The Real War on Science: The Left has done far more than the Right to set back progress

The Real War on Science: The Left has done far more than the Right to set back progress. By John Tierney.

My liberal friends sometimes ask me why I don’t devote more of my science journalism to the sins of the Right. It’s fine to expose pseudoscience on the left, they say, but why aren’t you an equal-opportunity debunker? Why not write about conservatives’ threat to science?

My friends don’t like my answer: because there isn’t much to write about. Conservatives just don’t have that much impact on science. I know that sounds strange to Democrats who decry Republican creationists and call themselves the “party of science.” But I’ve done my homework. I’ve read the Left’s indictments, including Chris Mooney’s bestseller, The Republican War on Science. I finished it with the same question about this war that I had at the outset: Where are the casualties?

Where are the scientists who lost their jobs or their funding? What vital research has been corrupted or suppressed? What scientific debate has been silenced? Yes, the book reveals that Republican creationists exist, but they don’t affect the biologists or anthropologists studying evolution. Yes, George W. Bush refused federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, but that hardly put a stop to it (and not much changed after Barack Obama reversed the policy). …

Three examples of war on science waged by the left:

First, there’s the Left’s opposition to genetically modified foods, which stifled research into what could have been a second Green Revolution to feed Africa. Second, there’s the campaign by animal-rights activists against medical researchers, whose work has already been hampered and would be devastated if the activists succeeded in banning animal experimentation. Third, there’s the resistance in academia to studying the genetic underpinnings of human behavior, which has cut off many social scientists from the recent revolutions in genetics and neuroscience. Each of these abuses is far more significant than anything done by conservatives, and there are plenty of others.

The left is different:

The danger from the Left does not arise from stupidity or dishonesty; those failings are bipartisan. …

But two huge threats to science are peculiar to the Left — and they’re getting worse. …

The first threat is confirmation bias, the well-documented tendency of people to seek out and accept information that confirms their beliefs and prejudices. … Academics have traditionally leaned left politically, and many fields have essentially become monocultures … The lopsided ratio has led to another well-documented phenomenon: people’s beliefs become more extreme when they’re surrounded by like-minded colleagues. They come to assume that their opinions are not only the norm but also the truth. Groupthink has become so routine that many scientists aren’t even aware of it. …

And that brings us to the second great threat from the Left: its long tradition of mixing science and politics. To conservatives, the fundamental problem with the Left is what Friedrich Hayek called the fatal conceit: the delusion that experts are wise enough to redesign society. Conservatives distrust central planners, preferring to rely on traditional institutions that protect individuals’ “natural rights” against the power of the state. Leftists have much more confidence in experts and the state. Engels argued for “scientific socialism,” a redesign of society supposedly based on the scientific method. Communist intellectuals planned to mold the New Soviet Man. Progressives yearned for a society guided by impartial agencies unconstrained by old-fashioned politics and religion. …

The left subordinates scientific truths to its PC fantasies:

Conservatives have been variously pathologized as unethical, antisocial, and irrational simply because they don’t share beliefs that seem self-evident to liberals. …

The Left’s most rigid taboos involve the biology of race and gender, as the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker chronicles in The Blank Slate. The book takes its title from Pinker’s term for the dogma that “any differences we see among races, ethnic groups, sexes, and individuals come not from differences in their innate constitution but from differences in their experiences.” The dogma constricts researchers’ perspective — “No biology, please, we’re social scientists” — and discourages debate, in and out of academia. Early researchers in sociobiology faced vitriolic attacks from prominent scientists like Stephen Jay Gould, who accused them of racism and sexism for studying genetic influences on behavior. …

The Blank Slate dogma has perpetuated a liberal version of creationism: the belief that there has been no evolution in modern humans since they left their ancestral homeland in Africa some 50,000 years ago. Except for a few genetic changes in skin color and other superficial qualities, humans everywhere are supposedly alike because there hasn’t been enough time for significant differences to evolve in their brains and innate behavior. This belief was plausible when biologists assumed that evolution was a slow process, but the decoding of the human genome has disproved it …

Some genetic differences are politically acceptable on the left, such as the biological basis for homosexuality, which was deemed plausible by 70 percent of sociologists in a recent survey. But that same survey found that only 43 percent accepted a biological explanation for male-female differences in spatial skills and communication. How could the rest of the sociologists deny the role of biology? It was no coincidence that these doubters espoused the most extreme left-wing political views and the strongest commitment to a feminist perspective. To dedicated leftists and feminists, it doesn’t matter how much evidence of sexual differences is produced by developmental psychologists, primatologists, neuroscientists, and other researchers. Any disparity between the sexes—or, at least, any disparity unfavorable to women—must be blamed on discrimination and other cultural factors. …

Many climate researchers are passing off their political opinions as science, just as Obama does, and they’re even using that absurdly unscientific term “denier” as if they were priests guarding some eternal truth. Science advances by continually challenging and testing hypotheses, but the modern Left has become obsessed with silencing heretics.