Are liberals really more likely to accept science than conservatives?

Today’s NYT has Thomas Edsall’s What the Left Get’s Right, the follow up piece to last week’s What the Right Get’s Right, and what’s fascinating is how even conservative commentators think liberals get science right more often than conservatives. Or at least they are less likely to view it ideologically:

A few conservative concessions to liberalism’s strengths were made without qualification; others were begrudging. Nonetheless, in the conservative assessment, common themes emerge:

Liberals recognize the real problems facing the poor, the hardships resulting from economic globalization and the socially destructive force of increasing inequality.
Liberals do not dismiss or treat as ideologically motivated scientific findings, especially the sharpening scientific consensus that human beings contribute significantly to climate change.
Liberals stand with those most in need, and believe in the inclusion of such previously marginalized groups as blacks, Hispanics, women and gays.

As I sifted through the responses, it became clear that a widely shared view among contemporary conservatives is that liberals are all heart and no head, that their policies are misguided — thrown off track by an excessively emotional compassion that fails to recognize the likelihood of unintended consequences.

But is this really the case? I disagree, liberals are just as likely to to disbelieve science that challenges their ideology, only the issues where liberals tend to deny aren’t quite as earth-shattering (although anti-vax is a serious public health problem) and not as much in the media spotlight. And recent cognitive studies on why people believe what they believe support the likelihood that all of us, liberal, conservative, or moderate, are poor rational actors in the evaluation of science.
Here’s why…
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The New Scientist Debates Denialism

Luckily they don’t make the mistake of actually debating denialists. The feature of last weeks issue, “Age of Denial” is a series of articles by skeptics and one laughable rebuttal, discussing the nature of denialism and tactics to use against it. They do quite a good job covering the basics, starting with Deborah MacKenzie and her article “Why Sensible People Reject the Truth“:

Whatever they are denying, denial movements have much in common with one another, not least the use of similar tactics (see “How to be a denialist”). All set themselves up as courageous underdogs fighting a corrupt elite engaged in a conspiracy to suppress the truth or foist a malicious lie on ordinary people. This conspiracy is usually claimed to be promoting a sinister agenda: the nanny state, takeover of the world economy, government power over individuals, financial gain, atheism.

All denialisms appear to be attempts like this to regain a sense of agency over uncaring nature: blaming autism on vaccines rather than an unknown natural cause, insisting that humans were made by divine plan, rejecting the idea that actions we thought were okay, such as smoking and burning coal, have turned out to be dangerous.

Here she has it exactly right. Denialism starts with ideology, which most of us possess to some degree or another, and a conflict between that ideology and reality – at least so far as science allows us to understand it. In order to regain control of one’s beliefs, and protect them from being challenged, one has to prove that the science is wrong. And that requires one to believe in some form of non-parsimonious conspiracy theory, after all, how else could it be that science has come up with such an answer if not for the concerted malfeasance of thousands of individuals, all working together to undermine the TRUTH?

Further she cites these as tactics of denialists:

How to be a denialist
Martin McKee, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who also studies denial, has identified six tactics that all denialist movements use. “I’m not suggesting there is a manual somewhere, but one can see these elements, to varying degrees, in many settings,” he says (The European Journal of Public Health, vol 19, p 2).
1. Allege that there’s a conspiracy. Claim that scientific consensus has arisen through collusion rather than the accumulation of evidence.
2. Use fake experts to support your story. “Denial always starts with a cadre of pseudo-experts with some credentials that create a facade of credibility,” says Seth Kalichman of the University of Connecticut.
3. Cherry-pick the evidence: trumpet whatever appears to support your case and ignore or rubbish the rest. Carry on trotting out supportive evidence even after it has been discredited.
4. Create impossible standards for your opponents. Claim that the existing evidence is not good enough and demand more. If your opponent comes up with evidence you have demanded, move the goalposts.
5. Use logical fallacies. Hitler opposed smoking, so anti-smoking measures are Nazi. Deliberately misrepresent the scientific consensus and then knock down your straw man.
6. Manufacture doubt. Falsely portray scientists as so divided that basing policy on their advice would be premature. Insist “both sides” must be heard and cry censorship when “dissenting” arguments or experts are rejected.

Sound familiar? That’s because McKee cites us in his paper. We’ll forgive her for not identifying the original source, after all McKee gives the credit.

She does get a few things wrong, likely due to her unfamiliarity with just how absurd some denialists are. For instance when she says:

The first thing to note is that denial finds its most fertile ground in areas where the science must be taken on trust. There is no denial of antibiotics, which visibly work. But there is denial of vaccines, which we are merely told will prevent diseases – diseases, moreover, which most of us have never seen, ironically because the vaccines work.

