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Posted by on Mar 5, 2013 in Bioethics, Debate, Politics, Science | 8 comments

Chris Mooney on left-wing technophobia

Chris Mooney argues, in effect, that there is a false equivalency if we think that people who tend to be on the political Left (for which the term “liberal” is often used broadly in the US) are just as technophobic and suspicious of science as people on the Right. I’m sure he’s correct about this: there is not as much left-wing as right-wing anti-science and technophobic thinking. If Michael Shermer actually made a claim to the contrary, then he has at least exaggerated his point.

However, Mooney himself identifies various views that are popular on the Left of politics, perhaps more so than on the Right. This is the case with the anti-vaccination movement, for example, at least according to Mooney (I have no reason to doubt his accuracy on this detail).

So yes, we probably don’t find as much anti-science and technophobic thinking on the Left as on the Right… but there is still a lot more of it on the Left than we should be happy with. Also, it tends to follow different patterns, distinct from the right-wing versions. So it is worth identifying and examining the phenomenon, even if it turns out that Shermer exaggerated somewhat in the piece that Mooney is replying to. I’ve certainly found in my own work in bioethics that the Left is pretty much as resistant as the Right to a range of innovations, such as assisted reproduction of various kinds (though for different reasons).

As always, I warn against the careless of use of such terms as “liberal” and “conservative”, as each of these can cover a range of positions. Of course, the same applies to “left-wing”, “right-wing”, “the Left”, “the Right”, and so on. We need to be aware that these are all rather slippery and vague, and that we might be forced to define our terms more rigorously to make progress in a conversation. For example, I doubt that much of the opposition to IVF and surrogacy on the Left comes from people who’d called themselves “liberals”. They are more likely to be Marxists, feminists, etc., of various kinds, and to be quite suspicious of much liberal political theory.

In any event, although Mooney makes a good point, that the Right is probably worse than the Left in its general level of technophobic and anti-science thinking, the situation is complicated. The fact that someone identifies as being on “the Left” or as “liberal” is certainly no guarantee of an optimistic or even entirely rational approach to science and technology.

  • Edward Gemmer

    The vaccination stuff is interesting. We value facts and science, and we also value self-determination. Especially as skeptics, the idea that I should inject something in myself or my child just because someone tells me to gives me pause. So maybe we should do a better job promoting vaccines.

  • Thanny

    Just because someone tells you to? Do you have any idea how ridiculous that characterization of vaccination sounds? There’s nothing wrong with the promotion of vaccines. I challenge you to provide a single example of any health-related official advocating vaccination via “just because I say so”.

    The problem is the pandemic of anti-vaccination nonsense, which is definitely more associated with the political left. As distinct from liberalism, which entails rational thought – something that precludes slandering the most effective form of medicine ever invented.

  • Edward Gemmer

    Well of course they don’t say “because I say so.” However, there is a current of it is expected and must be followed or else. There is some info presented, but really not much. I know with the birth of my latest kid you really aren’t given a lot of information about it, nor are you in much condition to think about it, either.

  • Interesting as far as it goes, but Mooney does seem to try to draw universal conclusions from the rather unique political culture of the USA. I rather doubt that political conservatives in other countries are, for example, anywhere near as influenced by religion as they are there.

    It also doesn’t help that the article uses wholly idiosyncratic US notions of ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘liberal’, and the uniquely skewed US notion of a political spectrum. For the rest of the world, the fact that the Obama regime has no problem with nuclear power does not mean that ‘the left’ is ok with it! On the whole, left wing and environmental groups are deeply suspicious or downright hostile towards it – to the point, some of us would say, of irrationality. Likewise with GMOs.

    Mooney’s claim that these are less important issues on which to be wrong than, say, climate change strikes me as odd, given that rational attitudes towards alternative energy and perhaps carbon recapture will be required to combat that danger. One cannot be only benignly or trivially irrational about climate change while steadfastly refusing even to consider some of the tools are out disposal to fix (or even survive) it.

  • “I’ve certainly found in my own work in bioethics that the Left is pretty much as resistant as the Right to a range of innovations, such as assisted reproduction of various kinds (though for different reasons).”

    When I was a college student (in the US) my very left wing professor ranted against assisted reproduction as the capitalist exploitation of the creation of life, etc etc

  • RussellBlackford

    Yes, exactly the sort of thing.

  • shanepbrady

    One issue I have with Mooney and his drumbeat about the anti-science right, is that he can’t seem to get his mind around the anti-science left of the 60’s and 70’s. It’s as if since it didn’t happen during his lifetime, he can’t accept it.

  • The only suspicion of ‘science’ that I know of on the right-wing side comes from those who regard it as a challenge to their religion; and that’s really a separate issue. Left-wingers have shown themselves to be just as suspicious of science — if not more so — when it threatens their deeply-held convictions about gender parity, or environmental apocalypse.