poison.

  8. In reply to #2 by MilkyWay:

    You could reduce his article down to two sentences:

    1) 58% of Republicans are Young-earth Creationists.

    2) 41% of Democrats are Young-earth Creationists.

    These are very frightening statistics. 4 in 10 Democrats do not believe in evolution, think the earth is 10,000 years old or less, and that God poofed man into existence in present form. 6 in 10 Republicans believe the same.

    Sure, Republicans are worse. But I think the main point of Shermer’s argument is that Liberals are embarrassingly pathetic too when it comes to scientific fact vs. primitive fictional myths.

    Hi MilkyWay,

    Whilst I think that these statistics should embarrass any first world nation I don’t get the impression that this is Shermer’s argument at all?

    It just seems an exercise in saying “hey, okay, most of the people who think like me are real dumb but hey, look at me – I’m clever… and some of those nicer people are real dumb, too, so it can’t be because, well, I mean there can’t be a connection here… can there?”

    He’s simply trying to dissociate correlation and causation, isn’t he?

    Anvil.

  9. “I don’t believe this is true. Concerning nuclear power, it does have very serious public safety problems, not necessarily limited to waste disposal (have we forgotten Fukushima already?)”

    What about Fukashima? does s/he mean that our nuclear power plants are susceptible to tsunami or that nuclear power plants can be dangerous? I think s/he has fallen for the ‘Fukashima, total disaster’ fallacy.

    I am of the left myself and I do indeed see a lot of woo induced anti-science stupidity, mostly towards science based medicine though.

  10. In reply to #4 by Nodhimmi:

    Sam Harris… now Michael Shermer… my Faith is slipping!

    Nothing of what Sam said had any merit to it, Shermer on the other hand is just pointing out the obvious, there is anti-science woo on both sides of the political divide. I do not think either side can boast to having a monopoly to any given type of anti-science stance.

  11. It’s an interesting paradox that the USA has so many political clowns who try woo the believers.
    I’m waiting for an honest politician to deride religion and convince everybody who can understand English that their future is totally dependent on science.
    As my favourite sceptic of all time H L Mencken said: “politicians are people who sit on the fence with an ear to the ground on both sides!”
    Desultory dogma still trumps common sense; primarily because of religious drivel .

  12. I think the main problem with Michael Shermers article is what is actually addressed in his article. That is the existence of his article is proof he is wrong. Here you have a lefty Michael Schermer criticising other lefties. This is exactly what you don’t see the right doing.

    Michael sites Bill Maher who is well known for his anti-GM, Anti-Vaccination stance, and yet on his very show he has invited guests who have pulled apart his very comments from the previous week http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB5DLf1Qt78 . Michael is doing that in his very article. Yes there are nut bags on both sides of the political spectrum but the fact that Michael himself is prepared to call them out and be so self flagellating as make it seem they are comparable is just showing how much more capable of scepticism and self criticism the left is. Now if Michael can show the equivalent level of self deprecation in the right wing media he may have a point.

  13. good article. the “liberal war on science” article was pretty awful. there’s a general belief that Rep=right Dem=left. in fact US politicians are people who choose to get into power on the vote of americans. the left/right divide is entirely relative. they are not scientists, they’re mostly lawyers. they don’t get where they are by being correct, they get there by convincing people they’re correct. oten all you need to do this is say “i believe what you want me to believe”.

    american politics is no place to go looking for comments on liberalism

  14. In reply to #14 by Reckless Monkey:

    I think the main problem with Michael Shermers article is what is actually addressed in his article. That is the existence of his article is proof he is wrong. Here you have a lefty Michael Schermer criticising other lefties. This is exactly what you don’t see the right doing.

    Michael sites Bill Maher who is well known for his anti-GM, Anti-Vaccination stance, and yet on his very show he has invited guests who have pulled apart his very comments from the previous week http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB5DLf1Qt78 . Michael is doing that in his very article. Yes there are nut bags on both sides of the political spectrum but the fact that Michael himself is prepared to call them out and be so self flagellating as make it seem they are comparable is just showing how much more capable of scepticism and self criticism the left is. Now if Michael can show the equivalent level of self deprecation in the right wing media he may have a point.

    First I’ve heard of Shermer being a lefty?

    Have I been slaggin’ off the wrong person all these years? Doh!

    Anvil.

  15. If nothing else, at least we can take away from this that we have to keep a close eye on our own saints at all times.

    Here, from 3:20 on, we hear Schirmer as an apologist for religion, praising its $billions of charitable contributions. Here, on Jerry Coyne’s site Why Evolution Is True, Schirmer gets roasted by Coyne and the readers of his blog for Schirmer renting himself out to moneyed masters of Woo dissemination: the Templeton foundation.

