Leave it to a scientist to finally explain how to kill off bad writing.
In his new book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Steven Pinker basically outdoes Strunk and White. The celebrated Harvard cognitive scientist and psycholinguist explains how to write in clear, "classic" prose that shares valuable information with clarity but never condescension. And he tells us why so many of the tut-tutting grammar "rules" that we all think we're supposed to follow—don't split infinitives, don't use the passive voice, don't end a sentence with a preposition—are just nonsense.
"There are so many bogus rules in circulation that kind of serve as a tactic for one-upmanship," explains Pinker on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. "They're a way in which one person can prove that they're more sophisticated or literate than someone else, and so they brandish these pseudo-rules."
Unlike past sages of style, Pinker approaches grammar from a scientific perspective, as a linguist. And that's what leads him to the unavoidable conclusion that language is never set in stone; rather, it is a tool that is constantly evolving and changing, continually adding new words and undoing old rules and assumptions. "When it comes to correct English, there's no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum," writes Pinker in The Sense of Style.
Steven Pinker. Rebecca Goldstein.
Indeed, Pinker notes with amusement in the book that in every era, there is always somebody complaining about how all the uncouth speakers of the day are wrecking the Queen's English. It's basically the linguistic equivalent of telling the kids to get off your lawn. Why does this happen? "As a language changes from beneath our feet, we feel the sands shifting and always think that it's a deterioration," explains Pinker on the podcast. "Whereas, everything that's in the language was an innovation at some point in the history of English. If you're living through the transition, it feels like a deterioration even though it's just a change."
Thus, Pinker notes that in their classic book, The Elements of Style, published in the mid-20th century, Strunk and White instructed writers not to use the verb "to contact." Look how that turned out for them.
The same framework allows Pinker to explain why so many grammatical "rules" that we all think we have to follow are, in fact, bogus. His outlook is refreshingly anti-authoritarian: You don't have to follow supposed grammar rules, he says, unless there is actually a good reason for following them.
Here, then, is a brief but highly liberating list of glorious rule-breaking activities that Pinker says you should feel free to engage in:
Do split infinitives. For Pinker, the idea that you cannot split infinitives—for example, the classic complaint that Star Trek was wrong to describe the Starship Enterprise's missionas "to boldly go where no man has gone before"; it should have been "to go boldly" or "boldly to go"—is "the quintessential bogus rule."
"No good writer in English has ever followed it consistently, if you do follow it it makes your prose much worse," Pinker explained on Inquiring Minds.
Indeed, according to Pinker, this is a rather striking case in which the alleged prohibition seems to be mostly perpetuated by urban legend or word of mouth. It doesn't even seem to be seriously asserted as a rule by any supposed style experts. "This rule kind of levitates in mid-air, there's actually no support even from the style manuals," adds Pinker.
Do use the passive voice (at the right times). We are constantly told that we need to make our verbs active, rather than relying on passive constructions. The passive, Pinker emphasizes, is a voice and not a tense: "It's the difference between 'the man bit the dog' and 'the dog was bitten by the man,'" he explains. (The latter example is passive.) In this particular example, you really don't want to use the passive voice; but according to Pinker, there are other contexts in which you very well might. "Linguistic research has shown that the passive construction has a number of indispensable functions because of the way it engages a reader's attention and memory," he writes.
One of the uses defended by Pinker involves employing the passive voice to "direct the reader's gaze." For instance, sometimes you don't need to know the name of the person who committed an action, because what really matters—what you, the writer, want to emphasize—is the action. Do we really need to know that "the cook cooked a perfect steak," or can we leave out the actor here since all we really hope to communicate is that "the steak was perfectly cooked"? Pinker has no problem with the latter construction, assuming that you're trying to focus attention on the steak rather than who cooked it.
Do begin sentences with conjunctions. Pinker also says there's absolutely nothing wrong with starting a sentence with "and," "but," "or," "also," "so," or even "because." The idea that this is an offense gets taught early on to kids, Pinker observes, as a way of preventing them from using sentence fragments.
But "whatever the pedagogical merits may be of feeding children misinformation, it is inappropriate for adults," writes Pinker. These conjunctions (Pinker calls them "coordinators") "are among the commonest coherence markers, and they may be used to begin a sentence whenever the clauses being connected are too long or complicated to fit comfortably into a single megasentence." Fragments can be an art. Run-ons a headache. And once again, you don't have to follow grammar "rules" when those rules have no actual justification.
