Extremely Political Science
Science Left Behind:
Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left
By Alex B. Berezow
and Hank Campbell
Public Affairs, 320 pages
By now it’s clear that Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin hasn’t paged through a copy of Gray’s Anatomy in some time. His comments in August—explaining that pregnancy from rape is rare because “if it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”—were an appalling display of ignorance, one that most observers agreed should have triggered his swift departure from the race.
Critics on the political left wasted little time in using the incident as the latest data point proving that conservatives are scientific bumpkins, hostile to rational inquiry and eager to impose their fairy-tale notions on the country.
But there was a simpler, less partisan lesson to be learned from the incident: Politics can make people believe incredibly stupid things. Elections in particular create such a hospitable environment for biases, fallacies, oversimplifications, and self-delusions that it’s easy for political actors to cross the line from tenuous assertion to ludicrous non-truth. It is to be expected, then, that these cognitive slip-ups are most apparent when the discussion turns to issues of hard science.
The left’s charge that the casual treatment of scientific knowledge is a mostly conservative offense, however, lacks sufficient evidence. Which is why Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell are on solid ground in Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left. “Progressives routinely toss the anti-science bomb at conservatives,” they argue. “Their own anti-science beliefs get off scot-free.”
Consider a quotation from the world’s most prominent Democrat, Barack Obama, at a Pennsylvania rally during the 2008 campaign:
We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.
This was a candidate for president—often celebrated for his intelligence and elite education—perpetuating one of the most damaging public health myths of our time. To be fair, John McCain expressed similar concerns about vaccines during his 2008 run. But the lack of controversy that followed Obama’s remarks upholds Berezow and Campbell’s point that charges of scientific ignorance tend not to stick to progressives.
The authors provide a full clip of ammunition for those who wish to fight back against the kinds of pseudoscientific fads that have become so deeply a part of progressive culture. Berezow and Campbell identify four erroneous assumptions that seem to animate many of the shoddy scientific beliefs common among those on the left: “1. Everything natural is good. 2. Everything unnatural is bad. 3. Unchecked science and progress will destroy us. 4. Science is only relative anyway.”
This is the source code for progressive convictions ranging from the superiority of organic food to the virtues of corn-based ethanol and the unacceptable dangers of nuclear power—all of which get a detailed treatment. The authors catalogue how, time and again, progressives can be found deferring to these pre-rational instincts, instead of letting the science dictate their beliefs.
For example, we learn that organic food is not necessarily tastier or healthier than its nonorganic counterpart. “According to a study conducted by the University of Copenhagen, levels of antioxidants were identical between organic and conventional vegetables.” And even if there are significant benefits to organic products, it’s difficult to guarantee that’s what you’re getting. “As of early 2012, there was still no surprise field-testing in the organic food industry,” they note. “Usually, all an organic farmer has to do in order to be certified organic is fill out paperwork.”
The authors also make short work of overpopulation doomsayers such as Paul Ehrlich, as well as the conservationists seeking to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, militant PETA members, and opponents of genetically modified foods.
Their arguments slice quickly and powerfully, supported by the kinds of skillfully chosen facts that can be stored away for easy deployment by those looking to have spirited arguments with raw-food enthusiasts, staunch opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline extension, and defenders of solar subsidies.
One of the book’s most valuable features is a list of 12 topics the authors identify as “issues that will shape the future of science and technology” in the coming decades. Among them are “funding science in an age of austerity,” “balancing technology and privacy concerns,” “promoting sound public health policies,” and “balancing open access to scientific information with intellectual property rights.” The brief sketches that follow each of these headings offer a good-faith effort to refocus the political debate over science on issues of genuine import.
But Berezow and Campbell too often assume a wise-cracking flipness that borders on juvenile and serves to make them seem less reliable as interpreters of scientific evidence. In a section on the benefits of nuclear power, for instance, the authors note that “the sex-crazed prime minister of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi—probably in between bunga bunga parties—expressed an interest in expanding nuclear power in his country.” In a chapter defending the scientific validity of the idea that men and women possess innate differences, they actually use the phrase “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”
These might be stylistic qualms, but when you’re asking the reader to trust you on specialized issues—especially energy policy and environmental science, which have been demagogued and distorted nearly beyond comprehension—tone matters.
The authors make no effort to exonerate conservatives from accusations of scientific misbelief. In fact, Berezow and Campbell note repeatedly that many in the GOP have been inexcusably anti-science, especially on matters of evolution and climate change (two issues that they do not discuss at length). The authors are far more interested in showing that progressives—whom they define as a specific subset of the left, distinct from liberals—are just as prone to systematic error on matters of science, if not more so. They hammer home this point, however, in the service of a broader goal, which is to free science from the perverting influence of politics.
Admirable though this mission may be, Science Left Behind has a flaw that’s difficult to ignore. In their attempt to depoliticize science, Berezow and Campbell have written a work of science journalism that wears its partisan agenda on its chest. It is a political manifesto that makes no apologies about gunning for the progressive left. And while the authors regularly make forceful arguments, their book brims with the kind of blanket statements and potshots that one doesn’t expect to see in a book lamenting that science journalism “has been overrun by partisan interests who do not love science as much as they hate their political opponents.”
Shortcomings aside, Science Left Behind does much-needed work in drawing attention to what the authors call the “feel-good fallacies” that constitute the worldviews of so many on the left—often the very individuals who proudly claim membership in the “reality-based community.” More important, Berezow and Campbell articulate a valuable observation that deserves constant reiterating: With great frequency, politics invites us to inhabit an imaginary world populated by fictions that conform to our desires about how things ought to be.
It is this feature of political discourse that can aid an abortion opponent such as Todd Akin in believing such nonsense about female reproductive anatomy. And it’s why so many progressives are committed to endangering public health by maintaining that vaccines are hazardous to our children. Refusing the pat theory, the simplistic narrative, the self-reinforcing delusion is hard mental work. And no mainstream political movement does that work with much consistency.
Berezow and Campbell diminish this worthy message by couching it in a book that is too contented to be a broadside polemic. In doing so, they make it easy for their political opponents to write off their arguments—in many cases, compelling arguments—as partisan chest-thumping. Science Left Behind might, at times, pretend to be a plea for peace in the destructive conflict occurring at the intersection of science and politics. And yet, Berezow and Campbell have provided nothing short of a full-on assault on the scientifically unsound beliefs of the left. In carrying it out, they have escalated precisely the war that they claim to protest.q