This is demonstrably false, as we have encountered denialists who do deny the efficacy of antibiotics and all of Western medicine, as their particular ideology requires them to believe in the primacy of religion (Christian Science, New Age Nonsense) or in the magical properties of nature. She goes on to describe the work of our good colleague Seth Kalichman and the good things he’s done to fight HIV/AIDS denialism. Overall, a good summary of the problem. I also like how she stays non-judgmental and reflects on how pseudoscience is ultimately a complement to science:

This is not necessarily malicious, or even explicitly anti-science. Indeed, the alternative explanations are usually portrayed as scientific. Nor is it willfully dishonest. It only requires people to think the way most people do: in terms of anecdote, emotion and cognitive short cuts. Denialist explanations may be couched in sciency language, but they rest on anecdotal evidence and the emotional appeal of regaining control.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, this certainly applies to pseudoscience. After all pseudoscience is a reflection of the authority science has as the arbiter of truth. If being on the right side of science wasn’t so important, cdesign proponentsists and global warming denialists wouldn’t fight so hard to warp it to fit their ideology, and by doing so, implicitly seek its approval.

Jim Giles contributes an interesting article on an example of how a lie travels twice around the world before the truth gets its boots on with Unleashing a Lie, but then the series gets a bit more problematic with the contributions of noted skeptic Michael Shermer (also anerstwhile global warming denialist and persistent libertarian) and an amusing counterpoint from the otherwise wonderful Michael Fitzpatrick, a British GP who fights the good fight against autism quackery.
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Denialism in the Literature

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s good news though! A description of the tactics and appropriate response to denialism was published in the European Journal of Public Health by authors Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee. It’s entitled “Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?” and I think it does an excellent job explaining the harms of deniailsm, critical elements of denialism, as well as providing interesting historical examples of corporate denialism on the part of tobacco companies.

HIV does not cause AIDS. The world was created in 4004 BCE. Smoking does not cause cancer. And if climate change is happening, it is nothing to do with man-made CO2 emissions. Few, if any, of the readers of this journal will believe any of these statements. Yet each can be found easily in the mass media.

The consequences of policies based on views such as these can be fatal. Thabo Mbeki’s denial that that HIV caused AIDS prevented thousands of HIV positive mothers in South Africa receiving anti-retrovirals so that they, unnecessarily, transmitted the disease to their children.1 His health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, famously rejected evidence of the efficacy of these drugs, instead advocating treatment with garlic, beetroot and African potato. It was ironic that their departure from office coincided with the award of the Nobel Prize to Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi for their discovery that HIV is indeed the case of AIDS. The rejection of scientific evidence is also apparent in the popularity of creationism, with an estimated 45% of Americans in 2004 believing that God created man in his present form within the past 10 000 years.2 While successive judgements of the US Supreme Court have rejected the teaching of creationism as science, many American schools are cautious about discussing evolution. In the United Kingdom, some faith-based schools teach evolution and creationism as equally valid ‘faith positions’. It remains unclear how they explain the emergence of antibiotic resistance.

In particular I found their inclusion of a tactic of inversionism interesting:
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Obama Meets With Gore, Rejects Denial

It seems Obama didn’t get Nisbet’s memo. Just watching on CNN, future president Obama says:

The time for delay is over, the time for denial is over. We all believe what the scientists have been telling us for years now, that this is a matter of urgency and national security and it has to be dealt with in a serious way. That is what I intend my administration to do. I think what is exciting about this conversation is that it is not only a problem but an opportunity.

I can not be happier that we have a president who is willing to stand up and call global warming denialism what it is.

Denialists’ harvest—the AIDS body count in South Africa

As a physician, few things frustrate and sadden me as much as preventable deaths. I see it all the time—the guy who kept putting off his colonoscopy and was later diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer, the woman who put off coming to the doctor with her breast lump until it broke through her skin, the heart patient who couldn’t stop smoking. They all haunt me. But what if the ghosts were numbered in the hundreds of thousands rather than dozens?

That’s what it must be like to be Thabo Mbeki, that is if he has a conscience. It may (or may not) be bad “framing” to call someone a “denialist” but a new study seems to say that whatever you call it, denialism kills. When government leaders allow themselves to be duped by denialists murderers non-acceptors of truth sickfuckdenialistbastards….Damn it, I’m sticking with “denialist”. When government leaders allow denialists to guide their public health policies, people die, apparently in large numbers. I’ll have to leave it to my epidemiology colleagues to evaluate the quality of the study (which on my read looks OK), but even if it’s off by one order of magnitude, the results are horrifying.
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In the Bush World, Regulation is Deregulatory

In the last days of the Bush Administration, expect it to engage in lots of rulemaking. Many businesses will seek new rules for their industries now, fearing that less favorable outcomes will occur if they chance it with the Obama Administration. This business-initiated regulation will seek “ceiling preemption,” meaning that the federal rules will supersede and cap strong state regulations.

Preemption has a profound effect on consumer protection, because frankly speaking, Congress rarely takes the time to pass consumer protection laws. It has other important business, and there is a horde of lobbyists who get upset when consumer laws are even considered.

In light of a new report released by Rep. Waxman’s Committee on Government Reform, Alicia Mundy writes in the Journal that preemption became very popular in FDA rulemakings:

The administration began adding language to more than 50 regulatory rulings that pre-empt state standards and lawsuits at several agencies in 2005.