Do end a sentence with a preposition. And there's another activity that writers are often told not to engage in. And that is ending a sentence with a preposition (see last sentence). Pinker couldn't be more scornful: "The prohibition against clause-final prepositions is considered a superstition even by the language mavens, and it persists only among know-it-alls who have never opened a dictionary or style manual to check."
Seriously: If rigidly followed, Pinker notes, this rule would have you doing silly things like turning "What are you looking at?" into "At what are you looking?" Obviously, the former is highly preferable. There are certainly times when you don't want a preposition at the end of a sentence—usually when you are discussing something serious, and ending with a preposition would make your tone seem too light—but you've got to figure this out on a case-by-case basis.
And yes, you can even use the singular "they/their/them." Pinker even argues that you can use the following construction: "No American should be discriminated against because of the color of their skin." Language Nazis would argue here that since "American" is singular, using the plural "their" is a big faux pas. But Pinker counters that Shakespeare used these "singular they" type constructions on multiple occasions, as did Jane Austen. (Merriam Webster cites the following example from Austen: "I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly.") "It's been in the language for a long time, and one can even argue that it isn't really a clash of number agreement," says Pinker. He continues:
The 'they' in those constructions—"everyone return to their seats"—is actually not really a pronoun. It's more like what a logician would call a variable. What does "everyone return to their seats" mean? It means, "for all X, X return to X's seat." And the "they" is just basically "X." And so it's not surprising that that construction is so tempting.
And there are many, many other pseudo-rules exploded in Pinker's new book. So many that we decided to ask our own Mother Jones copy editor, Ian Gordon, to comment on this article. Pinker remarks on the podcast that an overactive copy editor is what finally pushed him into writing this book, but we're proud to say Gordon was more enlightened, commenting:
I think Pinker is totally right. Many rules are stupid, especially the ones he highlights. We should understand the language deeply, not follow dumb rules blindly. That said, there's something to be said about linguistic continuity across a publication, which is part of the reason why crotchety copy editors (hi!) have jobs.
The basic outlook on language and writing from all this? You don't have to follow grammar "rules" if they don't make any sense. Some of them just don't stand up at all; others, meanwhile, are better understood as general guidelines, admitting of many important exceptions.
"It's very easy to overstate rules," says Pinker. "And if you don't explain what the basis is behind the rule, you're going to botch the statement of the rule—and give bad advice."
To listen to the full Inquiring Minds interview with Steven Pinker, you can stream below:
Bobby Jindal speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference.
At a breakfast event today, a journalist reportedly questioned Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal about whether he believes in evolution. This is pretty pertinent. Several years ago Jindal signed into law the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act. The law, according to the National Center for Science Education, "invites lessons in creationism and climate change denial." Jindal himself has said in the past that he has "no problem" if school boards want to teach creationism or intelligent design.
Jindal's response to today's question (as reported by TPM) was all too familiar. "The reality is I'm not an evolutionary biologist," he said. Jindal went on to say that while "as a father, I want my kids to be taught about evolution in their schools," he also believes that "local school districts should make decisions about what should be taught in their classroom."
The reply brings to mind numerous other Republicans saying "I'm not a scientist" (or Marco Rubio's "I'm not a scientist, man") to dodge uncomfortable questions about scientific topics like evolution and climate change. It looks an awful lot like somebody wrote a memo, doesn't it?
Here's why this "I'm not a scientist" patter represents such an indefensible dodge. Nobody expects our politicians to be scientists. With a few exceptions, like Rush Holt, we know they won't be. But it is precisely because they are not experts that we expect them to heed the consensus of experts in, er, areas in which they are not experts.
When politicians fail to do this, claiming a lack of scientific expertise is no excuse. Rather, it's the opposite: A condemnation.
That changed today, however, with Hurricane Odile—a Category 3 monster that slammed Cabo San Luca early Monday morning, only slightly weaker than its peak Category 4 strength. According to the National Hurricane Center, Odile tied a 1967 storm for the distinction of being the "the strongest hurricane to make landfall in the satellite era in the state of Baja California Sur." Capital Weather Gang's Jason Samenow adds that Odile's "size, strength, and track is a worst case scenario for this region."
