Jun 09 2016

Liberal vs Conservative Antiscience


On a recent Bill Maher show, Maher repeated his frequent claim that the Republicans are the party of antiscience. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was a guest on that episode, countered:

“Don’t be too high and mighty there, because there are certain aspects of science denials that are squarely in the liberal left.”

There is no doubt that there are science deniers across the political spectrum. There are two points that I feel are in contention, however. Is there relatively more antiscience on the right than the left, and if so, what are the causes of the asymmetry?

Immediately there is a problem with this framing, as the political spectrum is more complicated than left vs right. However, most surveys use a three-point political designation: liberal (Democrat), conservative (Republican), Independent. So that is the data we have.

Let’s start with what we can say with relative confidence. Republicans are more likely to deny climate change and evolution. However, when it comes to evolution denial, the difference is not as great as you might think. According to a Gallup poll, acceptance of strict creationism (I know these surveys are always problematic, but take this data for what it is) was 52% among Republicans, and 34% among Democrats and Independents.

With regard to climate change, 72% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans say that humans are responsible for warming over the last century. For both issues there is more antiscience among Republicans, but the numbers may not be as different as you thought.

Some argue that, while there is antiscience among some liberals, these antiscience issues are actually part of the Republican party platform, and that is a fair point, but it cuts both ways, as we will see below.

Others argue that the claim that antiscience is more on the right is biased by the issues that are often used as illustration. If, for example, you ask about using animals in research, 62% of Republicans favor it while only 42% of Democrats do. On this issue, Republican attitudes are more in line with scientists.

There are similar numbers with building more nuclear power plants: 62% of Republicans favor, while only 42% of Democrats do, and 70% of scientists favor more nuclear power (88% among physicists and astronomers).

There actually isn’t a big difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to anti-GMO attitudes. That may seem surprising at first, but when you talk to conservatives who are anti-GMO they cite their lack of trust in government, and when you talk to liberals they cite their lack of trust in corporations (with the appeal to nature fallacy thrown in). Anti-GMO attitudes are bipartisan antiscience.

However, anti-GMO ideology is more likely to find its way into Democratic platforms, as Sanders support of labeling laws has shown.

There are similar results with vaccine refusal (generally better among Republicans, but not dramatically) and alternative medicine. These are often cited as liberal issues, but they are actually bipartisan. Again, liberals cite their anti-corporate and pro-nature ideology, while conservatives cite their anti-government and also libertarian ideology.

My synthesis of all this information, which is admittedly incomplete, is that people tend to be anti-science whenever science confronts their ideology.

I think it is more meaningful to understand these issues by breaking them down to specific ideologies and how they influence acceptance or rejection of science. Conservatives tend to value freedom, the sanctity of life, and the free market and they distrust government. Liberals value nature and the environment and distrust corporations. Individual issues are complicated because they can cut across multiple ideologies.

In terms of the question of who is more anti-science, my approach is this – you don’t get credit for being pro science for accepting an issue that is compatible with your ideology. Liberals acceptance of manmade global warming does not mean they are necessarily pro science, because this issue is right in line with their ideology (pro nature, anti corporate). Conservatives don’t get credit for being pro nuclear for the same reason.

Evidence for being pro science is when you accept a scientific consensus that conflicts with your ideology. You have to demonstrate that science comes before your ideology.

There still may be an asymmetry when it comes to ideology and anti-science. I am not willing to conclude confidently that there is, because the data is so easily biased and just confirmation bias itself will create the impression that the “other side” is more anti-science.

Chris Mooney argues that Republicans are inherently more antiscience because of their authoritarian personality, while Democrats tend to be inherently more self-critical. This may be true, but I am not yet convinced by the evidence because it relies upon data that is biased by the issues that were chosen as examples.

In support of this view, however, is a 2015 survey that shows that Democrats across the board defer to the scientific consensus more than Republicans or Independents. However, Republicans were not significantly different than Independents. Of course, to interpret this we would need to know more about those who make up the Independent category. In any case, this does suggest that Democrats have a slightly increased tendency to defer to scientific opinion. Surveys are tricky, however, and so I would love to see more data.


Regardless of whether or not there are statistical differences between Republicans and Democrats in terms of their acceptance or rejection of the scientific consensus, I don’t think this is a terribly important question. Most often it is a diversion, an argument over what is, at most, a small effect.

The far far bigger effect is ideology itself. People tend to reject science when it appears to conflict with their ideology, regardless of what that ideology is. We need to confront this fact, rather than argue endlessly about the presence of a possible asymmetry between left and right.

Even if we acknowledge there is an asymmetry, there are so many possible causes it would be extremely difficult to tease them apart, and I don’t think we have even begun to do so. Is it inherent to the ideology, is it the association with religion, is it temperament, or the effects of the current political climate? Perhaps pro-industry ideology is just much better funded than anti-industry ideology.

Let’s not get distracted from the giant issue – ideology trumping science. We need to shift toward greater respect for science, and greater awareness of how ideology motivates science denial, across the political spectrum.

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