    Then, of course we have Sam Harris’s (perhaps still high on hubris generated by being on the New York Times bestseller list, like, forever) recent foot in mouth extravaganza spasticly singing his ode to (especially his own) gun ownership. The foundation of his argument: there’s just to many of ‘em so its too hard to get rid of ‘em and, hey, it’s part of the culture..

    I won’t go into Hitch’s gleeful cheer-leading of wars of extermination as long as Islamists are targeted innocent (e.g drone strikes) victims be damned.

    Beware of Argument from Authority creep.

  16. In reply to #10 by veggiemanuk:

    “I don’t believe this is true. Concerning nuclear power, it does have very serious public safety problems, not necessarily limited to waste disposal (have we forgotten Fukushima already?)”

    What about Fukashima? does s/he mean that our nuclear power plants are susceptible to tsunami or that nuclear power plants can be dangerous? I think s/he has fallen for the ‘Fukashima, total disaster’ fallacy.

    I think he means that building something like a nuclear power plant where waste released can seep into water tables should not be built somewhere on or near a fault-line likely to result in destruction of aforementioned nuclear power plant. Fukashima is a classic case in point the power plant performed as designed (arguably better) but the back up generators susceptibility was obviously not considered in the design phase, or if it was it was left out due to some dubious risk analysis.

    People, governments and corporations all make mistakes, are susceptible to other human failings like stupidity or greed. The problem I have with much of nuclear power is not that they cannot be designed and operated safely, It’s that the risk is around a lot longer than any human civilisation has existed and their safety is not just a factor of engineering or the science but peoples willingness apply the science.

    Can you guarantee that? Can you guarantee that politicians won’t award the contract to build one to the cheapest bidder who then goes to cut corners with the “safe design”. Or future political parties 50 years from now will deal with the waste responsibly? Or politicians hundreds of years from now will? What disturbs me is people educated in science who pretend that everyone who notices that there is a problem is accused of woo. I am happy to have a discussion about the relative risks vs rewards with nuclear power especially when it comes the other massive risk of global warming. But please don’t assume anyone who opposes or has doubts about nuclear power are ignorant woo merchants.

  17. In reply to #16 by Anvil:

    In reply to #14 by Reckless Monkey:

    I think the main problem with Michael Shermers article is what is actually addressed in his article. That is the existence of his article is proof he is wrong. Here you have a lefty Michael Schermer criticising other lefties. This is exactly what you don’t see the right doing.

    Michael sites Bill Maher who is well known for his anti-GM, Anti-Vaccination stance, and yet on his very show he has invited guests who have pulled apart his very comments from the previous week http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tB5DLf1Qt78 . Michael is doing that in his very article. Yes there are nut bags on both sides of the political spectrum but the fact that Michael himself is prepared to call them out and be so self flagellating as make it seem they are comparable is just showing how much more capable of scepticism and self criticism the left is. Now if Michael can show the equivalent level of self deprecation in the right wing media he may have a point.

    First I’ve heard of Shermer being a lefty?

    Have I been slaggin’ off the wrong person all these years? Doh!

    Anvil.

    Well I stand corrected, Michael is right wing eh? I’ll follow what he has to say more closely.

    Cheers

  18. In reply to #19 by Reckless Monkey:

    In reply to #16 by Anvil:

    In reply to #14 by Reckless Monkey:

    First I’ve heard of Shermer being a lefty?

    Have I been slaggin’ off the wrong person all these years? Doh!

    Anvil.

    Well I stand corrected, Michael is right wing eh? I’ll follow what he has to say more closely.

    Cheers

    Well, it might just be my reading, but positively libertarian as far as I can see?

    Anvil.

  19. please don’t assume anyone who opposes or has doubts about nuclear power are ignorant woo merchants.

    Yes, that’s an unfortunate tendency.

    The risk analysis for a nuclear plant tends to be reported as something like “the chances of a Bad Accident happening are about once in 500,000 years – much safer than Lots of Other Things”.

    Forgetting, of course, that there’s only going to be one accident in 500,000 years on this site because that’s how long it takes for the place to become safe to approach, after the one accident.

    Joking aside, the risk analysis applied to nuclear options all seems to be self-serving BS designed to justify the chosen outcome. Beware of cost/benefit analysis, it’s far too easy to assign zero costs to things that are just Too Hard to measure, or estimate, with any degree of confidence.

    While we’re here, what about the liquid-sodium-cooled reactor design? Don’t physicists ever talk to chemists? How come that design ever made it out the door far enough for me to even hear about it.

    (Molten sodium in a load of plumbing? What’s the problem with that? We’ll build in some fail-safes…..)

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