Who's More Anti-Science: Republicans or Democrats? Comparing the Applied Ignorance of Our Two Major Political Parties

Article excerpt

IN SEPTEMBER, a pundit fight broke out over whetherTeam Blue or Team Red is more "anti-science." Microbiologist Alex Berezow, editor of RealClearScience, struck the first blow in the pages of USA Today. "For every anti-science Republican that exists" he wrote, "there is at least one anti-science Democrat. Neither party has a monopoly on scientific illiteracy."

Then Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, denounced Berezow's column as "classic false equivalence on political abuse of science" over at the Center for American Progress's Climate Progress blog. Mooney accused Berezow of trying "to show that liberals do the same thing" by "finding a few relatively fringe things that some progressives cling to that might be labeled anti-scientific."

Berezow acknowledged that many prominent Republican politicians, including several presidential candidates, deny biological evolution, are skeptical of the scientific consensus on man-made global warming, and oppose research using human embryonic stem cells. Democrats, Berezow argued, tend to be more anti-vaccine, anti-nuclear power, anti-biotechnology, and anti-biomedical research involving tests on animals.

In support of these claims Berezow cited polling data from a 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, which identified a number of partisan divides on scientific questions. On biological evolution, the survey reported that 97 percent of scientists agree that living things, including human beings, evolved over time, compared to 58 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans.

On climate change, the Pew survey reported that 84 percent of scientists believe that recent warming is the result of human activity, compared to 64 percent of Democrats and only 30 percent of Republicans. That's a truly deep divide on a scientific issue.

The Pew survey next asked about federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, which Democrats favored by 71 percent compared to only 38 percent for Republicans. But the GOP response is likely tied to two issues: (z) the belief that embryos have the same moral status as adult people; and (2) the general belief that spending taxpayer dollars on research is suboptimal. These are policy differences rather than scientific differences.

But what about Berezow's examples of left-wing bias? Mooney's basic assertion is that Democratic anti-science is a fringe with no power, unlike the know-nothing Tea Party activists who influence Republican politics. For example, Mooney argues that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals "is not a liberal group commanding wide assent for its views on the left, doesn't drive mainstream Democratic policy, etc." Fair enough. But the Pew survey does report that 48 percent of Democrats oppose using animals in scientific research, whereas only 33 percent of Republicans do. Like stem cells, using animals in research is often framed as a moral issue.

With regard to nukes, the Pew survey found that 70 percent of scientists are in favor of building more nuclear power plants, compared to 62 percent of Republicans and just 45 percent of Democrats. This difference reflects divergent views on nuclear safety: A 2009 Gallup poll reported that while 73 percent of Republicans are confident in the safety of nuclear power plants, only 46 percent of Democrats agree.

What about partisan attitudes toward genetically enhanced crops and animals? A 2006 survey by the PewTrusts found that 48 percent of Republicans believe that biotech foods are safe compared to 42 percent of Democrats. Are they right to be leery? A 2004 National Academy of Sciences report noted: "To date, no adverse health effects attributed to genetic engineering have been documented in the human population." That is still the case today.

Mooney agrees that "there is some progressive resistance and some misuse of science in this area," but insists that "it is not a mainstream position. …