At landfall, the storm had maximum sustained winds speeds of 125 miles per hour. It seems likely that it was the strongest storm on record to strike the posh resort of Cabo San Lucas: The aforementioned 1967 storm, Hurricane Olivia, took quite a different route across the Baja peninsula. It did not strengthen to its peak until it was already in the Gulf of California, between Baja and the Mexican mainland. Samenow quotes Brian McNoldy, an expert on tropical weather for Capital Weather Gang, who observes of Odile that "specifically in Cabo San Lucas, it was the most intense landfall."
The result? Here's a firsthand account from a storm chaser, Josh Morgerman, who was seeking refuge in a hotel:
[A]t maybe midnight… BOOM!!!!! The entire glass wall of the lobby EXPLODED– with glass, pieces of building, everything flying to the other end of the lobby. Like an explosion in an action movie. A hotel worker and I ducked under the reception counter– I physically grabbed his head and pushed it under the counter. Glass was everywhere– my leg gashed– blood. We crawled into the office– me, the worker, and the manager– but the ceiling started to lift up. After five minutes of debate– breathing hard like three trapped animals– we made a run for it– went running like HELL across the lobby– which is now basically just OUTSIDE– and made it to the stairwell and an interior hallway. Two nice women dressed my wound....
Here's an image of tourists huddling in a hotel stairwell:
Tourists take refuge from Hurricane Odile in a concrete resort stairwell. Victor R. Caviano/AP
As the Weather Underground's Jeff Masters points out, if there is one more Category 3 or higher hurricane this year in the Eastern Pacific, it will tie the all-time record of eight such major hurricanes in one season, set in 1992. And there's still roughly a third of the season to go.
Here's what Odile looked like yesterday, shortly before landfall:
With less than two months until the 2014 elections, the political falsehoods are rolling in. Consider the Colorado Senate race, between incumbent Democrat Mark Udall and his Republican challenger, Rep. Cory Gardner. Trying to brand himself as just as green as Udall (a longtime clean energy champion), Gardner recently ran an ad claiming that as a state senator in 2007, he "co-wrote the law to launch our state's green energy industry."
But when 9 News, Denver's NBC affiliate, fact-checked the ad, it found the law Gardner was touting didn't accomplish much at all to promote green initiatives. Asked for a statement, Gardner's campaign responded, "Cory says that he co-wrote a law 'to launch our state's green energy industry,' not that launched it.'" (The emphasis is Gardner's.) In other words, the impression given by the ad is just wrong, as the Gardner campaign winkingly admits! "Folks, we honestly do not know if we have ever seen such a frank acknowledgement of purposeful deception from an American politician," commented the local politics blog ColoradoPols. You can watch the 9 News segment here.
Gardner comes off, in this instance, as reminiscent of GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. While working for Mitt Romney in 2012, Newhouse infamously declared, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers." Gardner's cavalier response, like Newhouse's brazen statement, raises the fear that despite a voluminous growth of fact-checking in the past half decade, there's really nothing the media can do to keep politicians honest. But is that really true?
Not according to Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who has focused much of his research on employing the tools of social science to figure out why fact-checking so often fails, and what can be done to make it work better. The cynical view on fact-checking is "too negative," argues Nyhan on the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast. "I think you have to think about what politics might look like without those fact-checkers, and I think it would look worse."
Nyhan hasn't just been studying the fact-check movement; he was there at its origins. In the early 2000s, he coauthored a site called Spinsanity.com, a nonpartisan fact-checking outlet. It was the beginning of a wave: In 2003, the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania launched FactCheck.org. But the real fact-checking movement kicked into gear in the late 2000s, with the launch of PolitiFact, by far the most widely known of these outlets, as well as the 2007 launch of the Washington Post fact-checker column, now written by Glenn Kessler.
As a result, in the last few years, a huge volume of claims have been given one to four Pinocchios by the Post, or declared "True," "Pants on Fire," or somewhere in between by PolitiFact. That includes the repeated debunking of the last half-decades' mega-lies: birtherism, for instance, and claims about the Affordable Care Act creating "death panels." So what does the evidence show about this endeavor?
