Is There Such a Thing As an Anti-Science Left? An Interview with Eugenie Scott Part Two

Eugenie Scott accepts the AHA's Lifetime Achievement Award in June 2014.

Clay Farris Naff’s interview with Eugenie Scott, former executive director of the National Center for Science Education and recipient of the 2014 American Humanist Association Lifetime Achievement Award, continues below. Click here to read part one. We are all well aware of the threat to the integrity of science teaching and research from the religious right. But, you know, it’s nearly twenty years since Paul R. Gross and Norman Levitt published Higher Superstition, and I wonder what your view is of threats to the integrity of science from the anti-science left.

Eugenie Scott: I think it’s overdrawn. Higher Superstition was focused on a very narrow slice of university professors, constructivism (in the negative sense), and postmodernism. Really, the postmodernists are a concern for universities and less of a concern for the public as a whole, because these ideas have not taken root in society in general. Who cares what a professor of literature thinks, anyway? Sorry, but they are marginal to society. That’s not their perspective, but that’s what the real world is like.

I think there’s a lot of confusion about the so-called anti-scientific left. I don’t really see one. Every two years the National Research Council surveys the American public on attitudes toward science and what they find is: we love science! There’s no such thing as “anti-science.” We just don’t like this science or that science. That’s the distinction we need to understand. Let me bring this to a specific instance: the anti-vaccine movement. It appears on both the Right and the Left, but looking at the Left specifically, it certainly has been influential in the negative sense.

Scott: The anti-vaccine movement is not really a lefty kind of thing. If you ask people, “Why are you not vaccinating your kids?” it gets down to something exceedingly basic: “I don’t want my kid to be harmed.” It’s really a matter of love for your kid, worry that your kid is going to be harmed by something you don’t really understand. To me this is the foundational aspect of the so-called anti-vax movement, and I can be totally sympathetic. It’s not an unnatural feeling, and it’s often intertwined with something else considered part of the Left: suspicion of Big Pharma.

You know the old expression, even paranoids have enemies? Big Pharma has done some really nasty things in the past. So, if you’re suspicious about what the big pharmaceutical company is telling you, this is not unreasonable; we’ve had plenty of examples of an industry hiding danger from the public for its own gain (“Don’t worry about tobacco” being one of them.) I don’t think Big Pharma is actually a left-wing concern, although the Left tends to be a little more suspicious of industry than the political right. You’re saying that it comes down to a concern for one’s kid. But isn’t that just the sort of concern that an evangelical parent has about their child being taught evolution? They don’t want their kid to go to hell. We don’t think there’s a reasonable basis for that evangelical parent’s fear, and we have pretty good reason to think the refusal to vaccinate is unreasonable. Aren’t they both irrational fears?

Scott: No, no, they are rational fears. They may not be accurate fears, but they are not irrational. There is a difference between reasonable and logical, but let’s not go too far into the weeds over definitions. It’s totally reasonable not to want your kid to get sick. But I think understanding the premises is very important.

The evidence shows that kids are much more likely to get sick if they don’t get the inoculation than if they do. But then you run into the difficulty of innumeracy. People really don’t understand probability. Fundamentally, science denial comes back to an emotional or ideological component. I think the anti-vax one is the hardest to deal with because there are so many threads. It’s relatively easy with evolution, because the ideological foundation of anti-evolutionism is, of course, Christianity.

With climate change it’s a little bit more complex, but there is an ideological foundation for that too. It’s not primarily religion, it’s primarily political conservatism. But digging a little deeper, it’s things like American exceptionalism; things like American individualism; it’s distrust of big government; that “nobody’s gonna tell me what to do” kind of American tradition.

And then there’s the American idea that the consequences are unacceptable.  It’s exactly the same with evolution. If evolution is true, then there’s no God, so evolution can’t possibly be true. No amount of data is ever to convince you that evolution is true. And this is the same thing with climate change. If climate change is taking place, then we have to give all these powers to the government, so it’s got to be just a liberal plot because I cannot accept the powerful central government. And then there’s the libertarian piece of it: if climate change is true, then we’re going to have to have some constraints on capitalism and on the carbon producing industries—and that’s unacceptable if you’re libertarian.

