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October 18, 2012 5:58 PM   Subscribe

Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy writes SciAm, as part of their election coverage, which also includes rating two candidates' answers on particular sciencey topics (full replies here, marking sheet here), as well as inquiring about the positions of other congress critters. Use 'Print' button for single page presentation
posted by Sparx (49 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Science denialism among Democrats tends to be motivated by unsupported suspicions of hidden dangers to health and the environment.

Like lead, and mercury, and thalidomide. God damn left wingers, always thinking us scientists are unaware of the dangers we are exposing them to. Afraid that 20 years later we're going to say "Whoops!"

And bring back those X-ray shoe size things. Those were great!
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:04 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


This is one of those "I can't believe we actually have to have this conversation" conversations in public discourse. Good article. Sad that it even needs to be written.
posted by LooseFilter at 6:06 PM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum have been guilty of science denialism. But the Republican version is particularly dangerous because it attacks the validity of science itself.

I get the impression they are trying HARD to play the Both Sides game but that's as far as they can weight it to not calling the GOP screaming lunatics.
posted by Artw at 6:09 PM on October 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


Sad that SciAm can't report on the GOP's assault on empiricism without succumbing to the temptation to deploy the tired journalistic cliche of "both sides do it!!1".
posted by Yesterday's camel at 6:18 PM on October 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


Like lead, and mercury, and thalidomide.

The claim that the left wing is susceptible to buying unsupported panics about "hidden dangers to health and the environment" is not, in fact, disproved by pointing to the existence of some scientifically well-supported dangers to health and the environment.
posted by yoink at 6:28 PM on October 18, 2012 [25 favorites]


yeah, remember when everyone threw their cups away because of BPAs? Or wifi-sickness?
posted by rebent at 6:32 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


disproved by pointing to the existence of some scientifically now well-supported dangers to health and the environment.

New Pony: Ability to edit other's posts. >:)
posted by MikeKD at 6:37 PM on October 18, 2012


BPAs? Or wifi-sickness?

The number of well-meaning hippies who've told me that underarm deodorant causes cancer, wheatgrass enemas cures it, or who aren't vaccinating their kids because of autism fears... it's not zero, let me tell you. Ignorance of science is not a purely right-wing phenomenon.
posted by mhoye at 6:38 PM on October 18, 2012 [24 favorites]


Thalidomide was never approved for use in the United States. I think you're in the U.S., so ... Why that choice for your unhelpful sarcasm?
posted by raysmj at 6:43 PM on October 18, 2012


The number of well-meaning hippies who've told me that underarm deodorant causes cancer, wheatgrass enemas cures it, or who aren't vaccinating their kids because of autism fears... it's not zero, let me tell you. Ignorance of science is not a purely right-wing phenomenon.

I think that's a more valid criticism of HuffPo than the Democratic party.
posted by Artw at 6:44 PM on October 18, 2012 [7 favorites]


No. Authoritarian beliefs jeopardize American democracy...or at least what passes for democracy these days.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 6:47 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I agree, Artw. like, if the brackets represent the crazy lines, the nation is something like this:

[-]----|-[----]

where the crazy lefties are on the far left and the crazy righties are on the far right. I want to be fair and say both sides do it, but it's just so damn much more of them that do it.
posted by rebent at 6:48 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


while never approved for general use, thalidomide was put into trials in the US that had ~20,000 participants and a couple million pills of it were distributed.
posted by Perfectibilist at 6:49 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


The thing that gets me about the "both sides do it" argument, is that on the left you've got a bunch of deluded hippies, and on the right you've got United States Senators.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:59 PM on October 18, 2012 [38 favorites]


disproved by pointing to the existence of some scientifically now well-supported dangers to health and the environment.

Are you really suggesting that it's a good idea to be opposed to stuff in general because you never know if science might, at some point in the future, endorse your position?

Someone who was opposed to lead, say, before there was any evidence that lead was a poison was a crank--exactly the same kind of crank as the person who thinks that radio waves are making them sick or that merely seeing a wind farm induces miscarriage. That one of them eventually got proven right doesn't retrospectively turn them into visionaries.
posted by yoink at 7:02 PM on October 18, 2012 [4 favorites]


The article does helpfully point out some if the shortcomings of the Obama administration and that is, I think, useful. Yeah, there is less crazy here on the left. But Obama's limp-dick approach leaves a lot to be desired.
posted by munchingzombie at 7:04 PM on October 18, 2012


Like lead, and mercury, and thalidomide. God damn left wingers, always thinking us scientists are unaware of the dangers we are exposing them to. Afraid that 20 years later we're going to say "Whoops!"

