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The “liberal war on science” reappears as a media topic

A Politico commentary and a Daily Show report play on a reversal of routine audience expectations.

A supposed Democratic war on science has become an occasional topic for writers seeking man-bites-dog stories—news that grabs attention by upending conventional wisdom. Everybody has heard of the alleged Republican war on science. A titillating inversion instead portrays Democrats disrespecting established fact. The latest—“Democrats have a problem with science, too,” from Politico on 1 June—finds itself complemented by some slapstick seriousness on Comedy Central: the five-minute “An outbreak of liberal idiocy,” starring the fake-news correspondent Samantha Bee.

The clip's satire target is vaccine antiscience. Bee exploits the inversion, first by professing smug certainty that the perpetrators come from the political right, then—after being set straight by Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia—by overreacting with slapstick alarm that at one point has her in a hazmat suit trying to cordon off every Manhattan Starbucks with yellow crime-scene tape. A serious message emerges from the slapstick antics. Bee explains knowingly, and preposterously, to Offit that “every scientific fact has a counterfact that is true for other people.” Offit replies, “The good news about vaccines is that they're not a belief system, they're an evidence-based system.” At the end, Offit laments, “I think, sadly, that the only way that this gets better is when we start to see more and more outbreaks.” Bee sums up: “So there is a cure for science denial. Once Florida is under water, and we all have polio, it'll be better.”

The Politico piece comes just when the New York Times front page, joining other media, is emphasizing the potential election-day consequences for Democratic candidates who fail to oppose President Obama's initiative for power-plant emissions reductions—measures required, the president says, because of what climate science reveals. The commentary's author, Tara Haelle, offers the usual man-bites-dog inversion: “[G]iven the objections to climate science and evolution heard so often from the right, articles lamenting those anti-science views remain commonplace. Less common, though, are those pointing out the donkey in the room: that, when it comes to certain issues, Democrats, too, conveniently ignore science or promote agendas that contradict the scientific consensus.”

Haelle charges that the left harbors, and operates on, fears of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), chemicals, and nuclear power. She emphasizes that seeing the problem often requires looking at the state level:

The most publicized anti-GMO bill, California’s Proposition 37, was officially supported by the California Democratic Party and officially opposed by the California Republican Party. If you look at the sponsors of the various anti-GMO bills making their way through state legislatures—I’ve looked up every one—the vast, vast majority of sponsors are Democrats, with just a few Republicans sprinkled in. Even at the national level, anti-GMO sentiment is dominated by Democrats.

She uses a name for the irrational fear of chemicals: chemophobia. Concerning nuclear power, she cites Democrats' stymieing of the Yucca Mountain waste repository and notes the strong antinuclear positions of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. She perceives substantial antivaccine sentiment on the political left.

A few pieces appeared on this topic last year too. As discussed in this venue, in November the Atlantic published “The Republican Party isn't really the anti-science party” by Mischa Fisher, a former Republican science-policy staffer and legislative director in the House of Representatives. He argued that antiscience has been defined using a limited set of issues, placing the right wing and the religious in an unfair light. A commentary appeared soon in Salon, dismissing the Atlantic piece as “false equivalence.”

At Scientific American, there was “The liberals' war on science: How politics distorts science on both ends of the spectrum.” And at the liberal magazine Mother Jones, Chris Mooney himself—the observer most strongly associated with the phrase “Republican war on science”—published the March 2013 piece “There's no such thing as the liberal war on science.”


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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