The first such ruling at the FDA appeared in January 2006, surprising outside observers because the language hadn’t appeared in earlier public drafts.

The report finds that:

…key FDA career officials strongly objected to Bush Administration drug labeling regulations that would preempt state liability lawsuits, asserting that the central justifications for the regulations were “false and misleading” and warning that the changes would deprive consumers of timely information about drug hazards.

No surprise. And expect much more of this. It will be difficult to clean this up. Practically speaking, undoing these rules will only be possible where there is political will to do so. So many other important issues will take priority first.

On the Nature of the Cyberselfish

In reading a law review last week, I saw a footnote to a booked called Cyberselfish, A Critical Romp Through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High-Tech. Intrigued, I purchased it immediately and have been reading it the law few nights. The author, Paulina Borsook, wrote for Wired and yet was shocked by some of the socioretardation in the Silicon Valley tech community. She published this book in 2000; it’s a significant expansion of her 1996 Mother Jones article on the same topic, which concludes:

…Just as 19th-century timber and cattle and mining robber barons made their fortunes from public resources, so are technolibertarians creaming the profits from public resources — from the orderly society that has resulted from the wise use of regulation and public spending. And they have neither the wisdom nor the manners nor the mindset to give anything that’s not electronic back.

Her point is the technolibertarians are some of the biggest benefactors of government largess (Arpanet, aerospace/defense spending, UC Berkeley, etc), they are a generation that was never really mistreated by the government (no draft, major wars, etc), and yet they are bizarrely anti-government. Switching back to the book, she describes this philosophy as:

…the most virulent form of philosophical technolibertarianism is a kind of scary, psychologically brittle, prepolitical autism. It bespeaks a lack of human connection and a discomfort with the core of what many of us consider it means to be human…As many political schools of thought do, these technolibertarians make a philosophy out of a personality defect.

Ouch! And right on! MarkH and I encountered many such things at a party several years ago in DC. MarkH, being MarkH, spent the night engaging with these creeps, to find the core of their objection to humanity. I just wanted to take a shower. I’ve had enough.

If you’re interested in the technolibertarian form of denialism, pick up Borsook’s book. Sciblings would probably be most interested in her description of the social darwinist attitudes among the technolibertarians (these people would be the first to die under rugged individualism), and their pseudosciency belief in the market functioning as a biological system (something called Bionomics, the 1990s, Silicon Valley version of The Secret).

The Miracle that Failed

Yesterday, I posted about the rabid, pro-free-market rhetoric present in Washington, DC over the past decade. When Congress had the opportunity to consider privacy laws that would limit marketing of financial products, it chose to side with bank lobbyists, who invoked the idea of the “miracle of instant credit.” Basically, they argued that any incursion on the free market would harm credit markets. They promised that this miracle would lower credit prices, make credit more convenient, and manage the risk involved in lending. Congress sided with the banks. As a result, many financial products were marketed to people who didn’t deserve mortgages. And now you’re paying for it. You’ll soon be paying their auto loans and credit card bills too.

To get a flavor for the atmosphere, check out this Congressional testimony by John Dugan. It was delivered on behalf of the Financial Services Coordinating Council, American Bankers Association, and the American Insurance Association. Dugan was listing the various benefits of having a federal standard for information sharing, unfettered by state privacy laws:

Better risk management. Risk management is a crucial factor in every decision that a financial institution makes, including determining what types of products and services to offer. Undercutting this decision-making process has important implications. For example, if a lender cannot depend on credit files that are truly complete, loans may not be extended or may become more expensive in order to account for the higher level of risk. Moreover, Cate and Staten find that robust, national credit reporting has made it possible for more people to have access to more credit without significant increases in defaults.

Oops. That risk management apparently wasn’t good enough. So, you didn’t get privacy protections or good risk management. And who’s John Dugan, you ask? Well, he’s now one of the principal regulators of banks–he is the Comptroller of the Currency and a director of the FDIC.

Galileo, Semmelweis, and YOU!

To wear the mantle of Galileo, it is not enough to be persecuted: you must also be right.
–Robert Park

I used to spend a lot of time on the websites of Joe Mercola and Gary Null, the most influential medical cranks of the internets (to call them “quacks” would imply that they are real doctors, but bad ones—I will no longer dignify them with the title of “quack”). I’ve kept away from them for a while in the interest of preserving my sanity. Unfortunately, Orac reminded me this week of the level searingly stupid and dangerous idiocy presented by these woo-meisters.
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The economy, denialism, and perception

How bad is the economy?

Really fucking bad. My patients are losing their jobs, the restaurants are empty, businesses are shuttered, houses empty.

Really, really fucking bad.

What does the government have to say about it? Not so bad. Chill.

There are some good reasons for this. As the recent Indymac debacle shows, a statement from a politician can destroy a bank (although, to be fair, the bank was a dead man walking before Schumer’s letter came out).

So, when our leaders continue to downplay the economic disaster in this country, are they being denialists, or responsible public servants?
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