Opinion

Scientific illiteracy in left-wing politics

It seems that every week we hear a new story that demonstrates a lack of scientific literacy in right-wing politics. Recently we learned that employees of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection under the tenure of Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) were instructed not to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official correspondences. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) recently brandished a snowball on the Senate floor as evidence that global warming is a hoax. Last month Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) refused to state whether or not he believed in the theory of evolution, and who can forget former Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.) famous gaffe about “legitimate rape”?

These politicians have been widely criticized — and rightly so — for their anti-science views. Rarely, however, are left-wing political figures held accountable for the same crime. As a Democrat myself, I think it is crucial that we move beyond partisan criticism and call out scientific illiteracy wherever it exists.

It is tremendously ironic that the political left, which frequently attacks the right’s denial of evolution, is much more likely to oppose one of the most promising scientific advances that we have achieved through the study of genetics: GMOs. Initiatives to mandate the labeling of GMO products have found varying degrees of success in blue states like Vermont, Oregon, Maine, Hawaii, and Washington. GMO labeling might make sense if modern genetic modification techniques produced foods that were substantially different from those produced by conventional methods, but the fact is that scientific studies have consistently and overwhelmingly shown GMOs to be safe for both humans and the environment. In fact, those concerned about the environment should praise GMOs, which allow us to produce the same amount of food while using less water and land, emitting less carbon dioxide, and applying fewer pesticides.

Perhaps the worst example of anti-GMO activism is the opposition to Golden Rice, which was genetically engineered in 1999 to help people suffering from vitamin A deficiency. Despite the promise of Golden Rice, activist groups like Greenpeace have gone so far as to support the sabotage of Golden Rice field trials across the developing world. Vitamin A deficiency causes several million deaths per year, and many of these deaths could be prevented if not for widespread, anti-scientific opposition to genetic engineering.

Although the political left may be genuinely concerned about the environment, its lack of scientific literacy still inspires it to promote policies that are counterproductive to its goals. And since the political right often denies the reality of environmental issues outright, the left’s unscientific policies are the only ones discussed and implemented.

The left’s aversion to nuclear energy stands out in particular. Senate Democrats have held ten hearings on nuclear safety since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. But discussion of this disaster requires some perspective. The Fukushima plant was built on the tectonically active “Ring of Fire,” and it required a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake to cause the meltdown. The plant itself was in violation of myriad safety recommendations. Still, short-term radiation exposure from the plant killed exactly zero people. The liberal LNT model, notorious for overestimation, predicted a total of 130 deaths from long-term exposure. The tsunami itself, by comparison, killed 16,000.

Fracking enrages the left even more. To be sure, fracking is not risk-free, and many experts have proposed better regulations to ensure that cement casings are more secure, for example. The oft-heard claims that fracking causes dangerous earthquakes, poisons drinking water, and produces exceptional air pollution, however, are misleading. The left has some legitimate concerns about fracking, such as the safe disposal of wastewater, but many charges levied against fracking are appropriately applied only to issues incidental to the process of gas extraction. Other charges — that fracking is linked to seismic activity, for example — are technically true, but also hold for conventional wells, mining, and geothermal technology.

Left-wing politicians have generally endorsed large “green energy” subsidies to combat climate change, but the reality is that today’s green energy is simply not advanced enough to fuel a Western standard of living. Subsidies for solar and wind power will do little to reduce carbon emission in the long term, and subsidies for ethanol and electric cars may actually increase carbon emissions. Vast tracts of carbon-sequestering forest and grassland have been cleared to plant corn for ethanol production, and electric cars are ultimately powered by coal. Moreover, every dollar spent subsidizing today’s unproductive renewable energy is a dollar taken away from green energy research. In the meantime, the left’s irrational fear of nuclear energy and fracking means that instead of transitioning to lower-carbon energy sources in the short run while greener technologies are developed, we will continue to rely disproportionately on dirtier oil and coal.

Finally, the left has a vaccination problem. Four of the five states with the highest vaccination-exemption rates are blue. California (my home, sweet home) is suffering from a measles outbreak. Meanwhile, leftist pundit Bill Maher is regularly applauded for his anti-vaccine rants and is rarely confronted for using the typical conspiracy theorist’s defense: I’m just asking questions.

The political left loves to bring up scientific consensus when discussing climate change and evolution, but it rejects scientific consensus as a valid metric when it comes to discussions about genetic modification, nuclear energy, and vaccines. And, in fact, while a disbelief in evolution is foolish, it is not nearly as dangerous as a rejection of modern technology.

