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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review: Science Left Behind


I opened with some eagerness my review copy of Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left, by Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell. Having spent much time in recent years criticizing conservatives for denial and ignorance of scientific facts, and being a center-right type myself, I am interested in similar failings on the left. But this is a badly disappointing book.

Some time ago, at David Frum’s blog, I criticized Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain for (in my view) overstating its case that science is revealing a broad tendency among conservatives to deny or distort facts. Let me say now that Mooney’s book is a model of fair-mindedness compared to Science Left Behind.

Berezow and Campbell open by setting up their target: "progressives." They quickly unleash a bombardment of stereotypes:
Who  are the people we’re calling progressives? Generally, they’re the kind of people who think that overpriced granola from Whole Foods is healthier and tastier. They’re the people who buy “Terra Pass” bumper stickers to offset their cars’ carbon emissions. And they’re the sort of people whose beliefs allow them to feel morally superior to everybody else who disagrees—even if scientists are among those doing the disagreeing.
The authors distinguish between “progressives” and “liberals” on the grounds that the former evince a social authoritarianism not shared by the latter. I find this rather notional, given the virtual interchangeability with which the terms are widely used. Supposedly, though, whereas liberals favor economic interventionism but “value social liberty,” progressives
seek dominion over issues such as the environment, food production, and education. They endorse bans on plastic grocery bags, McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, and home schooling. They hold opinions that are not based on physical reality about how energy and development should work. And, most significant, they claim that all of their beliefs are based on science—even when they aren’t.
So it seems that progressives are antithetical to science as a matter of definition. Oddly, this comes just a few pages after the authors assure us that “the purpose of this book is not to demonize all progressives. We just want to demonize the loony ones.” And: “Though some progressives are pro-science, many within their ranks are not.”

Then there’s a look back to what progressive once meant, but the authors are no better on their history. Consider this:
For a time, progressivism made for good politics. [Theodore] Roosevelt was joined under the banner of “progressives” by Democrats including Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryant [sic]. All of these men aimed to mobilize rationalism and science to promote “progress,” just as their philosophy’s name suggested.
Bryan is better described as a populist than a progressive, and the notion that he “aimed to mobilize rationalism and science” would’ve been news to H.L. Mencken during the Scopes Monkey Trial.

This just scratches the surface of what’s wrong with this book. The authors present various examples of  leftists being out of step with science. Some of these are issues that cut across ideological boundaries (anti-vaccine hysteria, for instance). Some are issues where the left-wing anti-science types have had little success in getting the policies they want or even getting support from Democratic politicians (genetically modified foods). Some are just marginal and obscure issues to begin with (the use of compostable utensils in the Capitol Hill cafeteria).

Berezow and Campbell are right that there are anti-science attitudes on the left. They are wrong to see these as of similar current significance to anti-science views on the right.  They fail to show any issue that is a progressive counterpart to the conservative stance of recent years on climate change—that is to say, an important issue where one side, including its elite, is not only grossly out of step with the scientific community but has succeeded in getting its anti-science views reflected in public policy.

After filling the book with tendentious and trivial point-scoring, the authors close with a chapter on the science-related issues that "really matter." This is filled with banality such as “it is imperative that Americans have a serious debate about the country’s future in space.” Thanks for the tip.

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