And bring back those X-ray shoe size things. Those were great!


Should we shut down the electrical grid?
posted by dirigibleman at 7:13 PM on October 18, 2012


That one of them eventually got proven right doesn't retrospectively turn them into visionaries.

Where does that leave the "precautionary principle"?
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:30 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Unless many people suffered as a result of that drug's US trial, there was no point in bringing up a drug that was never approved for general use here. The FDA did its job well in that case, sounds like. The thing you would do better to focus on are cases where people suffered due to a lack of transparency in publishing of research results, or due to the issue of truthfulness and consent in research participation (the Tuskegee syphilis experiment was a more relevant topic to bring up here), unacknowledged corporate or interest backing of research and influence in the regulatory sphere, etc.
posted by raysmj at 7:34 PM on October 18, 2012


Are you really suggesting that it's a good idea to be opposed to stuff in general because you never know if science might, at some point in the future, endorse your position?

My addition was more a comment to not assume what is obvious now (after scientific studies have been performed) was obvious at the time.
posted by MikeKD at 8:08 PM on October 18, 2012


Unless many people suffered as a result of that drug's US trial

"As long as there are no "flipper babies," right, Don? Well, there have been a few flipper babies. It was only a couple of flipper babies!"


(btw, I'm not the person you were arguing with so telling me what I would do better to focus on doesn't really accomplish much. Feel free to go back to accusing your original target of arguing in bad faith though.)
posted by Perfectibilist at 8:09 PM on October 18, 2012


Where does that leave the "precautionary principle"?

Running an enormous, uncontrolled, non-consensual, long-term medical experiment to see how a population of some 300 million Americans respond to consuming a mix of transgenic staple crops and their industrial by-products. That's where.
posted by clarknova at 8:09 PM on October 18, 2012


I wasn't arguing with anyone, just engaging in discussion, but you're arguing with me. Take it to metatalk if you'd like. Thanks.
posted by raysmj at 8:15 PM on October 18, 2012


An interesting take on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:19 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the 1960s and 1970s a philosophical movement called postmodernism developed among humanities professors displeased at being deposed by science, which they regarded as right-leaning. Postmodernism adopted ideas from cultural anthropology and relativity theory to argue that truth is relative and subject to the assumptions and prejudices of the observer. Science is just one of many ways of knowing, they argued, neither more nor less valid than others, like those of Aborigines, Native Americans or women.

That's an... offensively ignorant misreading of postmodernism.
posted by junco at 8:30 PM on October 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


That's an... offensively ignorant misreading of postmodernism.

...says your way of knowing!

But yes, it is selling postmodernism short. That's not to say that such conflicts didn't occur though.
posted by Sparx at 8:37 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Where does that leave the "precautionary principle"?

The "precautionary principle" cannot mean "hey, let's not use anything at all because it might later be shown to be harmful." You have to have some reason to be suspicious about something before you ban it or you're just aimlessly flailing about. Should we ban pasta? Maybe one day that will be shown to be harmful? Should we ban backrubs? Maybe one day they'll be shown to be harmful. I mean, you can't possibly know, right? Oh, and lets ban the ownership of cats--we've even got a bunch of scientific studies suggesting that that might pose unacceptable risks. And lets ban the consumption of alcohol--we can show that that's associated with many elevated risk factors. Thank God a wise government has already banned all those other drugs--we know how well that's working out for everyone etc. etc. etc.
posted by yoink at 8:49 PM on October 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


The SciAm article pretty effectively demonstrates what's wrong with science positive activism by reproducing its biases. Stem cell research doesn't get opposed because people don't believe in it but because they have an ethical problem with it. A stupid ethical problem, but it is not the same as being creationist. Postmodernism has no links to the religious right or anti-vaccine people, but it's considered dangerous for framing science as a human activity that is not subject to special pleading. And of course, there's mourning the age of strong military technocracy and refusing to acknowledge the caution mainstream culture has learned through environmental disasters and terrible weapons.

What we are left with is an argument for a pro-science culture even moderates would find terrifying. It is one which seeks to make ethical judgments for us, demonstrates contempt for democratic management, carelessly enables pollution and thrives within the military and corporate structures that blossom in times of fear and suffering. It's reasonable for people to distrust that vision of a science-positive society, because it is fucking terrifying.

There's room for an alternative pro-science position out there, but it's not coming from Scientific American.
posted by mobunited at 8:52 PM on October 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


junco: "Science is just one of many ways of knowing, they argued, neither more nor less valid than others, like those of Aborigines, Native Americans or women.

