Is the Left Anti-Science?

When those on the left end of the political spectrum seek to argue that the modern Republican party has taken a decidedly anti-scientific turn of late, picking targets and providing examples to support their case is far from difficult. With the Republican presidential primaries in full swing, it is of note that only one of the major GOP hopefuls has come out in support the scientifically accepted theory that recent warming trends in the Earth’s climate are anthropogenic in nature, that is, they are caused by increased atmospheric density of man made heat trapping gases like CO2 and methane. This is far from a controversial statement among those scientists who study the Earth’s climate as part of their vocation. However, among Republican public officials and the vast majority of the GOP electorate, acceptance of climate scientist’s findings on the matter are greeted with more than mere skepticism. Current GOP frontrunner Rick Perry, for instance, has publicly accused the scientific cummunity of a wholesale falsifying of climate data to secure research grants.

Much the same can be said of acceptance of Darwin’s theory of Evolution. Despite the fact that Evolution by Natural Selection is the fundamental, unifying principle of modern Biology, has been for well over 100 years, and is universally accepted by all serious academic biologists outside fundamentalist Bible colleges, GOP candidates routinely proclaim themselves skeptical of the theory of Evolution (libertarian Ron Paul included).

But what of those on the Right who would seek to argue that it is liberals, actually, who are anti-science? Never heard the argument mounted? Perhaps that’s because it’s not an easy one to make. Like Jonah Goldberg’s disingenuous attempt to portray Fascism as an ideology of the Left, Attempts to portray Liberals as deniers of Science depend upon some mighty impressive feats of rhetorical acrobatics, disingenous sophistry, and bad faith argumentation. Take, for instance, Yuval Levin’s “Science and the Left,” an article written in 2008, and brought to our attention by a recent Andrew Sullivan  blog item.

The first thing one notices about this argument is just how long and opaque it is. Now, there’s nothing wrong with long articles that delve into difficult material, per se, but when an article that purports to demonstrate that the political Left is “anti-science” begins with a critique of left-wing scientific enthusiasm born of the French Revolution and ends with the following musings:

Mastery of chance and of the given world is the deepest progressive longing, and so it is not surprising to find progressives on the side of science. But that same desire for mastery, and especially the rejection of the given, is also a denial of respect for equality and ecology, which progressives continue to claim among their highest ideals. Both ideals rely upon the presence of some unmastered mystery—some order beyond our grasping reach. A turning away from that humbling mystery, and toward unbounded will, is the inevitable (and indeed intentional) consequence of the progress of the modern scientific enterprise. That progress brings with it immense benefits, but if left to itself it threatens a great deal as well, including much that is of importance to the left.

You start to suspect that the author has written one of those essays that are dense in Provocative Big Ideas whose inclusion appears to merely obscure the fact that he just doesn’t have much of a case. In his disingenuous opus, Jonah Goldberg, for instance, set out to show that a fiercely nationalistic ideology characterized by hero worship, militarism, institutionalized racism, and a reification of traditional family roles was, in fact, the brainchild of the left. Which is just absurd on its face.

Levin, for his part, begins curiously enough, by tracing the Left’s purported disdain for science to the reification of science that he sees as an outgrowth of the French Revolution. One of the peculiar features of conservative polemics of this nature is that  they tend to play up Gallic nationalist notions of France as the birthplace of the Enlightenment, to the detriment of such notable English enlightenment figures as Isaac Newton, John Locke and Adam Smith. It seems that for Conservatives such as Levine, the guillotine is a necessary companion of Enlightenment thought:

Science, for [the French philosophes], was a profoundly progressive liberating force, a great sword with which to slay mighty kings and priests, and a new path to ever-increasing knowledge that could only lead to ever-increasing freedom. It all depended on beginning every political action from the most basic possible material assumptions and reasoning from established premises to a conclusion—which in practice had to mean rejecting all that existed simply by habit, and beginning anew. Traditional institutions that had long endured could only be defensible if they, too, met this test of reason from scratch. The more thoroughly grounded in rational scientific thinking a society could be, the more legitimate and free it would be—and with time, the direction of progress was clear: away from tradition and toward rational mastery.

The Left was not born of the ideas of Newton, Locke and Adam Smith, but rather was a child of the French revolution:

…when the modern left was born, largely in the great crucible of the French Revolution, these ingredients had long been combining, and the new way of thinking—anti-traditional, egalitarian, liberationist, progressive, highly rationalized, and always forward-looking—was bound up at its birth with modern science. The material aims of science suited the aims of the left, and the intellectual means of science were the preferred means of the left.

