Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks
Miscalibrated Internet Receptor Stalks
Illustration for article titled US science denial and partisan/ideological identity

Matt Novak penned a Gizmodo article which ran there on Sunday and then today on io9. And this article is grievously in error and I think it’s a failing of a science website to repeat errors, even if they’re errors said by Neil deGrasse Tyson.


io9's Ria Misra, Robbie Gonzalez and Annalee Newitz have all recently written about some Pew Research-conducted US polling over the past few years and what it has shown about US public knowledge about scientific knowledge. But seemingly unreported by Gawker Media was a Pew Research meta-analysis which attempted to break down US attitudes about science denial by several demographic groupings. This meta-analysis is the closest thing there is to a definitive answer for whether “science denial” happens more from the left, the middle, or the right. So I’ll run through the questions that have a scientific answer (IOW, they’re not questions about ethics or policies) and see which groups have the highest levels of denial on these questions.

Question 1 and 2: Is it getting hot in here and do scientists know?

Is the Earth getting warmer because of human activity, or because of natural patterns in Earth’s environment, or is there no solid evidence that Earth is getting warmer?

Do scientists generally agree, or not agree, that the Earth is getting warmer due to human activity?


The scientifically-accurate answers here are that Earth is getting warmer because of human activity and that scientists generally agree about this. The US general public varies significantly on their ability to give those correct answer and this variation is strongly driven by partisan and ideological identity.

Most science denial: conservative Republicans, strongly

Question 3: Can humans just keep making humans?

Will the growing world population be a major problem because there won’t be enough food and resources, or will it not be a major problem because humans will find a way to stretch natural resources?


The scientifically-accurate answer here is that human population now is a major problem and that making more humans won’t make that problem simpler. Moderates and liberals (of both Democratic and Republican partisan identity) more-often-than-not agree with this. Conservatives do not.

Most science denial: conservative Republicans

Questions 4 and 5: Did humans evolve and do scientists know?

Have humans and other living things evolved over time or have they existed in their present form since the beginning of time?

Do scientists generally agree or not agree that humans have evolved over time?

The scientifically-accurate answer here is that organisms have evolved over time and scientists generally agree on that. The ability of the general public to agree with both of those decreases among conservatives and Republicans.


Most science denial: conservative Republicans

Question 6: Do scientists agree about the Big Bang?

Do scientists generally believe the universe was created in a single, violent event or are scientists divided in their views about how the universe was created?


The scientifically-accurate answer is that most scientists agree that the current spacetime had some origin. Conservatives and Republicans do not agree with this as much.

Most science denial: conservative Republicans

Question 7: Should vaccines be mandatory?

Should parents be able to decide not to vaccinate their children or should all children be required to be vaccinated?


Most immunological research strongly supports a vaccinate-everyone strategy for public health. Conservatives and Republicans are more likely to think that parents should be able to decide whether their children should be vaccinated.

Most science denial: conservative Republicans

Question 8: Are vaccines safe?

Are childhood vaccinations such as MMR generally safe or not safe for healthy children?


The medical scientific consensus supports the general safety of childhood vaccinations. This is where things finally change format. There’s no partisan difference on whether Americans think that vaccines are safe: Republicans and Democrats both feel the same way. There is an ideological difference: moderates agree with the scientific consensus the most.

Most science denial: conservatives and liberals

Questions 9 and 10: Are GMO foods safe and do scientists know?

Is it generally safe or unsafe to eat genetically modified foods?

Do scientists have a clear, or not clear, understanding of the health effects of GM crops?


The scientific answers here are safe and a clear understanding. Americans in general don’t agree; there’s no strong partisan or ideological trend to who doesn’t agree.

Most science denial: everyone

Question 11: Are pesticide-grown foods safe?

Is it generally safe or unsafe to eat foods grown with pesticides?

The scientific answer here is safe. Most Americans do not agree, but Democrats do not agree more than Republicans. No major ideological trend is present


Most science denial: Democrats


Polling suggests that, on most issues that have some kind of scientific consensus to them, Americans who identify as conservative Republicans are more likely to disagree with that consensus. Public safety issues are where that trend breaks down. Both liberals and conservatives show slightly more concern about vaccination safety than moderates, Democrats are more concerned about pesticides than anyone else, and Americans have some serious issues with knowing about GM food that transcend partisan and ideological differences


Why do Dr. Tyson and Mr. Novak think otherwise?

I don’t know for sure and I’m not going to pretend like I can read their minds. But there’s a long-standing Internet belief about American attitudes towards science which argues that liberals are just as likely to be wrong about GM food/vaccines as conservatives are about evolution/climate. An io9 article penned by Robbie Gonzalez from 3 years ago linked to an essay by a libertarian that stated the same belief. But this belief isn’t based on much evidence. It’s probably a wrong belief, although of course we should keep acquiring more data to make sure.


Terrifying postscript

Upon further reflection I think this means that Bill Maher was actually right about something.

“Let’s not pretend that Democrats and Republicans equally deny science,” Maher said.


Somehow a comic knows more about American public acceptance of science knowledge than a science communicator. o_O

top image from the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy

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