First the good news: Overall, the fact-checkers have reinforced the idea that reality exists, and journalists are capable of discerning what it is. That may seem obvious, but it's actually worth underscoring that we don't live in a postmodern nightmare of subjectivity. "The fact-checkers, when they rate the same content, come to the same conclusion a very high percentage of the time," says Nyhan. "So that's a good indication that they are seeing the evidence and interpreting it in a consistent way." For instance, FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and the Post's Kessler all refuted Sarah Palin's "death panel" claim; PolitiFact dubbed it the "lie of the year" in 2009.
That's not to say that fact-checkers are themselves entirely unbiased. PolitiFact in particular has been repeatedly criticized for false equivalence in how it treats the left and the right. It's just to say that they largely agree with one another, suggesting that facts are, for the most part, discernible.
The Backfire Effect
A far tougher issue, though, is whether minds change when fact-checkers make their pronouncements. On the level of individual psychology, repeated studies by Nyhan and others have shown that it is very hard to correct a misperception once it is out there in the media ether. We've previously reported on the so-called "backfire effect," discovered by Nyhan and his colleague Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter. Again and again, they've found in experiments that trying to correct certain false claims that are highly politically charged—the claim that tax cuts increase government revenue, for instance—often just doesn't work. Partisans can actually become stronger in their wrong beliefs upon encountering a refutation.
Consider the data, for instance, when Nyhan and Reifler attempted, in a classic study, to get partisans to change their minds about the tax cut claim (which they attributed to George W. Bush). In the experiment, participants were shown a fake newspaper article containing an actual George W. Bush quotation: "The tax relief stimulated economic vitality and growth and it has helped increase revenues to the Treasury." In one version of the experiment, the article then contained a correction, refuting this claim; in another version it did not. It turned out that conservatives who read the correction believed Bush's falsehood more strongly than did conservatives who never read the correction:
Backfire effect: Conservatives became more likely to believe President Bush's claim that tax cuts increase revenue after reading a correction explaining that it isn't true. Brendan Nyhan.
And that's just the beginning of the difficulties related to correcting errors and making the corrections stick in people's heads. Nyhan also notes that much research suggests that negating a claim ("the Affordable Care Act doesn't create death panels") actually has the effect of reinforcing it in our minds ("there are death panels"). "We should be pretty cautious about how high our hopes are for changing people's minds," he says. "Once those myths are out there, it's very hard to change people's minds."
Fact-Checking As Deterrence
Such are some of the reasons to question the power of fact-checking. So then why does Nyhan think a world with fact-checking in it is way better than one without it? The answer is that it's not so much about changing the minds of the partisans as it is about deterring the politicians. "They're so often the vehicle for these myths," Nyhan says. "If they know they'll be called out publicly, they may not reinforce or disseminate these myths in the first place."
So what about fact-checking as deterrence? Does it work? After all, no politician wants the campaign narrative to revolve around allegations that he or she is a liar, or detached from reality.
Mother Jones' David Corn has made the case that in the 2012 election, politicians like Mitt Romney just weren't deterred. And it may well be that on the national level, and especially on the presidential level, politicians get fact-checked so often, and fact-checkers try so hard to spread around the opprobrium, that ultimately it's a wash.
However, on the local level, this stuff seems to really matter. Nyhan and Reifler provided data to support this idea in a 2013 New America Foundation study. During the 2012 election cycle, they sent letters to 392 state legislators who had PolitiFact affiliates in their states. The letters simply noted that the politicians' statements might be fact-checked, and that there were reputational risks associated with getting a poor rating. "We sent them a lot of letters," Nyhan explains. "Some of them became very sick of hearing from us in the mail, as we sent them letter after letter, reminding them just what a significant threat fact-checking could be to them." Two other groups of legislators, of similar size, received either no letters or a "placebo" letter saying the authors were studying how accurate politicians are, but didn't bring up reputational risks or fact-checking.