Vaccines freed us from polio and smallpox. Genetic engineering, along with other techniques, has helped us to produce a cheap, stable, and more environmentally friendly food source. And fossil fuels, for all their problems, have made us so wealthy that we can now afford to research environmentally friendly alternatives. This is a luxury that could not be imagined by the nearly-half the world’s population that still cooks and heats its homes with wood, trash, and dung. Indoor air pollution contributes to roughly 4.3 million premature deaths each year — more than the total number of deaths caused by outdoor air pollution from all sources, including fossil fuels.

The political right is properly criticized for its anti-science views. The political left, however, is often unfairly spared similar criticism. Those on the left must be willing to criticize members of their own camp when they endorse policies based on poor scientific understanding. Otherwise, the left and right may find some common ground, but it will be to the detriment of society as a whole.

Collin Vierra is a member of the Class of 2015.

22 Comments
1
Freedom almost 3 years ago

You don't have a clue what science is.

"the fact is that scientific studies have consistently and overwhelmingly shown GMOs to be safe for both humans and the environment"

This is idiotic. Please retract this claim. The risk in GMOs is in the tail, which a scientific survey cannot say anything about. Opposition to GMOs is extremely rational, because they present a global (systemic) rather than local risk.

You are like the Nobel Prize winners who founded Long Term Capital Management, a hedge fund which crashed to zero because it ignored global risk in favor of magical science.

You are intolerant and superstitious, placing too much belief in magical science and shaming those who question it.

Readers: 90 percent of what is in this article is wrong, and you should reverse all claims made in this column to gain a more accurate picture of the world.

2
pH almost 3 years ago

Thank you for writing this. I often get frustrated with MIT students' belief that the Democratic party is close to perfection. Republicans are worse, but the gap is not nearly as big as some believe.

And ignore Freedom, he's a troll.

3
Freedom almost 3 years ago

2-- I'm not a troll. You are a fool and you should not have the right to vote. In a just society your opinions would be removed.

You cannot measure systemic risk in a controlled scientific experiment.

It's like saying "we have concluded giving people nukes is safe, because we did scientific experiments where we gave people nukes and nothing bad happened."

See! Science proves nukes are safe for everyone! Give everyone nukes!

You cannot conclude GMOs are safe based on science alone.

Please read the 24 page research paper below evaluating the risks of GMOs and then retract all your claims.

http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf

4
Thomas Davies almost 3 years ago

First, this is politically illiterate. There is nothing inherently left-wing about opposition to GMO's; Bill Clinton was a big supporter, right-wing commentators like Joel Salatin are vehemently opposed. But it's also scientifically illiterate. Even IRRI (the research institute in charge of Golden Rice breeding and testing) says on their website that it has not been demonstrated that Golden Rice raises vitamin A levels. Greenpeace has taken a stand against Golden Rice, but it has had no effect on the approvals process at all. In the Philippines -- the only country where Golden Rice is moving towards possible release -- the crop has not yet been submitted to the Bureau of Plant Industry for approval, because it still is underproductive. This is on the IRRI website.

5
Freedom almost 3 years ago

4- A mature adult spotted!

6
Collin Vierra almost 3 years ago

Thomas Davies--

Of course you are correct that the left is not universally opposed to GMOs, and that neither is the right universally in favor -- it is also the case that some left-wing political figures support nuclear energy while some right-wing political figures are opposed. I am simply addressing a tendency, and pointing out that it is not only the right wing which holds anti-science views. I would not say that opposition to any technology is "inherently" left- or right-wing (except perhaps insofar as it affects labor, but that is another issue). This is why I used the words "more likely".

As for Golden Rice, I would encourage you to reexamine the IRRI website, which states that Golden Rice (which has been greatly improved over the last 15 years) actually is effective at providing Vitamin A. And although Greenpeace has no official role in the approval process of Golden Rice, it nonetheless has a significant effect on the process when it supports the sabotage of an integral part of that process -- namely, field trials. The full promise of Golden Rice cannot be known until scientists conduct additional studies, but the current evidence is encouraging. Unfortunately, some oppose these studies outright.

Thanks for your comment.

7
James almost 3 years ago

Wherein there is some truth here - especially the message that each political party has it's own illiterates, there are so many inaccuracies and blind, false assertions here as to make this commentary nothing more than another ignorant diatribe.

