The left’s war on science

John Tierney writes at City Journal:

My liberal friends sometimes ask me why I don’t devote more of my 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 ?

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). Mooney rails at scientists and politicians who oppose government policies favored by progressives like himself, but if you’re looking for serious damage to the enterprise of science, he offers only three examples.

All three are in his first chapter, during Mooney’s brief acknowledgment that leftists “here and there” have been guilty of “science abuse.” 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 only successful war on science is the one waged by the Left.

I strongly recommend reading the full article. It is lengthy but worth it.

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. In a classic study of peer review, 75 psychologists were asked to referee a paper about the mental health of left-wing student activists. Some referees saw a version of the paper showing that the student activists’ mental health was above normal; others saw different data, showing it to be below normal. Sure enough, the more liberal referees were more likely to recommend publishing the paper favorable to the left-wing activists. When the conclusion went the other way, they quickly found problems with its methodology.

Scientists try to avoid confirmation bias by exposing their work to peer review by critics with different views, but it’s increasingly difficult for liberals to find such critics. Academics have traditionally leaned left politically, and many fields have essentially become monocultures, especially in the social sciences, where Democrats now outnumber Republicans by at least 8 to 1. (In sociology, where the ratio is 44 to 1, a student is much likelier to be taught by a Marxist than by a Republican.)

Peer review means a lot less today than it once did.

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. Herbert Croly, founder of the New Republic and a leading light of progressivism, predicted that a “better future would derive from the beneficent activities of expert social engineers who would bring to the service of social ideals all the technical resources which research could discover.”

This was all very flattering to scientists, one reason that so many of them leaned left. The Right cited scientific work when useful, but it didn’t enlist science to remake society—it still preferred guidance from traditional moralists and clerics. The Left saw scientists as the new high priests, offering them prestige, money, and power. The power too often corrupted. Over and over, scientists yielded to the temptation to exaggerate their expertise and moral authority, sometimes for horrendous purposes.

Drawing on research into genetics and animal breeding from scientists at Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and other leading universities, the eugenics movement of the 1920s made plans for improving the human population. Professors taught eugenics to their students and worked with Croly and other progressives eager to breed a smarter society, including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Margaret Sanger. Eventually, other scientists—notably, in England—exposed the shoddy research and assumptions of the eugenicists, but not before the involuntary sterilization or castration of more than 35,000 Americans. Even after Hitler used eugenics to justify killing millions, the Left didn’t lose its interest in controlling human breeding.

Eugenicist thinking was revived by scientists convinced that the human species had exceeded the “carrying capacity” of its ecosystem. The most prominent was Paul Ehrlich, whose scientific specialty was the study of butterflies. Undeterred by his ignorance of agriculture and economics, he published confident predictions of imminent global famine in The Population Bomb (1968). Agricultural economists dismissed his ideas, but the press reverently quoted Ehrlich and other academics who claimed to have scientifically determined that the Earth was “overpopulated.” In the journal Science, ecologist Garrett Hardin argued that “freedom to breed will bring ruin to all.” Ehrlich, who, at one point, advocated supplying American helicopters and doctors to a proposed program of compulsory sterilization in India, joined with physicist John Holdren in arguing that the U.S. Constitution would permit population control, including limits on family size and forced abortions. Ehrlich and Holdren calmly analyzed the merits of various technologies, such as adding sterilants to public drinking water, and called for a “planetary regime” to control population and natural resources around the world.

Their ideas went nowhere in the United States, but they inspired one of the worst human rights violations of the twentieth century, in China: the one-child policy, resulting in coerced abortion and female infanticide. China struggles today with a dangerously small number of workers to support its aging population. The intellectual godfathers of this atrocity, had they been conservatives, surely would have been ostracized. But even after his predictions turned out to be wildly wrong, Ehrlich went on collecting honors.

And Ehrlich still insists he was right on pretty much everything, when in fact he has been proven wrong on almost everything. He predicted the death of sea life by 1980, the UK would face starvation by 2000, India could not support more than 200 million people, a billion death toll from starvation etc etc. For being wrong on pretty much everything he has been given no less than 17 honours and awards.

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