New York Times reporter Eduardo Porter has an excellent piece about how ideology shapes our embrace/rejection of science. The left loves to harangue about the "anti-science" right when in fact the left participates just as much in the same anti-science behavior, and the left's anti-science behavior is every bit as destructive.
“The left is turning anti-science,” Marc Andreessen, the creator of Netscape who as a venture capitalist has become one of the most prominent thinkers of Silicon Valley, told me not long ago.
He was reflecting broadly about science and technology. His concerns ranged from liberals’ fear of genetically modified organisms to their mistrust of technology’s displacement of workers in some industries. “San Francisco is an interesting case,” he noted. “The left has become reactionary.”
Still, liberal biases may be most dangerous in the context of climate change, the most significant scientific and technological challenge of our time. For starters, they stand against the only technology with an established track record of generating electricity at scale while emitting virtually no greenhouse gases: nuclear power.
Only 35 percent of Democrats, compared with 60 percent of Republicans, favor building more nuclear power plants, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.
It is the G.O.P. that is closer to the scientific consensus. According to a separate Pew poll of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 65 percent of scientists want more nuclear power too.
He goes on to note:
Research suggests that better scientific knowledge will not be sufficient, on its own, to overcome our biases. Neither will it be mostly about improving education in STEM fields. To defeat our scientific phobias and taboos will require understanding how the findings of science and their consequences fit into the cultural makeup of both liberals and conservatives.
Explaining in more detail:
It is not hard to figure out the biases. People on the right tend to like private businesses, which they see as productive job creators. They mistrust government. It’s not surprising they will play down climate change when it seems to imply a package of policies that curb the actions of the former and give a bigger role to the latter.
On the left, by contrast, people tend to mistrust corporations — especially big ones — as corrupt and destructive. These are the institutions bringing us both nuclear power and genetically modified agriculture.
“When science is aligned with big corporations the left immediately, intuitively perceives the technology as not benefiting the greater good but only benefiting the corporation,” said Matthew Nisbet, an expert on the communication of science at Northeastern University.
So when assessing the risks of different technological options, the left finds the risk of nuclear energy looming the highest, regardless of contrary evidence.
This doesn’t affect only beliefs about climate change and energy policy. The research identified similar distortions in people’s beliefs about the scientific consensus on the consequences of allowing concealed handguns. Biases also color beliefs in what science says and means across a range of other issues.
In the context of climate change, this heuristic presents an odd problem. It suggests that attitudes about climate change have little to do with education and people’s understanding of science.
Fixing it won’t require just better science. Eliminating the roadblocks against taking substantive action against climate change may require somehow dissociating the scientific facts from deeply rooted preferences about the world we want to live in, on both sides of the ideological divide.
And it is the last sentence that is key. How do we do that! It seems to me we have to create spaces for productive conversations. No matter how emotionally satisfying it may be to engage in tribal disdain for those of another tribe for being "anti-science," it is precisely this behavior that entrenches those we may wish to persuade. And the glaring truth is that very very few of us are pro-science. We are pro-ideology and pro-heuristics, and happy to embrace science when it meets these prior concerns. The reality is that there are multiple ways to frame an agenda. So another piece of the puzzle is to enter the mind of opponents and to figure out how to frame concerns in a way that resonates with things they value. But research shows, unsurprisingly, that we nearly always attempt persuasion from the angle that is most persuasive for us, projecting our values on to others. It usually has the effect of driving the opponent in further away.
I think the answer lies with these considerations. I didn't say it was an easy answer. What thoughts do you have?