Science denialism on the left and the right

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, May 6, 2011 22:05 EDT
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Recently, I was catching up on some podcasts and one that was particularly good was this recent Point of Inquiry with George Lakoff.  Even if you're familiar with Lakoff's theories, it's a good summary, and the host Chris Mooney conducts a good interview, as usual.  But I had one quarrel with it.  Mooney asks Lakoff about science denial—an even more relevant question in light of the fact that denying science has become mandatory for Republicans vying for national office—and Lakoff started off by saying that science denial is rooted in a conflict between scientific discoveries and the metaphorical framework that conservatives or liberals use to view the world.  Of course, the problem that this answer faces is that conservatives have made science denialism a huge part of their worldview and liberals have not.  Conservatives deny science facts when it comes to evolutionary theory, reproductive health, global warming, and pretty much anything that might challenge their ideology.  But science denialism just isn't as widespread with liberals.

Lakoff's take on this was a tad unsatisfactory for me.  His reason for the disparity struck me as sound enough, which is that avenues of scientific inquiry tend to be framed in terms of what is good for human beings, which fits into the liberal worldview.  (HIs theory is that liberalism is governed by a model of nurturance whereas conservatism by a model of hierarchy, two models he calls the Nurturing Parents vs. the Strict Father.)  On the other hand, conservatives have a Strict Father view, where truth is a matter of what the father figure dictates it to be, and everything—even scientific fact—must submit to the strict father's authority.  Liberals are more egalitarian, so knowledge tends to be ranked less by how it fits into a hierarchical model of authority and therefore needs to be taken on its own merits, i.e. how in a nurturing family every family member, including wives and children, is allowed to have their own worldview and father doesn't always know best.  So, just as a wife or a child who is armed with facts is allowed to argue with a father and win the argument if they're in the right, scientists are allowed to operate with more freedom in the liberal worldview.

Lakoff realized there were limits to this, and that there are definitely cases where science conflicts with liberal values and therefore runs a risk of being rejected by liberals.  But the only example he could think of was one where the science eventually fell apart, i.e. when liberals resisted scientific claims of IQ differences between the races.  He was right that liberals rejected these theories out of hand without the evidence to disprove them, but since liberal scientists like Stephen Gould eventually made a mockery of the poor evidence conservatives brought to bear for these theories, turning them into "theories", I kind of thought he was cheating a little.

A more troubling example is vaccination denialism, and the entire tent of liberals being quick to panic about "chemicals", even when the evidence that said chemicals are toxic just isn't there.  In my experience, vaccine denialism is rooted in a nurturing-mother worldview on steroids.  Many vaccination denialists tend to have a counter-theory where disease isn't prevented by medical interventions, but that all children need is a highly attentive mother who feeds them nothing but organic food and wheatgrass, and they won't need any silly vaccines.  Vaccines are demonized by equating them with the strict father worldview—doctors are cast as imperious patriarchs who force toxins on mothers and their children.  In a weird way, anti-vaxxers are the what conservatives imagine feminists to be, women who are bound and determined to replace the patriarchy with a matriarchy where things like "feminine intuition" replace reason and common sense.  Of course, real feminism has nothing to do with this, but I do think that there's a strain of matriarchal hooey that a percentage of liberals can drift towards.  Even feminists.

Ironically, however, I think it's feminism itself that works keep this kind of bullshit in check.  Feminism is rooted in an ideology of equality, and the rejection of stereotypes about feminine intuition.  In fact, most feminists I know see this kind of mother-knows-best hippie shit as just the same old gender stereotypes, repackaged as empowerment but actually putting women right back in the kitchen.  Having power over your child's diet and medical care shouldn't be confused with having real power in the world.  Kicking and screaming at a doctor's knowledge isn't the same thing as demanding that men stop hoarding scientific knowledge for themselves. 

So I think Lakoff had it right, but only half right.  I think that he's right that liberal's worldview of egalitarianism is one that automatically makes more room for facts, because people who abandon authority as the source of knowledge will be drawn to rationality and evidence.  But it's interesting to consider that the egalitarianism in the liberal worldview is in conflict with the nurturance, at least on a metaphorical level.  These internal conflicts aren't unique to liberals, of course.  Conservatives also have tension in their model, mostly between the idea that father knows best and the belief that discipline is geared towards bringing children up so they can be adults and take over the role of strict fathers.  You see this particular tension playing out between conservative populists and elites, with the former acting the part of the grown son who has reached the point where he's challenging his father over who's the man of the house.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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