That's an... offensively ignorant misreading of postmodernism
"

Astonishingly so. I was about to send a breathless email to friends advising them to read the article, but I'm not going to bother to share it along now.
posted by barnacles at 8:55 PM on October 18, 2012


But yes, it is selling postmodernism short. That's not to say that such conflicts didn't occur though.
posted by Sparx at 8:37 PM on October 18 [+] [!]


The notion that postmodernists believed scientific phenomena were not real and that postmodernists inform the religious right are simply lies. You'll note that the nature of the Science Wars was about the cultural acquisition on knowledge, and not whether experiments were valid. "Relativism" is what critics obsess about, but it is not even an important concept in most postmodern arguments, which are really about how ideas are framed. And certainly, the religious right and neoliberal scientism share in common a hate for postmodernists because they weaken their targets' moral authority by pointing out that the underpinnings come from a historical climate of ideas, not a special revelation.

To tl;dr it, philosophers arguing about whether global warming was discovered through iterative experiments or paradigm shifts is not the same as saying global warming doesn't exist. There is really no fucking similarity between them, and honestly the conflation comes in no small part from postmodernism's tendency to raise inconvenient questions about why marginalized groups get treated like shit in institutions, which makes an influential, aging segment of those institutions mad.
posted by mobunited at 9:08 PM on October 18, 2012 [9 favorites]


Paul Broun, Charles Darwin Face Off: Republican Faces Odd Write-In Opponent In Georgia House Race
posted by homunculus at 9:49 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


An interesting take on the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.

Yes, it does aim to be interesting. So I checked out the magazine where it appears. Spiked seems to exist in that fun part of British Marxism that wraps back around into "extreme corporate libertarianism". Interesting.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:03 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


To tl;dr it, philosophers arguing about whether global warming was discovered through iterative experiments or paradigm shifts is not the same as saying global warming doesn't exist.

I honestly don't think that is the point the article was trying to make. There are always going to be problems with a glancing reference to postmodernism, which encompasses multitudes, in an article where PM is not the primary focus. I'll freely admit that the article does not go out of its way to fairly characterise PM ("let's just ignore context so we can have a villian!" - the author does self-identify as Republican after all), but the takeaway point, that the lowering of the pedestal of Science from within academia itself became the thin end of the wedge that allowed other ideologies to gain a foothold, is an interesting one and worth discussion.
posted by Sparx at 10:17 PM on October 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Stem cell research doesn't get opposed because people don't believe in it but because they have an ethical problem with it. A stupid ethical problem, but it is not the same as being creationist.

If the reason is 'because we shouldn't play god' it does sound pretty much the same.
posted by biffa at 12:00 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


unhelpful sarcasm?

Fair enough, I have been trying to be less sarcastic.


Dear Mr. Otto,

In the first few pages of your Scientific American article entitled "Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy" you leveled the following charge:
Science denialism among Democrats tends to be motivated by unsupported suspicions of hidden dangers to health and the environment. Common examples include the belief that cell phones cause brain cancer (high school physics shows why this is impossible) or that vaccines cause autism (science has shown no link whatsoever).
This is a serious charge and deserves to be answered. Fortunately your example provides both the worst and the best of what Science has to offer. I'll start with the latter.

In the case of vaccines and autism, Science has been called on to vigorously defend an unknown substance being injected into babies. I say "unknown" here in the sense that a very small percentage of parents have enough of a vaccinology education to truly understand what is being done. Given the stakes, it is reasonable to expect a thorough answer that is understandable to the average parent -- and one has been provided, as you note, by a raft of longitudinal studies showing no correlation. This is science at its best, defending itself.

There was a time when Science being called on to vigorously defend itself was unthinkable. Throughout the first two thirds of the 20th century Science was King. It was an unalloyed blessing that brought abundant food and goods to a hungry world. It enabled amazing things and the prosperity it brought could not be questioned.

We all know the snakes that haunted that Eden. Lung Cancer. Lead Paint. Toxic Waste. Thalidomide. And so on.

And so in the late 20th century the crown of Science lost its luster and many questions began to be asked. An adversarial relationship grew that can not simply be dismissed as "antiscience". The noisy cranks we all wish would go away do not excuse Science from answering real questions about cell phones, vaccines, house paint or motor oil.

In 2012 Science is the crosshairs, not just of cranks but of a large mass of sane but nervous people, anxious to know when and how the power of Science will backfire on us next. I don't know if that makes them "antiscience" in your estimation, but they are a force to be reckoned with.

