Let he who is without Science Denial cast the first stone

The Washington Post recently ran an article on how political affiliation and level of religious belief affect support for, or suspicion of, the scientific consensus on various subjects. In it they refer to research by Dale Kahan to argue/imply that opposition to science is primarily driven by conservative ideology.

For example, they have these three very attractive charts, showing that the difference between people of high and low religiosity is small compared to the difference between conservatives and liberals when it comes to global warming,




and Stem Cell research:

However, as so often happens, their article on causes of political bias ends up displaying some pretty impressive political bias. Unsurprisingly, this bias tends to be flattering towards those who share their political beliefs, and damning of those who don’t.

Firstly, look at those charts again. When looking at on the left-right axis, your eye is naturally drawn to compare the two extremes – to compare the most right wing to the most left wing (especially as the line is monotonic). You note the large difference in height between the leftmost data points and the rightmost, compare it to the relatively small difference between the high and low religiosity lines. The former difference is bigger than the latter difference, so political opinions must be more important than religious ones.

… or so the chart leads us to believe. However, this is hugely deceptive. As you can see, there are 5 tick marks on the horizontal axis, the measure was created from questions using 5 and 7 options, and there are a very large number of little vertical lines. This means they’re using a relatively fine measure of political ideology: they differentiate moderate conservatives from ordinary conservatives from highly conservative people. By doing this, they increase how extreme the extremes are, which increases that vertical difference our eye is naturally drawn to. With religion, however, they only admit of two categories, high and low. Perhaps if they had disambiguated more, so the categories ranged from “More religious than the Hasidim” to “More atheist than Dawkins”, we would have seen more spread between those two lines. As it is, the charts suppress these differences, reducing the apparent effect of religiosity.

That’s not the only problem with the article. The climate change and evolution questions seem pretty good, but the stem cell question does not show what they think it does.

“All in all, do you favor or oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research”

Now, in general opposing research for science does seem like prima facie evidence that you’re in some sense anti-science. But not here! There are two other factors at play which conflate the issue.

The first is that this is as much a moral issue as a scientific one. Thinking that stem cell research is immoral doesn’t necessarily mean you disagree with any of the scientific findings, due to the is-ought gap. In the same way that opposing nazi research on cancer (which used a variety of immoral techniques) doesn’t mean you think their conclusions were factually wrong, you can think stem cell research is morally wrong but the conclusions factually correct. Or, to use a clarifying contemporary example, suppose the question instead asked,

“All in all, do you favor or oppose federal funding for methods of treating homosexuality”

My intuition, which I suspect you share, is that the line would slope in the opposite direction – lefties would be more opposed than righties. This isn’t necessarily be because they are anti-science – maybe they simply think we are better off not knowing how to treat homosexuality, or better off not even thinking about the possibility. This moral belief doesn’t, however, mean they disagree with conservatives and scientists on any factual issue.

But there is another, even bigger, problem with this question. It doesn’t just ask about the morality of stem cell research – it asks about federal funding for that research. Conservatives are well known for opposing federal funding of things in general. Yet this research suggests that consistently applying the conservative rule “oppose federal funding of things in general” is suddenly evidence of being anti-science. You would be branded anti-science by this question even if your thought process was

“I think the federal government is very bad at research – it will be inefficiently run, overly politicized, and poorly directed – so I don’t want it to mess up stem cell research. Stem cell research is far too useful and exciting to trust to the government.”

Yet surely such a person should be considered pro-science, not anti-science!

Indeed, it seems that overlooking this issue, and conflating opposition to the state with opposition to science, is a clear sign of political bias on the part of the author. They choose a question which almost by design proved conservatives were anti-science, not by actually measuring the truth, but by simply re-defining opposition to science to include the political opinions they oppose. David Friedman once wrote about something similar – a study which, while claiming to prove that right-wing people were authoritarians, really just defined authoritarianism as ‘respects right-wing authorities’.

Ok, so their choice of data visualization technique was perhaps misleading, and the stem cell funding question was awful. But the other two questions look pretty solid, right?

Perhaps not. It’s well known – or at least widely believed – that conservatives disproportionately disbelieve in evolution and global warming. So if you wanted to prove that conservatives were anti-science, you’d pick those two questions, confident that your prejudices would be confirmed.

Yet there is much more to science than evolution and global warming. There many issues where there’s a scientific consensus at least as strong as that on global warming, yet some people still disagree. For example,

  1. Astrology is nonsense
  2. Lasers are **not** condensed sound waves
  3. The earth orbits the sun

In fact, I would say that science is far more unequivocal on these issues than on global warming – probably around as certain as that evolution is true.

Yet on all these issues, Republicans are more likely to hold the scientific view that Democrats. And there are many more similar examples. If I wanted to make the same charts, but make Democrats look bad, I could easily “prove” that Democrats are morons who believe the sun orbits the earth.

The Washington Post article does contains a homage to data:

But why opine on all this an un-grounded way — we need data.

Unfortunately we need more than data – we also need rigorous statistical techniques.

It would be unfair to blame the original researcher. In his article, he also includes a chart on nuclear power, where conservatives have the more scientific view. Mysteriously, the chart that was flattering to conservatives doesn’t make it into the Washington Post article. Ironically, it turns out the Washington Post article was right – politics really is the mindkiller. It’s just hard to spot when you’re the one getting killed.


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