The study found that the warning letters had a statistically significant effect: Legislators who received them were less likely to have their accuracy questioned by PolitiFact, or by other news sources found in a Lexis-Nexis search. Of course, it was also extremely unlikely for any legislator to be fact-checked at all. Thus, the risk declined from just under 3 percent down to 1 percent:
To Nyhan, this suggests that fact-checking can serve as a deterrent, and can be a particularly big deal in local as opposed to national races—which means it matters in 2014. Indeed, in one case, fact-checking already appears to have significantly damaged a campaign. In Alaska, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mark Begich ran an ad suggesting his opponent, former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan, had not been tough enough on sex offenders, going on to state that one of them got out of prison early and went on to commit a horrific crime—a sexual assault and double murder. But PolitiFact rated the ad's claims "pants on fire," finding that Sullivan was not responsible for the suspect's release. Begich's campaign soon pulled it off the air.
In other words, the ad itself became an issue, and Begich has had to contend with a major backlash, as well as the black eye of having to pull an ad.
To Nyhan, that's the whole point. Backfires and biases notwithstanding, there remains the potential for a prominent factual correction to cause a media furor, and, in some case, to damage a politician's reputation. Partisans may stick with their candidate, but they'll be sticking with a candidate who has been forced to play defense.
So facts work—kind of. Sometimes. Even if politicians try to avoid them.
"I think fact-checking has caused big important changes in how we cover the news now," Nyhan says, "and it's gotten especially the younger generation of reporters much more interested in going beyond that 'he-said, she-said' reporting."
To listen to the full podcast episode with Brendan Nyhan, you can stream below:
This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of a new study suggesting that religious and nonreligious individuals are equally moral, and new research on gender discrimination in job performance evaluations, particularly by men with traditional views of gender roles.
To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds viaiTunes orRSS. We are also available on Stitcher. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.
Michele Bachmann denounced "government injections" during a 2011 GOP presidential debate. She would later suggest that the HPV vaccine might cause "mental retardation."
So who's worse when it comes to ignoring and denying science, the political left or the political right?
For a long time, those wishing to claim that both sides are equally bad—we're all biased, just in different directions—have relied upon two key issues in making their case: vaccines and genetically modified foods, or GMOs. The suggestion is that these are basically the liberal equivalent of evolution denial or global-warming denial. Skeptic magazine founding publisher Michael Shermer, for instance, prominently cited resistance to GMOs in a Scientific American article last year entitled "The Liberals' War on Science." As for vaccines? In a recent segment entitled "An Outbreak of Liberal Idiocy," no less than The Daily Show suggested that vaccine denial is a left-wing scourge:
There's just one problem: Commentators seem to just assume, without evidence, that anti-science beliefs on these two issues are predominantly a liberal phenomenon. But that assumption hasn't been subjected to nearly enough scrutiny, especially in light of high profile vaccine-skeptic conservatives like Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann. The GMO issue is also politically suspicious: It is inherently conservative, in the purest sense of the word, to resist technological changes to the nature of food production (or anything else, for that matter).
And sure enough, the evidence just doesn't support the idea that vaccine denial is some special left-wing fixation—and it's barely any kinder to received wisdom on the issue of GMOs. I will demonstrate as much below, but first, let's remember why this matters.
It is very clear that there are certain major issues where there is only one correct scientific answer, and political conservatives are much more likely to deny that answer than are liberals or moderates. Conservatives have also been shown to trust scientists less than liberals or moderates do. So no wonder they also reject their most important (if sometimes inconvenient) conclusions more often.
Here are the top two hits (but by no means the only examples) of conservative science denial, followed by some hard data on public attitudes about vaccines and GMOs:
Climate change: Here, the undeniable reality is that humans are causing global warming, and polls have repeatedly shown that it is political conservatives and Republicans who deny this fact about the world. According to recent data from the Yale and George Mason projects on climate change communication, for instance, 75 percent of liberal Democrats, but only 22 percent of conservative Republicans, accept the reality that humans are causing climate change—more than a 50-point difference! Myriad other polls and studies have found something similar.
Evolution: Here, the undeniable reality is that humans share a common ancestry with the rest of life on Earth, and that the diversity of life that we witness all around us is the result of an evolutionary process. And here again, those on the right deny this reality much more than do those on the left (although notably, the gap is not as wide as it is on the climate issue). According to a late 2013 Pew study, 67 percent of Democrats, but only 43 percent of Republicans, agree that "humans and other living things have evolved over time." That's a 24-point difference. Indeed, based on these data, 48 percent of Republicans (compared to just 27 percent of Democrats) think "humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time," meaning that the GOP today is very nearly a majority creationist party.