-----------------

There is another type of "antiscience" you have called out, and what you have called out is far more troublesome to me. Your example: "the belief that cell phones cause brain cancer (high school physics shows why this is impossible)".

As a person who's education in both physics and biology went beyond high school I am afraid I can not agree with you. I happen to know a bit about cellphones, at least enough to know they don't resemble any simple radio source I ever saw on a physics test. And what I think I know about cancer -- that there are an enormous number of potential causes and no one knows them all -- leads me to avoid the world "impossible" entirely.

In truth I find your comment dismissive, analogous to a pat on the head and an "It's okay".

And perhaps this is it, perhaps I am one of the ignorant. Perhaps if I were smarter in some way I would find obvious what you seem to find obvious. If it is antiscience of me to demand evidence of you than I'm afraid you must count me among the antiscientific.

Because I do demand evidence. It relieves me to know that longitudinal studies are being conducted in this area. As much as you are speaking for Science when you assure me that a thing is impossible, I prefer verification that I can understand and believe.

Compared to the all-encompassing welcome that Science enjoyed for most of the 20th century I think it's fair to say that large numbers of people view Science with suspicion. Whereas Science was once implicitly believed it now has to plead its case. And frankly, that is the way it should be.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:25 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Like lead, and mercury, and thalidomide. God damn left wingers, always thinking us scientists are unaware of the dangers we are exposing them to. Afraid that 20 years later we're going to say "Whoops!"
Do you seriously think the danger of those things is unsupported by science? There is a lot of 'woo' out there among liberals. Bill Maher, of all people was out there claiming thimerosal in vaccines caused autism. There are lots of other examples.

Thanks for providing an object lesson in exactly what these people are talking about in terms of left-wing science denial.

Fortunately in most cases (other then, say, thimerosal) those views are harmless, if annoying. They don't deny the validity of the scientific method, but instead try to claim that their interpretation of scientific data is better (so, for example with the MMR vaccine Andrew wakefield had studies, they just happened to be fraudulent)
The number of well-meaning hippies who've told me that underarm deodorant causes cancer
FYI. the National Cancer Institute says "Research studies of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants and breast cancer have been completed and provide conflicting results. " It's not really correct to say that underarm deodorant is known not to cause cancer. It's obviously not proven to cause cancer either, but it's something that hasn't been cleared either way. I don't think there is any kind of serious risk.

The problem is that if there is a super-low impact on cancer rates, it becomes really difficult to measure. Look at Cellphones and brain cancer, for example. Lots of studies did show some effect, lots of others showed none. People were worried about it enough to alter phone designs to direct the radio waves away from the head. I think at this point it's clear they don't, but for a while it was a legitimately open question.
If the reason is 'because we shouldn't play god' it does sound pretty much the same.
Well, the ethical problem people had was with embryonic stem cells, created by creating human embryos and harvesting them. At this point I'm pretty sure embryonic stem cells are no longer even needed. I'm pretty sure the last Nobel prize was for making pluripotent stems from adult cells.

So I'm pretty sure part that people had an ethical problem with is no longer even necessary. Growing new organs from your own stem cells would probably work better than trying to find a donor embryo that could produce an organ that would match your own immune system.

In either case, the "ethical problem" was with creating and destroying human embryos, which they considered a form of abortion. They viewed it as unethical for the same reason they view planned parenthood as being unethical. It's religious, but it's not about "Playing god", it's just a simple anti-abortion stand. (of course they don't have a problem with IVF, which did the same thing…)
posted by delmoi at 1:01 AM on October 19, 2012


We all know the snakes that haunted that Eden. Lung Cancer. Lead Paint. Toxic Waste. Thalidomide. And so on.
Lung Cancer? Do you think "science" invented cigarettes? Do you think "science" invented lead paint?

People in the west have been smoking tobacco for hundreds of years, since it was discovered in the Americas by early explorers.

Lead paint had been used throughout history, according to wikipedia Lead-based white is one of the oldest manufactured pigments. It was the only white pigment available to artists in appreciable quantities until the twentieth century, when zinc-white and titanium-white became available.

Science didn't give us cigarettes or lead paint. Those things predated science completely. Science is how we discovered that those things were even bad in the first place. You have it completely backwards on those two, at least.

Some scientists did come with Thalidomide, but other scientists in the FDA kept it off the shelves in the U.S, because the data wasn't in. That wasn't the case in Europe, obviously.

