False Equivalence Watch: Michael Shermer

Faced with the inconvenient truth that Republican Party has declared war on science, some conservatives have decided to retreat to false equivalence: yes, the GOP is the home of modern Luddism, but the Democrats are just as bad.  This is a move perfected by many mainstream columnists, who condemn both parties for failing to adopt “sensible centrist” policy prescriptions, and conveniently ignore the fact that President Obama has embraced these prescriptions.

Our exhibit this month is Michael Shermer, a thoughtful and insightful columnist at Scientific American, who this month has written a thoughtless and insight-less column, entitled “The Liberals’ War on Science”.  Here are the nut grafs from the piece:

[C]onsider “cognitive creationists”—whom I define as those who accept the theory of evolution for the human body but not the brain. As Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker documents in his 2002 book The Blank Slate (Viking), belief in the mind as a tabula rasa shaped almost entirely by culture has been mostly the mantra of liberal intellectuals, who in the 1980s and 1990s led an all-out assault against evolutionary psychology via such Orwellian-named far-left groups as Science for the People, for proffering the now uncontroversial idea that human thought and behavior are at least partially the result of our evolutionary past.

There is more, and recent, antiscience fare from far-left progressives, documented in the 2012 book Science Left Behind (PublicAffairs) by science journalists Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell, who note that “if it is true that conservatives have declared a war on science, then progressives have declared Armageddon.” On energy issues, for example, the authors contend that progressive liberals tend to be antinuclear because of the waste-disposal problem, anti–fossil fuels because of global warming, antihydroelectric because dams disrupt river ecosystems, and anti–wind power because of avian fatalities. The underlying current is “everything natural is good” and “everything unnatural is bad.”

This is really quite pathetic.  The argument is not so much false (which much of it is: liberals overwhelmingly support wind power subsidies, for example), as it completely misses the point.  You can find nutcases on all parts of the political spectrum: but only on the Right can you find that these nutcases dominate politically.

Even Shermer must concede that the people he is talking about are “far-left progressives.”  What power do they have?  Whom do they influence?  Who listens to them?  Well, no one, really.

On the Right, however, not only have the nutcases taken over the GOP, they essentially are the GOP.  Climate denial is the sine qua non of GOP leadership.  In the 2010 election cycle, for example, not a single Republican nominee for a Congressional seat was willing to accept the theory of anthropogenic climate change.  Did any Democratic candidate listen to “Science for the People”?  Had any of them ever heard of Science for the People?  The website listed for them is inoperative.  This is evidence of the liberal war on science?

Or consider the issue of Genetically Modified Foods, which the right leaps upon as evidence of the Left’s anti-science-ism.  Not only is the issue of GMOs completely tangential in the discourse, lots of Democrats and liberals think that they are okay (me among them).  In deep Blue California, when a relatively mild initiative mandating disclosure of GMO status was on the ballot, it attracted barely a yawn from progressives, and lost badly with a majority of Democrats voting no.

So: on the single most important enviromental issue perhaps of all time — climate change — the Republican Party has taken an uncompromising anti-science position that defines its membership.  On a couple of completely tangential issues, a few people on the Left take crazy positions.  And that is supposed to be equivalence.  More accurately, it is desperation: desperation from conservatives who want to justify their ideological leanings.

Thus, one more problem on the Right: they don’t know what an equals sign means.  Given the radical inegalitarian nature of the American Right, I suppose that that’s to be expected.  One more place where conservative ideology trumps science.

UPDATE: The Shrill One observes that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in a supposedly major policy speech, also demanded an end to federal funding of social science research; he also notes that Republicans oppose comparative effectiveness research in health care, forbidden public health research into the effects of gun regulations, and lists several other greatest hits that have been officially adopted by powerful elected Republican leaders.  But I’m sure that a few left-wing nutcases somewhere once said something stupid, so really both parties are the same.

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Reader Comments

12 Replies to “False Equivalence Watch: Michael Shermer”

  1. How are GMOs not relevant? The California Democratic Party endorsed a ballot initiative based on scientifically false premises, current federal regulations embody an scientifically unjustified distinction between modern GM techniques and other forms of modification, and the Obama Administration suppressed scientific findings on GMO salmon when deemed politically inconvenient. You probably think all the ridiculous, unfounded attacks on fracking from the left are irrelevant too?

    While those on the left are more willing to accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming than those on the right, folks on the left are quite willing to distort and exaggerate the relevant science. And then there’s this Administration’s interference with the FDA on Plan B contraception and misrepresentation of expert opinions on the Gulf drilling moratorium, the misrepresentation of species science in ESA implementation (as with the salmon BiOps), claims there’s something scientific about the “precautionary principle” and so on.

    The sad reality is that politicians and activists manipulate science when it is in their interest to do so. Period.

  2. How are GMOs not relevant? The California Democratic Party endorsed a ballot initiative based on scientifically false premises, current federal regulations embody an scientifically unjustified distinction between modern GM techniques and other forms of modification, and the Obama Administration suppressed scientific findings on GMO salmon when deemed politically inconvenient. You probably think all the ridiculous, unfounded attacks on fracking from the left are irrelevant too?

    While those on the left are more willing to accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming than those on the right, folks on the left are quite willing to distort and exaggerate the relevant science. And then there’s this Administration’s interference with the FDA on Plan B contraception and misrepresentation of expert opinions on the Gulf drilling moratorium, the misrepresentation of species science in ESA implementation (as with the salmon BiOps), claims there’s something scientific about the “precautionary principle” and so on.

    The sad reality is that politicians and activists manipulate science when it is in their interest to do so. Period.