To dismiss electric transportation, the author makes this one statement: "...and electric cars are ultimately powered by coal". When assessing "well-to-wheel" studies, it's plain that those tired, outdated arguments died several years ago. The most modern data available marks the amount of unrefined crude oil imported for use in transportation in the United States at still over 36. How many carbon emissions does the author calculate it takes to transport said oil across oceans? How much energy does it then take to refine the oil once it is shipped? How many trucks, pipelines and trains carry the oil to the major regions of the USA wherein the oil is refined? Any study you choose proves American-made electricity ( even from the dirtiest coal plants extant )to wire, to plug and to wheel makes far more sense and is enormously cleaner than the oil alternatives. Not to mention the energy spent and C02 emitted to search for and to extract it from the earth.

8
James almost 3 years ago

Clean coal, and "cleaner coal" plants are here today and conversion of existing coal plants is much more cost-effective than building out a nuclear nationwide network wherein areas like my backyard ( Washington State ) have become a horrid dumping ground for nuclear waste - which is leaching into our ground at shocking rates. Ironically, the author forgot there is another nuclear plant only miles from the Oregon/Washington coastline directly in line with the Ring Of Fire near the Columbia River.

This author seems to do his studies from magazine articles rather than research papers. There are so many holes in his positions, it's not even funny.

In each of his positions, Collin Viera asserts his information as if it is uncontested fact. Each one of his controversial assumptions has many scientific studies on both sides. He seems to have picked his sides and expects us to respect his decisions as fact due to his higher level of intellectual abilities. Higher than who?

The American two party system is greatly flawed. No third party to reach compromise and force integrity is a deep flaw in today's American government. Campaign finance reform should be on top of any list of reforms, not debate on global warming or GMOs.

9
James almost 3 years ago

Lastly, a major theme of Collin's here in this piece seems to be that any intelligent person or ideology would continue hydraulic fracturing for non-sustainable natural resources for decades to come while keeping implementation of sustainable technologies to endless studies and limited-scope research projects. This is a classic tool of "kicking the can of humanities problems down the road for future generations" whilst the air in mega-cities around the globe becomes so densely polluted that many cities mandate their citizens don't go outside! Meanwhile, Big Oil continues to collect government

subsidies and stretch their scope of ravaging our ecosystems and water tables risking leaking pipelines both above ground and miles under the sea.

Collin forgets to note that the U.S. government subsidizes the oil industry to the tune of tens of billions of dollars/yr.. Why not subsidize the solution instead of continuing down the road subsidizing the problem. The issues with oil dependency stretch far beyond ecological ones. Try quantifying the amount of your tax money each year that goes to protect our avenues to foreign oil. Try to calculate the lives lost in just the last ten years due to our overtly insane addiction to oil.

10
Collin Vierra almost 3 years ago

James --

The well-to-wheel studies are important, but so are other considerations. A great deal of the CO2 emissions from electric cars come from their production. The longer they are driven, the more they "close the gap" on gasoline cars in terms of pollution. However, since electric cars can only go so far on a single charge, they are often purchased as second vehicles and not driven as frequently or as far. Additionally, they require battery replacements, and battery production is terribly polluting. And, as mentioned, coal pollutes more than oil, although you are correct that the domestic vs. imported aspect is an important consideration. Ultimately, if electric cars are driven "far enough", they come out ahead of gasoline cars in terms of pollution. But that is an important qualifier. This is why I said that they may, although not must, increase carbon emissions. One should also be aware of the lavish subsidies that are currently needed to keep electric vehicles competitive. This is money that could be spent on research to produce better batteries, for example, making electric cars greener. I foresee electric cars displacing gasoline cars in the future as the technology is improved. In the short term, however, hybrids are probably the best choice, both economically and environmentally.

Thanks for your comment.

11
Pete almost 3 years ago

9 - James, you do of course realize that those "subsidies" for the oil industry are largely the same "subsidies" that most industries use. There are rather few subsidies that are specific to just the oil industry and in most of those cases, those statutes were put in place to provide an clarification for similar treatment for the costs of doing business or making a product. That investing in drilling a well to produce oil, was akin to building a factory to produce widgets. That both were investments.

One of the largest "subsidies" that is often used is the Foreign Tax Credit, which all companies can use. Another large subsidy for the oil industry is for Production of Non-conventional Fuels (i.e.) not oil, since many majors are actively diversifying their portfolios of energy development.

