Pseudoscience from the political left and right

Pseudoscience through the ages

Projected global mean sea level rise

Through the years, decades and centuries, the world has science has slowly turned back the tide of pseudoscience, with victory after victory against nonsense and ignorance. In the 16th and 17th century, the writings of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton overturned the ancient cosmology. The revolting practice of bloodletting was overturned in the late 19th century. Astrology was scientifically defeated in the 18th and 19th century, although, incredibly, it continues to attract faithful adherents even to this day. Young-earth creationism was scientifically overturned by the early 20th century, and now, in the wake of radiometric dating and extensive DNA data, is utterly indefensible, although some opponents of evolution have continued to promote long-refuted arguments and to press for “equal time” for creationism and “intelligent design” in public schools. More on this below.

Pseudoscience from the political right

First and foremost, the continued denial of global warming, including both the extremely well established fact that the earth’s climate is warming and the equally well established fact that human activities are the primary reason behind this warming, is a very serious stain on the political right, both in the U.S. where it reigns supreme but also in a number of other first-world nations that should know better.

The facts behind global warming have been laid out very definitively by the worldwide climate science community, as summarized, for instance by the latest published report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As the summary section notes,

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. … Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.

The continued opposition to this scientific consensus, mostly by the political right, must rank as an incalculably serious error, with staggering long-term consequences for human society. Let us hope that this mistake is very quickly rectified, and all nations, including the U.S., recommit to very quickly ending their reliance on carbon fuels. Everything else mentioned in this article pales in comparison.

Another discouraging development is the continuing opposition, again mostly coming from groups aligned with the political right, to the teaching of evolution (as mentioned briefly above). In 2013 the present author and the late Jonathan Borwein published an article in the Huffington Post calling out a number of U.S. politicians who not only rejected evolution but even doubted the multi-billion-year age of the Earth. More recently, in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, several candidates, including Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, voiced opposition to evolution, while others, including Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Marco Rubio, avoided the issue by saying, in effect, “I’m not a scientist.” Each of these persons, in both categories, is aligned with the political right, and, as mentioned above, are doing so in defiance of an overwhelming body of incontrovertible data.

Pseudoscience from the political left

It may come as a surprise to some that the political left has its own issues with science, actually quite a few. Certainly none is as far-reaching and all-important as climate change denial, although anti-vaccination and GMO opposition, mentioned below, come close. In each of these cases, as in the examples above, the scientific facts are clear and support an overwhelming consensus among researchers in the particular field.

Here are some examples:

  1. The anti-vaccination movement. Although the anti-vaccination movement has had some support from the political right, its origin and growth are squarely from the political left. Left-leaning Hollywood celebrities share part of the blame. In 2010, actress Jenny McCarthy publicly blamed her child’s autism on an MMR vaccination and has played a leading role in the anti-vaccination movement, which thrives in spite of the well-known fact that the one (and only) study claiming a link was later thoroughly debunked, and numerous other in-depth studies have found no connection whatsoever. Largely as a result of this activism, in 2014-2015 the U.S. suffered its worst measles outbreak in 20 years. In 2017 Europe reported a huge surge in cases. In 2016-2017 the U.S. suffered a similarly huge outbreak of mumps. There is a virtually unanimous scientific consensus that the commonly used vaccines are safe.
  2. The anti-GMO movement. Millions of consumers in the U.S. and other first-world nations have been convinced to buy “certified GMO-free” food items (i.e., items certified free of genetically modified organism food stocks), thinking that they are healthier, all as a result of a concerted long-running campaign from several left-leaning environmental groups. However, there is not a shred of scientific evidence backing these claims. See, for example, a 600-page report published by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, the most prestigious scientific society in the U.S., which found no differences in health outcomes from genetically engineered crops and foods compared with crops and foods produced by more traditional methods. As Mitch Daniels wrote in the Washington Post,

    This is the kind of foolishness that rich societies can afford to indulge. But when they attempt to inflict their superstitions on the poor and hungry peoples of the planet, the cost shifts from affordable to dangerous and the debate from scientific to moral. …

    For the rich and well-fed to deny Africans, Asians or South Americans the benefits of modern technology is not merely anti-scientific. It’s cruel, it’s heartless, it’s inhumane — and it ought to be confronted on moral grounds that ordinary citizens, including those who have been conned into preferring non-GMO Cheerios, can understand.

  3. The “paleo” movement. Another utterly unscientific fad, promoted in large part through left-leaning Hollywood figures who wish to reject all corporate agriculture and food processing, is the “paleo” diet, which would have us turn back the clock to reject not only all processed foods, but also any dairy product or non-gluten-free grains, and also go heavy on meat. But knowledgeable researchers have thoroughly debunked the paleo diet. As a 2013 Scientific American analysis noted,

    The Paleo diet not only misunderstands how our own species, the organisms inside our bodies and the animals and plants we eat have evolved over the last 10,000 years, it also ignores much of the evidence about our ancestors’ health during their—often brief—individual life spans (even if a minority of our Paleo ancestors made it into their 40s or beyond, many children likely died before age 15).

    See also Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live.

  4. Astrology, “crystal healing,” etc. In some left-leaning circles there appears to be a resurgence in utterly unscientific beliefs and practices, even including astrology, “crystal healing” and wearing skin stickers to rebalance the energy frequency in our bodies. Again, left-leaning Hollywood celebrities are often behind such movements.
  5. Rejection of evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics. One final item that should be noted is the reluctance of those on the political left to accept the findings of evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics, which document that a wide array of psychological and behavioral traits are at least partially inherited and/or biologically imprinted, rather than exclusively the result of upbringing and social environment. Michael Shermer describes the knee-jerk opposition to these findings as “cognitive creationism,” namely an endorsement of the “blank slate” model of the mind in which “natural selection operate[s] on humans only from the neck down.” The scientific absurdity of blank-slate thinking was documented at length in Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Conclusion

The central conclusion here is that anti-science and pseudo-science are ambidextrous, diseases of the political left as well as the political right. In each of the cases listed above, the adherents reject the overwhelming scientific consensus. When asked to explain the scientific world’s unanimity, they often conjure up absurd conspiracy theories. Sadly, patient arguments laying out well-established facts typically have little or no impact.

What can be done? In the long run, stronger, more rigorous scientific education is a must, particularly for first-world societies that are in the midst of unprecedented scientific and technological advancements. All sectors of such societies must be informed and participate in making the many crucial wide-ranging decisions that lie ahead:

  • How can we control the advance of technology so that it meets human needs and does not veer out of control, possibly destroying civilization rather than saving it?
  • How can we humanely deal with those workers who are displaced by technology, retraining them into new emergent fields?
  • How can we direct new biological technologies, such as stem cells, CRISPR gene editing and immunotherapy, into blessings for humanity rather than ethical quagmires?
  • How can we preserve what is truly human for our species in an era of galloping progress in artificial intelligence, computer science and medical technology?

But it must be acknowledged that scientists are themselves partly to blame. For all too long those of us in sci-tech fields have remained ensconced in our offices and laboratories, focused exclusively on our research, and avoiding substantive engagement with the public, who, in the end, pay the bills. Clearly, those days are long gone.

Scientists have a great story to tell, one of unimaginable excitement and unbounded progress. Let’s share it!

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