That's a seriously big deal, given that Young Earth Creationism embraces many other kinds of science denial besides the mere rejection of evolution. Rejection of the age of Earth, for instance, and accordingly, of large swaths of physics and geology. It is a deeply anti-science ideology that extends far beyond one's views about any particular scientific issue.
So it is very natural to ask whether there is really anything parallel to this rejectionism on the modern American left, and to try to adduce examples. However, the vaccine and GMO examples don't cut it. To show as much, let's examine them in turn.
Vaccines: Here, the undeniable reality is that childhood vaccines are safe and do not cause autism. So do liberals deny this fact more frequently than conservatives?
Recent research suggests the answer to that question is "no." In a 2013 paper published in PLOS One, for instance, Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues surveyed a representative sample of 1001 Americans about their ideological beliefs and their views on contentious science topics. That included vaccines, where they used a five-item questionnaire to assess people's views, including statements like "I believe that vaccines are a safe and reliable way to help avert the spread of preventable diseases" and "I believe that vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits of vaccination for children."
Kahan found that the idea of a link between the political left and the belief that vaccines are dangerous "lacks any factual basis."
The study did not find that people on the left were more likely to oppose or distrust vaccines. Rather, it found a highly nuanced result. The researchers examined two related but distinct contributors to right-wing ideology: self-identification as a political conservative and support for the free market. It found that while the former was related to somewhat more vaccine support, the latter was related to somewhat more vaccine opposition. According to Lewandowsky, the two opposing forces "virtually cancel overall."
Other studies have found similar results. In a 2009 paper, Yale's Dan Kahan and his colleagues found that the conservative ideological values of "hierarchy" and "individualism" were both linked to greater opposition to the HPV vaccine in particular. In a paper from earlier this year, meanwhile, Kahan found that the idea of a link between the political left and the belief that vaccines in general are dangerous "lacks any factual basis." In fact, if anything, he found a small increase in belief in vaccine risks as one moved to the right of the political spectrum.
If you'd prefer to examine the patterns of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks, meanwhile, those also seem politically diverse. We are having a horrible year for measles, for instance, with 18 outbreaks and 592 cases, more than double the total in any previous year since 2001. And the 21 states that have seen cases and outbreaks run the political gamut; they include California and Massachusetts, but also Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, and Ohio (home to a large outbreak in the Amish community, a group of people that can hardly be called "liberal"). Last year, meanwhile, there was a measles outbreak clustered around a Texas megachurch.
Mennonite girls at a health clinic offering vaccinations following a large measles outbreak this year in the Amish community in Ohio Tom E. Puskar/AP
When it comes to the right and vaccines, there's also evidence like this:
I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied. Save our children & their future.
So in sum, the evidence that vaccine opposition is somehow specially tied to left-wing beliefs is just lacking. Rather, the largest factor here, according to Lewandowsky's research, is conspiratorial beliefs, which are hard to categorize as either left wing or right wing in nature.
Genetically modified foods: Now let's move on to the GMO issue. Here, it is less obvious what a clear-cut anti-science belief would actually be, but perhaps the most obvious case is the belief that genetically modified foods are harmful if consumed by humans. This position has been rejected by the board of American Association for the Advancement of Science, which assures us that "crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe." So do liberals disproportionately believe wrong things about genetically modified foods?
Lewandowsky's paper also examined GM beliefs, once again using a five-point scale that included statements like "I believe that genetically engineered foods have already damaged the environment" and "Genetic modification of foods is a safe and reliable technology." And the researchers found that "opposition to GM foods was not associated with worldview constructs."
"This result is striking," the researchers went on to say, "in light of reports in the media that have linked opposition to GM foods with the political Left."
Lewandowsky et al. aren't the only ones. For instance, an independent analysis of data from the General Social Survey by the Discover magazine blogger Razib Khan also found no real left-right difference in views about GMOs.
"Opposition to GM foods was not associated with worldview constructs," concluded the researchers.
Still, given just how striking these results are, and how contrary to what people assume, I sought to verify them by examining yet another poll. So with much help from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, which supplied an abundance of data, I looked into the details behind a January 2013 CBS News poll that asked a variety of questions about GMOs using a representative national sample of 1,052 Americans.