George Soros calls libertarians free-market fundamentalists. It’s a wonderful phrase. Are there fundamentalists on the Left?

Scott:  Anti-vax is different, and anti-GMO is different. They’re much more nuanced positions. Anti-GMO is the most baroque of anti-science positions, and it’s the one that’s usually pulled out when people refer to the anti-science left. I’m a lefty, and I think we should be very careful about genetically modified organisms. Not because I think that putting genes into plants necessarily is going to make them different from normal selective breeding. I know about genetics; that’s not my objection. Although I don’t think the crossbreeding is going to get you florescent genes.

But sticking genes in from different phyla—you cannot honestly say that’s the same thing as selective breeding. Setting those nuances aside, it’s not the science of GMO that makes me cautious about them, it’s the consequences. GMO seeds, for example, are increasing the difficulty of Third World farmers to produce crops. They are not allowed to save seed from generation to generation, which they were always able to do before. You have to buy your seed every year from Monsanto. You’re stuck using Monsanto’s procedures for care, which actually do not really reduce pesticide use depending on what kind of crop you’re talking about, and can increase water use. Water scarcity is a major problem. You have all these economic and social issues that are generated by the industry of GMO crops. I don’t think that it’s anti-science to say, hold on—there are practices associated with this technology that we really need to examine carefully. You’ve just come off a podcast for this interview. Broadly speaking what’s your sense of the proliferation of new media on the views of younger people in society about science. We are awash in information; some of it is reliable and some of it is highly unreliable. How do you see it?

Scott: Well, I think more information is wonderful. Can’t complain about that. What the data seem to show is that people tend to be very selective about what they listen to. They tend to listen to things that reinforce their own ideologies. It’s more comfortable, it’s easier. I think that’s too bad.

We’re of a comparable age so we both remember Walter Cronkite and the evening news. Basically, the networks were how all of us got the news. They did tend to be pretty middle-of-the-road; they didn’t take a strong ideological stand for or against things. That said, whether you were liberal or conservative or totally uninterested in politics, you still watched the evening news. That’s where you got the majority of your information. Now you can get exactly the news that suits your particular political or ideological point of view. If you’re a conservative Christian you can listen to conservative Christian news. If you’re a liberal humanist, you can listen to the Humanist Hour podcast! I think we’ve lost something there.

Can I confess something? Of course!

Scott: I’ve spent a fair amount of time in hotels. I don’t spend much time at home watching TV because I don’t have that much ironing to do. But when I’m in a hotel room, I get up in the morning and I turn on Fox News. It makes the dress really fast, because it’s just so infuriating. But I think it’s really important to do that, because it does give you a window on a different universe. And, man, is that a different universe!

I think it is important for us to be exposed to ideas that we are not wedded to. Critical thinking has to do with taking in information and evaluating. The evaluation part is something a lot of us have given ourselves a pass on. We agree with the results that we hear on our favorite programs. We don’t actually ask, is that really true? How do I find out whether that’s true or not? And that’s what critical thinking is all about. It’s a basic idea that should inform all other human endeavors. We tend not to do that. It’s so easy to wrap ourselves in views that we share, and that makes us lazy. You mentioned at the outset that you’re going to shift your focus somewhat to issues of skepticism. In what way do you plan to pursue them?

Scott: A friend of mine gave me some very good advice when I announced my retirement. He said you don’t want to accept any invitations for at least six months. He should’ve said a year! People ask me to sit on boards, and ask me to do this and do that. I’ve been fobbing people off. I think it’s a very smart thing to just give myself a chance to see how this retirement thing feels.  That said, I’m already on a few boards. One is the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the old CSICOP. I’ve been on their advisory board for a couple of years now. The issues that CSI is concerned about are certainly issues that I’m concerned about. I may be spending more time with that movement.

I’ve been asked to blog for some skeptical organizations, and I’ve tentatively accepted. I’m not sure exactly how this will all work out. There are personal things that I need to do as well. I don’t think I’m going to be bored. No, I’m sure you won’t. Thank you so very much.

Read part one of this interview here.