There’s much truth to the politics-of-science explanation, but that doesn’t mean it explains everything. Indeed, a new report just out from the Pew Research Center shows that views on certain other contentious scientific topics, like genetically modified foods and vaccinations, don’t cut cleanly along political lines.
The research is based on a national survey of over 2,000 Americans, and extensively examines not only where they stand on a huge range of science issues — some of which, like space exploration, aren’t really politicized at all — but also the different factors that influence diverging perspectives on science. Those include not only political ideology and religion, but also age, level of scientific literacy, and many more.
“Americans’ political leanings are a strong factor in their views about issues such as climate change and energy policy,” the report notes, “but much less of a factor when it comes to issues such as food safety, space travel and biomedicine.”
Indeed, the report confirms something that I’ve argued in the past: Namely, that two leading cases of science denial that are often attributed to politics — and specifically, left-wing politics — are not actually very political at all. These are: a belief that genetically modified foods aren’t safe, and feeling the same way about vaccines.
On genetically modified foods, scientists have repeatedly affirmed their safety for human consumption. And in the Pew data, politics failed to explain differences in why people accept or reject this finding. Ideological groups were broadly similar on GM food safety, Pew found, with majorities across the political spectrum believing the foods are unsafe to eat.
In other words, a lot of people’s views diverge from scientific opinion on this matter — but not in a way that suggests that left-right ideology is the principal reason for that divergence. “There are no statistically significant differences on the safety of eating GM foods between Republicans and those who lean to the Republican Party as compared with Democrats and those who lean to the Democratic Party,” the report found. “Nor are there differences on this issue among political or ideological groups.”
On vaccines, in contrast, there is a minor ideological component — liberals are somewhat more likely than conservatives to support required childhood vaccinations, rather than allowing for any parental choice in the matter. This, of course, reflects very different views about the appropriate role of government in our lives.
However, Pew found, the political differences don’t persist once you inquire about a strictly scientific issue where there is a very strong scientific consensus — vaccine safety. “There are no differences between party groups about this issue,” notes Pew. Here again, though, there are far too many Americans overall who are out of touch with science on the safety of vaccines — not a majority, but a worrying 9 percent minority.
Even with evolution, politics isn’t the exclusive driver science resistance. True, political conservatives are more likely to deny the science than liberals, Pew finds — but where evolution denial is really strong is among white evangelical Protestants, many of whom also tend to be conservative and to vote Republican.
So what’s the upshot of all of this?
I hate to make it a cliche, but — it’s that people are complicated. They are emotional and often biased, yes — but not solely by left-right ideology. Politics can be a major factor that skews our views — but there are also many other influences on us.
To give just one example from the Pew report, a major influence that helped to explain divergent views on vaccines turned out to be age. The poll found that older Americans, who presumably still remember what it was like to see vaccine-preventable diseases rampage, are much more strongly in favor of vaccinations than younger ones. “Younger Americans are more likely than their elders to support the idea that parents should be allowed to keep their children out of immunization programs,” notes the Pew report.
Meanwhile, a factor not considered in the report – conspiratorial thinking, which is hard to characterize as either left wing nor right wing – has also been shown to drive much of the vaccine denial problem.
So we certainly have a politics of science problem in the U.S. — but we also have a broader acceptance-of-science problem. And I’d say the only way to fix that is to continue to elevate the status and the importance of science in U.S. public life overall, so that it gets the respect it deserves.
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