As to the larger point that Collin was making, that neither political party holds the high ground with respect to scientific proof, that point should be obvious with demagogues on both distorting science with false claims. Since most of the media has leanings towards one side of the political spectrum, the reporting tends to favor one side and disparage the other routinely. That leads to having many readers who lack the interest or drive to understand more of the facts to rely on those skewed articles for their information and version of the truth.

12
Allan almost 3 years ago

"do his studies from magazine articles rather than research papers."

That sentence rings a bell. The article doesn't go very deep but if would have gone I wouldn't have read it. TL;DR phenomena.

The more you know (hopefully from scientific sources) the more nuanced your opinion becomes. The problem with nuanced opinions is that they do not spread very well, especially in political debates. Binary opinions do. It is easier to be FOR or AGAINST than to try to explain a third different (read: unfamiliar to the public) and complicated opinion. Plus it takes a lot of time and energy to properly dvelve into a subject (research papers rather than magazine articles) and most people don't have the desire, need or willpower to form a scientifically based opinion on things.

BTW i'm from Europe but the problems are the same. They are the same everywhere. It's human nature.

13
John almost 3 years ago

Collin, many thanks for sharing your article. Would you please elaborate on your comment regarding republicans rejecting evolution?

Specifically, who in particular are you quoting or referencing that rejected evolution?

Best regards,

John

14
Collin Vierra almost 3 years ago

Hi John--

In this case I was mentioning a recent incident where Scott Walker, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, dodged a question about evolution. That may mean he doesn't believe in evolution or simply that he feels it would be politically inconvenient to admit that he does, but either way, it says something about the pervasiveness of evolution denial within the Republican caucus.

Sorry for responding so late to your comment -- hope you are able to see this.

15
RAM almost 3 years ago

The main thing is to be adamantly pro-truth and willing to discard even politically correct theories when the facts say otherwise.

16
Freedom almost 3 years ago

I empathize 15. You're a good conservative, but your defensive ideology has been losing for a while. Here are some reasons why.

1. People ain't gonna believe in truth; they need myth. The reason skinny infertile leftists prance around constructing silly ideologies is because leftism is a popularity contest based on coming up with the most emotionally gratifying theories possible regardless of truth. They come up with utter nonsense (feminism, anti-racism, homosexuality, diversity, egalitarianism, sexual equality, child abuse, misogyny) that falls flat on its face when subjected to reality, but leftists couldn't care less. So asking them to believe in the truth is impossible. Myth will always win.

2. Truth is secondary to ordered liberty. In Antifragile, Taleb notes that correct theory always follows from correct practice, never the other way around. Along the same lines, Michael Vassar notes that generally all useful medical research is not funded by the government, but rather from accidents and experiments. Hence, theoretical truth matters only rarely, and the important thing for prosperity is working to minimize the impact of destructive ideologies on individuals and groups.

The conclusion is to have a system where craziness (such as the leftism masked as "science" in this article) have limited effect. How to do this?

1. It is essential to view the mainstream media (e.g. The Tech) as the enemy. Their role is to crank out manipulative garbage from infantile feminized authors. Hence: (a) unplug; do not give them your patronage. (b) never communicate to them unless it's on your own terms; they're pretty close to wanting to kill conservatives at this point, so it's unsafe.

2. The school and college system are lost as well. Their job is now simply indoctrinating children with leftism. Fight them by encouraging them to turn more leftist. This will turn schools into essentially insane asylums for the underclass, which will be an improvement from their current state.

3. Divert saner people into less destructive myths, such as old religions. They can be on your team.

4. Encourage leftism to be more self destructive. Pedophilia acceptance and obesity acceptance seem to be catching on. Maybe we can get leftists to start injecting heroine as well. Better leftists ruin themselves than kill conservatives.

5. Use loopholes. There are lots.

Still working on it but that's what I got.

17
RAM almost 3 years ago

While some may be beyond recall, for the time being at least, many others have had no opportunity to see and judge the actual evidence, which, if properly presented, might impress them. No need for sophomoric mind games, "Freedom".

18
Freedom almost 3 years ago

Democracy degrades into mind games, and often violence. It's the unfortunate nature the system. The family and community you participate in (bless them) may be a favorable environment free from manipulative mind games, but the world isn't. Don't hate the player, hate the game.

After The Tech's (and MIT's administration) series of shameful and unfair personal attacks against good men such as Walter Lewin, Bill Frezza and fraternities in general there are some very bitter people, and The Tech will see that what goes around comes around. It currently would be quite easy (with my help, of course) to put together a far more compelling, pleasant and high-brow campus newspaper that would far outpace The Tech in readership. (The only risk is getting expelled out of MIT by leftist administrators for not being leftist enough.) The Tech's staff is that bad.

