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Progressive Mythology

In their book Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left, Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell counter allegations of a Republican war on science by pointing out how political progressives are equally anti-science. According to Berezow and Campbell, progressives hold opinions that are not based on physical reality, and claim that their beliefs are based on science even when they are not.

I try to stay out of politics, but anti-science attitudes should be discouraged wherever they are found, and the mythology of progressives as described by Berezow and Campbell is very much like the thinking of alternative medicine:

  1. Everything natural is good
  2. Everything unnatural is bad
  3. Unchecked science and progress will destroy us
  4. Science is only relative anyway

I wasn’t clear on what “progressives” meant, but apparently progressives are similar to liberals in that they value economic authoritarianism and different in that they are also social authoritarians. Liberal economic authoritarianism favors higher taxes on the wealthy, more regulations on the marketplace, and social programs that redirect money to target social inequality. Conservatives want to limit such government interference with the economy; but they are social authoritarians like progressives, only on different issues. Where conservative social authoritarians want government to ban “immoral” things like sex and drugs, progressive social authoritarians endorse government control over the environment, food production, and education. Conservatives want to ban abortion; progressives want to ban plastic grocery bags. Here’s another definition:

…”liberals” in our current parlance are those who focus on using taxpayer money to help better society. A “progressive” are [sic] those who focus on using government power to make large institutions play by a set of rules…A liberal policy towards prescription drugs is one that would throw a lot of taxpayer cash at the pharmaceutical industry to get them to provide medicine to the poor; A progressive prescription drug policy would be one that centered around price regulations…

Republicans have been criticized for their anti-science stance on evolution, global warming, and stem cell research. There is an equally disturbing tendency for activists on the other side of the aisle to cherry pick, misinterpret, misrepresent, and abuse science to advance their ideological and political agendas. They have misused science to attack vaccines and genetically modified foods, to promote organic food, and to propose poorly thought out environmental protection legislation. When science is co-opted to serve ideology, science is degraded and the resulting public policies do more harm than good.

The authors present many examples of progressive ideology’s misuse of science and support of injudicious policies, for example:

  • One would think animal rights activists, conservationists, and food fetishists would all be enthusiastic about innovations to improve the future of food production, like laboratory-grown meat and technology to improve agricultural efficiency; but they typically reject them, perhaps because they think of them as “unnatural.”
  • “It takes 1 gallon of gas to make 1 pound of beef” is a false claim, as is the claim that walking to the store creates 4 times as much emissions as driving to the store. These claims are based on math and reasoning errors: they took a fact out of context, mixed terms, and guessed.
  • Mandatory low flush toilets have inconvenienced us all, and they have also caused sludge accumulation and odors so bad that San Francisco is spending $14 million to dump bleach into the sewers to combat it (and bleach is not exactly environmentally friendly). Domestic water use only represents 1% of total use and toilets are a small fraction of that; it would make far more sense to target efficiency in power plants (49% of water use) and irrigation (31%). The toilets were a typical “Band-Aid” fix that produced “feel-good” benefits for environmentalists but essentially accomplished nothing for the environment. Ironically, many of the same people who advocate the right to choose for vaccines were quite happy to legislate away our right to choose for toilets.
  • They lament the birds killed by wind turbines, which amount to only 0.006 percent of total bird fatalities; domestic cats kill about 500 times as many birds. Surely it would make more sense to reduce cat numbers than wind farm numbers (or to encourage cat owners to keep their pets indoors, which is healthier for the cat and increases its life expectancy by several years). But cats are “natural” and wind farms are not.
  • They worry about possible harm to caribou and to native cultures from oil development in Alaska. But the caribou population is nine times larger in Prudhoe Bay since oil was discovered there, and the local natives who depend on caribou strongly support responsible development.
  • Even Al Gore has admitted that corn for fuel was a mistake based on faulty science: it was worse for the environment and raised prices for poor people who needed corn for food.

Pragmatism is notably absent from progressive thinking. Environmentalists tend to be inflexible absolutists, unwilling to balance the trade-offs between protecting the environment and promoting economic development. They tend not to consider economic realities. They push the precautionary principle to an extreme without considering the costs of alternatives and the risks of adverse unintended consequences.

The chapter on “vaccines and Viagra” is pure music to the ears of science-based medicine. They agree that the anti-vaccine movement is based on outright lies, they call the Huffington Post a laughingstock of the scientific community for its endorsement of CAM, they call for the NCCAM to be abolished, they explain why presenting data about relative risks rather than absolute risks is misleading, and they point out that:

Just because a published paper presents a statistically significant result does not mean it necessarily has a biologically meaningful effect.

Scientifically studying gender or racial differences is discouraged, if not completely taboo. It would be politically incorrect to find evidence suggesting that abilities are not fairly distributed. A double standard is at work. The smaller percentage of women in science and math is seen as a problem, but the much smaller percentage of men in the social sciences is not. When social psychologists see women or minorities under-represented, they see unfairness and discrimination; but conservatives are under-represented among social psychologists by a factor of more than 100 and no one seems to be worried about that. Academic science has gradually become more representative in race and gender, but has become far less representative in politics: it has become dominated by progressives.

Progressive ideology has a simple fix for complex problems: more legislation. The progressive European Union strives to regulate even the irrelevant minutiae of its citizens’ lives. Science and common sense are casualties of what amounts to a bureaucratic war on reason.

The usual division of political views into two groups (liberal vs. conservative) or four (liberal, conservative, libertarian, and progressive) doesn’t work well. Individuals are more nuanced and don’t fit into well-defined pigeonholes. Berezow and Campbell propose another schema based on values: a triangle with freedom, fairness, and excellence at the corners. Science would fall close to the excellence point of the triangle and more on the freedom side. Fairness is less important to science: it would be silly to treat all scientists as if they were equally competent or to consider all research projects equally deserving of funding. Science must be a meritocracy.

The US leads the world in science, has the most Nobel Prize winners and more of the top 100 universities than any other country or region. Progressive European countries lag far behind. Even if we do worse than other countries on science and math tests, we seem to be better at creativity and independent thinking, and at getting results. We need to figure out how to best support those qualities rather than just throwing money at schools and trying to raise test scores.

Berezow and Campbell call for clear, unbiased thinking about public policies based on good scientific evidence rather than ideology-influenced distortions of science. They call for more basic research, more transparency, better communication of science to the public, more scientific rigor and pursuit of excellence. They offer practical proposals for improvement. Above all, they demand that we quit politicizing science. How could anyone disagree with that?

You may very well disagree with some of the opinions in this book, or even with the way it selects its facts, but it will give you food for thought about some very important issues. I recommend it. Especially if you have read Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science.

 

 

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