Scientific American addresses denialism in politics – says it jeopardizes democracy

Scientific American evaluates the candidates on their answers to Sciencedebate 2012 and evaluates ideology-based denialism as a whole:

Today’s denial of inconvenient science comes from partisans on both ends of the political spectrum. Science denialism among Democrats tends to be motivated by unsupported suspicions of hidden dangers to health and the environment. Common examples include the belief that cell phones cause brain cancer (high school physics shows why this is impossible) or that vaccines cause autism (science has shown no link whatsoever). Republican science denialism tends to be motivated by antiregulatory fervor and fundamentalist concerns over control of the reproductive cycle. Examples are the conviction that global warming is a hoax (billions of measurements show it is a fact) or that we should “teach the controversy” to schoolchildren over whether life on the planet was shaped by evolution over millions of years or an intelligent designer over thousands of years (scientists agree evolution is real). Of these two forms of science denialism, the Republican version is more dangerous because the party has taken to attacking the validity of science itself as a basis for public policy when science disagrees with its ideology.

I agree. We’ve debated on this site the prevalence of denialism on the left vs. the right, but I think it’s a distraction from the central point which I think is being argued most effectively by Jonathan Haidt. That is, humans are not rational beings and most uses of reason are to rationalize positions that we arrived at by intuitive means. That means all ideology is going to strain your relationship with science. Humans tend to hold positions based on shortcuts, or heuristics, that lead them to what feels right, then they use reason to dig in to those positions. It is extremely difficult, and uncommon, for people to change their minds based on reason and evidence. So, any time you have political ideology as the source of people’s positions, you will encounter anti-science when those ideologies conflict with the science. Just like right-wingers have a big problem with climate change and evolution, left-wingers have a big problem with a kind of food religion, GMO and toxin paranoia, and other health and environmental denialism. I think the author here, Shawn Otto, has it exactly right.

His argument to tie the problem into encroaching authoritarianism might be more of a stretch:

By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. Policy is determined by the loudest voices, reducing us to a world in which might makes right—the classic definition of authoritarianism.

I don’t know if authoritarianism is the destiny of a population that rejects science. Surely we are at greater risk of manipulation by those that control the message most effectively. More likely, we would be easily manipulated into supporting an oligarchy or plutocracy of those at the top of society who can manage media and politicians through money and influence, or at worst we might get a kakistocracy if the likes of the tea party come to power. Otto is right, however, when empiricism and facts are no longer important, the likelihood that the unqualified, the unprincipled, and the ignorant coming to power will increase.