19
Socialist Worker almost 3 years ago

Those who enjoy insults as politics should find themselves with plenty of company in both parties. Harvard's Kennedy school of government is for you.

A major problem in this whole discourse is science vs. religion and various economic forces hiding behind differences expressed as politics.

First the theory of evolution is not a belief like Christianity which requires faith. It provides a scientific way of observing nature which allows us to make predictions. It comes into conflict with religion because it invalidates the Christian story of creation. This of course will reduce the power that the 'Imams' of the Christian faith. Which makes it as dangerous as women's liberation from male domination.

GMO's.

Corn is a GMO. It can not reproduce without human intervention. Banana's are grown from suckers. They have very poor genetic diversity because of that. Obviously changes made in our biological food environment can backfire on us. As such we should proceed with a certain amount of caution. We need to keep extra varieties of our foodstuffs alive otherwise could face a loss of something due to one particular disease outbreak.

Those who oppose GMOs as a matter of principle fail to understand that human agriculture has been interfering with natural selection since the domestication of plants and animals like cattle and corn before recorded history.

If we are to continue as a species we must be able to feed ourselves. Today's agriculture allows one half of our species to live in city's. That could not have happened without technological change in agriculture. GMO's have the potential to have huge affects on food markets making some rich and others bankrupt.

Energy.

We have been using energy for all sorts of things from cooking food, to keep warm, to communicate and to sail ships. It is absolutely foolish to rule out any source of energy on principle. A large portion of the worlds population does not have meaningful access to modern energy. They create large amounts of greenhouse gases, destroy forests and poison themselves with carbon monoxide from using dung and wood as energy. For middle class radicals its become more of a not in my backyard politics rather than how can we help?

20
Freedom almost 3 years ago

19-

Quote: " It comes into conflict with religion because it invalidates the Christian story of creation "

You are unfairly attacking Christianity, a religion that has stood the test of time and has in general been a moderating force. Everyone believes in something. What makes you think Christianity is worse than other faiths?

For example, genetic differences in IQs across races are strongly implied by evolution (tropical and arctic ancestral environments favor different phenotypes). But try telling people that blacks have genetically lower IQ than whites and watch their reactions. Why are you not attacking bourgeois progressives for denying evolution due to their faith in anti-racism?

Quote: " This of course will reduce the power that the 'Imams' of the Christian faith. "

Like a drunkard, you're picking the wrong targets. You're picking on a comparatively powerless faith, not the powerful one (progressivism). For instance, if Christianity were powerful, sodomy would be outlawed and marital rape would be outside the law. Instead, businesspeople are forced to cater to gay weddings and affirmative consent laws exist on college campuses. This shows that progressive belief far outweighs Christianity today. How am I to trust you if you are so delusional?

Quote: " Which makes it as dangerous as women's liberation from male domination. "

This is delusion stated as fact. First, women have always had substantial power over men. For one, they biologically start off with more power because they are the bottleneck to reproduction. Hence "women and children" and "ladies first." Second, women are not dominated by men in any practical way today. They're paid more than men for the same work in many Western countries and attend college more often. Third, women want to be dominated by men in many ways. Some modern women even convert to Islam, which is far more gender polarized than Christianity.

Quote: " Those who oppose GMOs as a matter of principle fail to understand that human agriculture has been interfering with natural selection since the domestication of plants and animals like cattle and corn before recorded history. "

Fallacy 12.6 http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/pp2.pdf

GMOs (top-down) are very different from conventional farming (bottom-up).

Quote: " Today's agriculture allows one half of our species to live in city's. "

Fallacy 12.9.

21
Socialist Worker almost 3 years ago

Ending the right of the American capitalists to engage in discrimination in hiring, public accommodations and trade was one of the greatest fruits of the class struggle victories in the 20th century. This victory like all others won under capitalism will always be seen as temporary concessions by the capitalists who will continual seek to reverse it.

22
Freedom almost 3 years ago

21- You are delusional. Without discrimination, it is impossible to build any kind of functional organization. The better the institution, the more it discriminates, and generally the only problem with discrimination lies in not discriminating enough. Every single employer discriminates. The reason discrimination on stuff like race and sex was outlawed was in order to shift more power to academia (so that businesses discriminate based on college education instead).