As far as Toxic waste, that really has more to do with "Industry" then "Science" - they aren't the same thing. Although without science industry would be much more difficult.

But either way, without science, we wouldn't even know what was toxic and what wasn't. Just like we didn't know that tobacco or lead paint were harmful until scientists told us.
posted by delmoi at 1:09 AM on October 19, 2012 [7 favorites]


Do you think "science" invented cigarettes?

I bet someone smoked a lot of shit until they found something they liked. That sounds like the scientific method. Would it help if they had written a paper?
posted by biffa at 4:10 AM on October 19, 2012


Hard to write a paper when your language doesn't have a written form.

(as was the case with the native Americans that western explorers picked it up from)
posted by delmoi at 4:25 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


In 2012 Science is the crosshairs, not just of cranks but of a large mass of sane but nervous people, anxious to know when and how the power of Science will backfire on us next. I don't know if that makes them "antiscience" in your estimation, but they are a force to be reckoned with.

By what method should we determine whether modern technology is safe or unsafe? If the scientific method is unable to tell is whether cell phones cause brain cancer or whether vaccines cause autism, how should we determine this?
posted by dirigibleman at 6:17 AM on October 19, 2012


delmoi: Look at Cellphones and brain cancer, for example. Lots of studies did show some effect, lots of others showed none.

If a study showed a credible link between phone use and cancer rates, would it ever see the light of day? Part of what drives the distrust of science is that industry will not hesitate to stonewall or bury unfavorable results to protect profits at all costs.
posted by dr_dank at 6:42 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


If a study showed a credible link between phone use and cancer rates, would it ever see the light of day?

With the number of health insurance companies that are out there looking for any excuse to charge higher rates for risky yet voluntary behavior, I believe it would, yes.
posted by radwolf76 at 7:20 AM on October 19, 2012


> Running an enormous, uncontrolled, non-consensual, long-term medical experiment to see how a population of some 300 million
> Americans respond to consuming a mix of transgenic staple crops and their industrial by-products. That's where.

Finding out empirically, by just trying it, whether world food production can keep up with world food demand without using GM technology is also an enormous, uncontrolled, non-consensual mortal coin flip for billions. Pick one risk or the other, and it isn't possible to not play.

(quibble, neither alternative counts as an experiment. No control == not an experiment.)
posted by jfuller at 8:27 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah, postmodernism isn't really the enemy here, Sokal lulz aside. You can be pro-science and also critical of how the institution of science has been used to paper over racism and sexism, for instance. Joan Roughgarden has a really interesting segment of her book in which she looks at how the language used in descriptions of animal behavior was both a projection of and circularly used to reinforce prevailing biases about what "normal" sexual behavior entailed. But acknowledging that there are valid critiques of scientific inquiry as it is done today is way different from embracing the blatant disregard of the facts involved in, e.g., vaccine panic, or global warming denialism, or HIV denialism.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:44 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


More Junk Science: GOP Congressman Says Abortion Is Never Necessary To Save A Woman’s Life
posted by homunculus at 11:45 AM on October 20, 2012


By what method should we determine whether modern technology is safe or unsafe? If the scientific method is unable to tell is whether cell phones cause brain cancer or whether vaccines cause autism, how should we determine this?

There's no need to throw out the scientific method along with our blind faith in scientists. What is required is that there are conclusive experiments that an average person can understand.

As I said above the studies disproving the autism/vaccine link are an excellent example of this. There is no need to understand vaccinology, no deep knowledge of the production, distribution and administration of vaccines is required. The result of the experiment was "we gave a bunch of people vaccines, there was not a higher rate of autism among them." And with the exception of a small group of cranks led by a D-list celebrity, people seem to have moved on.

Some really bad examples of experimental results are coming out of all areas of genetics today. Experimental results presented to the public demonstrating the safety of GM seem to require a postdoc to interpret, and I say to the author of this article that he is correct: my vague suspicions are not allayed by these results.

So what to do about it? Provide meaningful experiments. Don't write people off as antiscience just because they don't buy into things you think are "obvious." And really get it, down deep, that results presented to the public are no longer considered reliable by default. People saying "I don't believe you, show me some proof I can understand" is not antiscience, in fact it's quite the opposite.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:58 PM on October 20, 2012


That's an... offensively ignorant misreading of postmodernism.


One common to entirely too many fans of postmodernism.
posted by ocschwar at 2:37 PM on October 23, 2012


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posted by homunculus at 10:39 PM on October 23, 2012


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posted by homunculus at 11:30 AM on October 27, 2012


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