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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Who's the anti-science party? And who will be?


Who’s pro-science in American politics? Who’s anti-science? Questions along those lines have been the subject of contentious debate in recent years, and a recurrent theme of this blog.
           
A recent post by Ezra Klein at Vox asked “What’s the liberal equivalent of climate denial?” and in exploring that question drew on the work of social scientist Dan Kahan, whose research shows both conservatives and liberals (or “hierarchical individualists” and “egalitarian communitarians” to be more precise) use faulty reasoning in assessing evidence.
           
For instance, one Kahan study showed that attitudes of both liberals and conservatives toward global warming were altered when it was presented in the context of geoengineering.  The prospect of large-scale tech interventions made liberals less willing to believe a (fake) report that warming was worse than expected, while conservatives became less dismissive of warming if it could be fixed through such means as a flying “turbine-fitted vessel” rather than emissions cuts.
           
What Kahan fails to see, according to Klein, is a bigger picture: “Political reasoning doesn’t take place inside our heads. It takes place inside our parties.” In other words, cognitive foibles are widespread but political parties play an important role in filtering them out (or not) when it comes to setting policy.
           
Klein argues, in short, that the Democratic Party has done a better job of keeping flawed views of science away from its policy agenda, compared to Republicans in recent years. I think that’s right, and I’ve made similar arguments as a Republican science writer critical of my own party during the Obama era.
           
The trump card in making such a case is the question Klein raises in his headline (and at the end of the piece still challenges his audience to answer): What is the liberal equivalent of climate denial? (And please don’t respond with word chopping such as that nobody denies there’s a climate or that it changes.)

Common answers given to that question—alarmism about genetically modified foods, and about vaccines—fall short. In neither of those cases have Democratic politicians en masse taken a position at odds with the scientific mainstream, let alone pushed such a position in shaping national policy.

We can leave aside the debate based on polling data as to whether Democrats or Republicans at large are more likely to hold anti-science views. (Republicans may be more averse to vaccines, while Democrats may put more stock in astrology.) The important thing is whether such beliefs are rising to prominence and influence.

Democrats might be tempted to leave it at that, satisfied that their party has done a better job of aligning policy stances with science, particularly when it comes to the climate. That would be too complacent. The next few decades hold vast potential for partisan realignment about climate policy and relevant technology.

Recall that Kahan study of climate attitudes and geoengineering, mentioned above. For now, that was a study about choices that are not actually on the table. What will climate politics be like in, say, the 2020s and 2030s, when global warming has gotten worse (indulge me for a minute if you think that won’t happen) and technological solutions are becoming more feasible?

Options may include not only geoengineering (efforts to remove, or limit the effects of, carbon in the atmosphere) but also advanced energy technologies that produce no carbon emissions. Such technologies could include solar power satellites that beam energy from orbit, and floating nuclear power plants. Both of these futuristic possibilities have gotten increased attention lately.

What geoengineering and these other advanced technologies have in common is that they will be large-scale, expensive and controversial. Undoubtedly, there will be political fights about their environmental risks and whether these are worth taking given the environmental downsides of not taking action.

One can imagine the strange politics that might arise. Conservative Republicans might be denouncing the do-little attitude of liberal Democrats regarding the climate crisis. Liberal Democrats might be assailing conservative Republicans for their recklessness in wanting to place powerful technologies into the skies and seas.

If that happens and I am still around, I suspect my sympathies will be with the risk-taking technologists. But for the Republican Party today to stop being labeled the anti-science party, it needs to stop acting as if the future climate will just take care of itself.

UPDATE: And until that future comes, we'll have stories like this, about my ex-colleague Michael Moyer's experience going on Fox News.

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