  3. Nice try, Jon, but it won’t wash. I realize how important it is to you psychologically to demonstrate equivalence, but it runs aground on facts. Prop 37 is a good example: no one really cared about this. The Dems voted against it. A Democratic Legislature has never done anything about it. When the Dems held the House, they didn’t act on it. It’s simply not a significant issue.

    Problems with fracking are NOT ridiculous: there are genuine environmental problems with the practice — those who deny the problems are the anti-science folks, not the critics. Now, that, of course, hardly means that fracking should be banned — and that, of course, is why the Obama Administration has not moved to ban it. What it is trying to do is set up some sort of rational structure for it, so it doesn’t harm groundwater, it doesn’t leak methane, and that moves to fracking don’t displace renewables and instead displace coal. That’s exactly what we should be doing; and precisely what the anti-science people on the Right are denying.

    I’m not claiming that Dems are perfect, but at the end of the day, there’s a difference between a B and an F. I know that you need to deny this to maintain your bona fides with the Koch Brothers, but that doesn’t change the issue at all.

  4. Nice try, Jon, but it won’t wash. I realize how important it is to you psychologically to demonstrate equivalence, but it runs aground on facts. Prop 37 is a good example: no one really cared about this. The Dems voted against it. A Democratic Legislature has never done anything about it. When the Dems held the House, they didn’t act on it. It’s simply not a significant issue.

    Problems with fracking are NOT ridiculous: there are genuine environmental problems with the practice — those who deny the problems are the anti-science folks, not the critics. Now, that, of course, hardly means that fracking should be banned — and that, of course, is why the Obama Administration has not moved to ban it. What it is trying to do is set up some sort of rational structure for it, so it doesn’t harm groundwater, it doesn’t leak methane, and that moves to fracking don’t displace renewables and instead displace coal. That’s exactly what we should be doing; and precisely what the anti-science people on the Right are denying.

    I’m not claiming that Dems are perfect, but at the end of the day, there’s a difference between a B and an F. I know that you need to deny this to maintain your bona fides with the Koch Brothers, but that doesn’t change the issue at all.

  5. The proposition failed because it was awful, but the state party still endorsed it — and current federal law still embodies anti-scientific premises with regard to genetic modification.

    As for fracking, there are problems with it, but not the sorts that lots of folks are running around complaining about — that is, there is methane, there can be tremor issues, but there’s no evidence of water contamination — and there is no evidence folks on the left are any more responsible about policing unfounded fracking claims than they are about unfounded or irresponsible warming claims.

    I notice you ignore the remaining claims — and they only scratch the surface.

    And the fact that you have to resort to ad hominem — and an absurd one at that, given that a) I’m not receiving any money from them (though I’d gladly take it) and b) I’ve been quite critical of them personally) is ample proof of my point that you’re not bringing dispassionate analysis to this question.

    It must kill you that someone who doesn’t have a dog in the partisan fight sees both sides as guilty — but that’s the truth.

  6. The proposition failed because it was awful, but the state party still endorsed it — and current federal law still embodies anti-scientific premises with regard to genetic modification.

    As for fracking, there are problems with it, but not the sorts that lots of folks are running around complaining about — that is, there is methane, there can be tremor issues, but there’s no evidence of water contamination — and there is no evidence folks on the left are any more responsible about policing unfounded fracking claims than they are about unfounded or irresponsible warming claims.

    I notice you ignore the remaining claims — and they only scratch the surface.

    And the fact that you have to resort to ad hominem — and an absurd one at that, given that a) I’m not receiving any money from them (though I’d gladly take it) and b) I’ve been quite critical of them personally) is ample proof of my point that you’re not bringing dispassionate analysis to this question.

    It must kill you that someone who doesn’t have a dog in the partisan fight sees both sides as guilty — but that’s the truth.

  7. I ignore the remaining claims because I don’t want to address claims I don’t know about: but if your arguments about them are as good as your arguments about the other ones, then there is little reason to keep shooting fish in a barrel. The proposition failed because there wasn’t much to it — and liberals saw that, and voted against it. Thus, false equivalence. You’ve proved my point.

    I don’t claim to be bringing dispassionate analysis to the problem: only correct analysis! And yes, it does anger me that people claiming to be above it all are serving a partisan agenda whether they intend to or not.

  8. I ignore the remaining claims because I don’t want to address claims I don’t know about: but if your arguments about them are as good as your arguments about the other ones, then there is little reason to keep shooting fish in a barrel. The proposition failed because there wasn’t much to it — and liberals saw that, and voted against it. Thus, false equivalence. You’ve proved my point.

    I don’t claim to be bringing dispassionate analysis to the problem: only correct analysis! And yes, it does anger me that people claiming to be above it all are serving a partisan agenda whether they intend to or not.

  9. Jonathan said,
    “…And yes, it does anger me that people claiming to be above it all are serving a partisan agenda whether they intend to or not….”

    Now I understand why Jonathan is angry. Many of us have transcended climate change, so it may appear that we are “above it all” and this is probably a good description. Overcoming climate change is good and beneficial for all of us, and there is no reason to get angry. Calm down, don’t worry, be happy.

  10. Jonathan said,
    “…And yes, it does anger me that people claiming to be above it all are serving a partisan agenda whether they intend to or not….”

    Now I understand why Jonathan is angry. Many of us have transcended climate change, so it may appear that we are “above it all” and this is probably a good description. Overcoming climate change is good and beneficial for all of us, and there is no reason to get angry. Calm down, don’t worry, be happy.

  11. Wait, what is the problem with having concerns about nuclear waste disposal, global warming, destruction of rivers and massacres of birds? Is it really something to boast about that nobody listens to these concerns?

  12. Wait, what is the problem with having concerns about nuclear waste disposal, global warming, destruction of rivers and massacres of birds? Is it really something to boast about that nobody listens to these concerns?

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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