This is, of course, a typically hackneyed attempt to identify leftist thought with France, and thus, to make it foreign. Never mind that the very same libertarian elightenment principles that are supposedly so foreign to the Anglo Saxon tradition also deeply inform the American Declaration of Independence and its proclamation that “all men are created equal, [and] that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”  

Now, at this point a reader of Levine’s polemic might feel it in his rights to ask at what point the left becomes “anti-science.” After all, what he’s presented ’till now is leftist enthusiasm for science. Levine acknowledges this, and begins to provide an answer:

The left is therefore generally justified in thinking of itself as the party of science. But for all its advantages, this relationship is not a simple matter. It is subject to some important and complicated tensions, which are emerging with special force in our own day.

The great original appeal of the scientific enterprise was its potential to empower man over nature. Francis Bacon set out the conquest of nature as his aim. René Descartes sought to make human beings “masters and possessors of nature.” And the scientific community they helped to found has since continued to pursue these twin objectives: expanding human power and conquering nature.

But for the modern left, each of these key aims of modern science has grown deeply problematic. To begin with, over the past century the left has come to take a rather complicated view of power. It has become highly suspicious of certain kinds of power: the power of nations, of corporations, of the rich over the poor, of man over nature (or as it has been renamed, to make it passive, “the environment”).

Levine’s position begins to take shape, in this paragraph, and it is all to easy to see where he is going. Being pro-science, for Levine, is not merely an issue of epistemology. It is not a question of holding the view that the scientific method provides the best explanation as to the causes of natural phenomena and the best prediction of the direction they are likely to follow. Rather, being “pro-science” is a normative stance. It means holding the belief that the natural order should be subjugated to man’s will and exploited for his benefit:

“Nature, to be commanded,” [Francis] Bacon wrote, “must be obeyed,” so the purpose of the new natural science was to learn nature’s ways so as to overcome them. This desire for knowledge of and power over nature was not power-hunger, it was humanitarianism. Nature, cold and cruel, oppresses man at every turn, and bold human action is needed in response. Science arose to meet that need.

It is not difficult to see where Lavine intends to go with this line of reasoning. The specious attack on evironmentalism that folows is about as surpising as lerning that there are explosions in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie:

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” wrote John Muir, a founder of modern environmentalism. Far from conquering and manipulating nature for his benefit, moreover, man must be careful and humble enough to tread gently upon it, and respect the integrity (and even the beauty) of its wholeness. We are to stand in awe before nature, and never to overestimate our ability to overcome it or underestimate our ability to harm it (and with it ourselves). “We have forgotten how to be good guests, how to walk lightly on the earth as its other creatures do,” wrote the great British environmentalist Barbara Ward in her 1972 book Only One Earth.

Taken to the extreme, this approach turns the scientific view of nature on its head, and looks at man as an oppressor of the natural world instead of the other way around.

Levine’s arguemnt is a bit subtler than it would seem from this quote only in that he them proceeds to argue that the Left is, in a sense, intellectually at war with itself. On the one hand are the scientistic, utopian impulses born of the French Revolution, and on the other are the technologically anti-progressive tendencies of the environmental movement:

Indeed, writ large, the environmental movement aims to repeal the modern way of life. At its most ambitious, it seeks to curb industrialism and consumerism, to make the human experience less artificial and more “authentic” (or, to employ the favored buzzword of the day, “organic”), to emphasize the simple and the local, to reduce the scale of human ambition.

Never mind that, in contrast to the political currency of scientific denialism in the GOP, such notions are only expressed by a fringe within a fringe of the left. The mere fact that you can imagine someone on the left taking that position means that it is a position of the left. Of course, it doesn’t help Levine’s case that even for those who take this position, it hardly signifies a rejection of the efficacy of the scientific method as a path to scientific inquiry. Even this radical position can only be characterized as “anti-science” if one accepts Levine’s highly dubious notion that being pro-science entails the promotion of unrestrained exploitation of the Earth and her natural resources with no concern for long-term sustainability.

But what about the so-trivial-it’s-hardly-worth-mentioning argument that destruction of our species’ ecosystem places the future of humanity in jeopardy?

There is no question that for some, especially in Europe, the obsession with climate change is a way to avoid thinking about serious geopolitical problems, particularly the threat of radical Islam. Rather than marshalling modernity to defend itself, this obsession allows Western elites to persist in a silly and feckless pseudo-moralism. Instead of looking to America for leadership and protection, it allows them to blame America for its strength and its confidence. And for some on the left, too, the obsession is a way to stir up the kind of crisis atmosphere necessary for some pet causes and ideas to become politically plausible.

It’s the Islamofascism, silly. Concern for the environment is anti-science because liberals should be worried about radical Moslems instead. I really wish there were a way of presenting Levine’s argument in a fashion that doesn’t come off as such an obvious non-sequitor and so transparent a red herring. But you can’t put lipstick on a pig, as they say, and that’s pretty much what Levine’s argument boils down to. Environemntalism is anti-science because liberals should be worried about the brown people with funny accents coming to kill them instead. Wow.

The final section of Levine’s essay purports to show that there is a conflict between science and liberal ideas about “equality.” What’s most peculiar about the paragraphs that follow, however, are a striking dearth of… well, science. Here is a typical paragraph:

Liberalism’s creation myth—that society’s natural history begins with unconnected individuals—allows for an internally consistent case for equality, but it surely bears no connection to the actual history of humanity. As the philosopher David Hume put it, “men are necessarily born in a family-society at least.” Conservatives, beginning especially with Edmund Burke, have been harsh critics of this terribly implausible liberal tale of beginnings. And in our time most on the left don’t take it very seriously either.

If that paragraph strikes you as rich in political philosophy and lacking in references to scientific literature it’s because that’s what this entire section consists of. Musings centered on Locke, Kant, Hume and Rawls may be of great interest to a student of political philosophy but their applicability to modern science seems tangental at best. It is only when Levine turns his attention to the issue of eugenics (and abortion and stem cell research) that a he can posit a dubious connection between liberal’s embrace of “equality” and their supposed disdain for scientific developments in biology that make equality a less attainable goal:

The American left seeks to be both the party of science and the party of equality. But in the coming years, as the biotechnology revolution progresses, it will increasingly be forced to confront the powerful tension between these two aspirations. In some instances, as apparently in the stem cell debate, it will be possible to avert the difficult choice (though even doing this will require a commitment to equality sufficient to elicit the necessary scientific creativity for a solution). In other instances, a choice will be called for, and the character of the left will heavily depend upon the choice it makes.

So we approach an article that makes bold claims about the uneasy relationship between the Left and “science.” What we come away with, though, is little more than a muddle of vaguely connected ideas, conflation between Science as an explanatory framework and a proposed normative quality derived from the enthusiasm of early Enlightenment thinkers, the mandatory warnings about the threat of Islamic extremists, and hypothetical speculation about how future deelopments in technology will severly test the Left’s embrace of science and idealization of equality.

Is that the best the Right has to offer?


A lot of engineers would say that, but they’re engineers (and conservitarded/libertarian-tarded by nature) as I know all too well. It’s not necessarily resistance to science, but a demand that consumer products be tested for safety and environmental concerns (which is different than making as much bank as possible.) My own oath as a professional engineer states that I MUST put the public environment, health and safety above my own lust for profit (easier said than done sometimes.)

For a couple of years a former friend and big time wingnut sent me links to a wingnutted “science” blog which shit on pretty much everything that it didn’t get money for (like Big Oil and Big Tobacco.) I finally got sick of it by sending a caustic email to a mutual friend that political science is not a science at all and that maybe the sender should shut up about things he does not understand (or care to.) A few months later I got a huffy remark from wingnut at a dinner party about he’s a real scientist (poly sci major). I burst out laughing and remarked about his very poor math skills (no math, no science.) Let’s just say it was the beginning of the end of that friendship.

I will say that the there is resistance among the left in particular the advancements in the knowledge of human neuroscience that completely destroy the notion of a blank slate and the idea that we can defeat nature through nurture. However, the anxiety/resistance is not about the actual science but rather the application of said science.

The Honey Badger Right does not care for any science which shits on their treasured notions of self superiority (especially evilushun) and narcissism. Plus being very inflexible jackasses at times.

So leftists believe that humans should subjugate the planet and its ecosystems? News to me. Indeed humans seem to be the only animals dumb enough to shit in their own nest.


The left can be accused of displaying an overabundance of caution when it comes to such areas as genetically mdoified crops, nuclear energy and climate change. But that’s a whole different animal from claiming that the Scientific community is engaged in a large scale conspiracy to promote theories that they know are false.

The left is skeptical of man’s ability to control processes and techniques that could have potentially devastating consequences if safeguards fail and said processess get out of control. Nuclear energy is a prime example, and the recent events in Japan tend to confirm the Left’s skepticism. But the Left’s skepticism of the safety and wisdom of industrial applications of these discoveries is a far cry from skepticism of the underlying science.

@Serolf Divad:

Most times, bad engineering and finance go hand in hand aka the principle of you get what you pay for.

I can hardly improve on Serolf’s critique of this argument. I’ll just point out that it is moronic to argue that respect for ecology is to be anti-science given that ecology is a rather sophisticated science.

Recognizing the ecosystem analysis imposes legitimate constraints on some of our techniques for reengineering our world can only be fairly understood as applying science in a political context.

It is certainly fair to critique the lines of analysis used to apply ecological principles to political decisionmaking (PETA anyone?). However, both politics and the scientific method invites such critiques.

The basic distinction that the author appears to gloss over is that the left generally refuses to allow a priori assumptions of reality to overrule consideration of scientific analysis of the state of the world and the impacts of human action. PETA types may be one of the few exceptions to this generalization that I am aware of.

The right (at least as reflected in American politics) appears to be infested with this failing.

the new way of thinking—anti-traditional, egalitarian, liberationist, progressive, highly rationalized, and always forward-looking

Actually, wasn’t so new. The English had a pretty egalitarian thing going before the Norman Conquest, if I am not mistaken.

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