For the most part, the results support Lewandowsky and Khan. GMO concern appears largely spread across the spectrum in this poll, and while it is somewhat stronger among Democrats (and, as we'll see, especially strong on the far left), it is also very strong among Republicans and independents. For instance, the poll found that all three groups overwhelmingly support the labeling of foods containing GM ingredients (an idea the American Association for the Advancement of Science rejects): 90 percent of Republicans, 94 percent of Democrats, and 95 percent of independents were in favor.
Getting closer to a purely scientific issue, respondents were asked, "How concerned are you about genetically modified or genetically engineered food—Very concerned, somewhat concerned, not too concerned or not at all concerned?" Seventy-one percent of Republicans, 80 percent of Democrats, and 75 percent of independents said they were either "very" or "somewhat" concerned.
What's more, those who did profess this level of concern then went on to answer a second question, in which they were asked more precisely what they were worried about. Twenty-five percent of concerned Republicans, 29 percent of concerned Democrats, and 25 percent of concerned independents answered "not safe to eat." Meanwhile, 33 percent of concerned Republicans, 39 percent of concerned Democrats, and 37 percent of concerned independents answered "cause health problems." (These are the clear-cut science deniers.)
So while there might be slightly more concern about GM foods among Democrats, overall concern is broad and appears substantially nonideological in nature—which makes sense if you think about the concerns as being motivated by people's fears of consuming something that is supposedly icky or unnatural. Indeed, when asked in another survey question whether they would eat "genetically modified or genetically engineered fish," 74 percent of Republicans, 73 percent of Democrats, and 71 percent of independents said "no."
However, there is one important qualification. Although Democrats, Republicans, and independents do not look all that different on GMOs, it turns out that if you split Democrats and Republicans up into different ideological groups, you can discern more left-right differentiation on the issue (even as worries remain spread across the spectrum). The CBS News poll did just that. In addition to their party affiliation, people were also asked whether they self-identified as "very liberal," "somewhat liberal," "moderate," "somewhat conservative," and "very conservative." When you break it down this way, 92 percent of "very liberal" respondents were either "somewhat" or "very" concerned about GMOs, compared with only 71 percent of "very conservative" respondents. (Those who were "somewhat liberal," "moderate," and "somewhat conservative" look pretty similar; their percentages are 79, 75, and 74, respectively.)
However, it is important to note that people who are "very liberal" are also the smallest ideological group in the survey by far (6 percent). There were more than twice as many "very conservative" respondents (13 percent), and since the survey was nationally representative, we should expect something similar for the United States as a whole.
Such, then, are the data. They do not support for the idea that vaccine denial is a special left-wing cause. As for GMOs, while resistance may be strongest on the far left, worries on this issue are quite prominent across the spectrum as well.
In neither case are these beliefs a mirror image, on the left, of climate change or evolution denial. And as for other issues that are sometimes cited as examples of left-wing science denial, such as fracking and nuclear power? Those examples are problematic, too. (See here for my thinking on these subjects.)
When asked whether they would eat "genetically modified or genetically engineered fish," 74 percent of Republicans, 73 percent of Democrats, and 71 percent of independents said "no."
In the end, maybe the best way to think about the politics of science denial is this: There are two major, separate types of science denial out there. One is clearly right-wing and is driven by conservative activists, think tanks, media outlets like Fox News, and politicians. It is widely adhered to in the conservative movement, and it is highly politically relevant because conservatives (and Republicans) take their views on these issues as motivation to try to affect policy. This describes the situation on climate change, and on the teaching of evolution (and numerous other topics, like contraception the relationship between abortion and health).
This type of science denial, institutionalized within a major party and its activist base, has little parallel on the modern American left or within the Democratic Party. However, there's another kind of science denial, which may have many important consequences but is not driven by any one party. Its various fixations may at times appear more left wing, but are found across the political spectrum. Denialism about vaccines and GMOs fits more neatly into this latter category.
That's not to exonerate any kind of science denial. Nor is it to deny that there are liberals or leftists out there who hold unscientific beliefs—the polls above clearly capture such people. Nonetheless, it is to say that modern conservative science denial remains a unique phenomenon.
So why, then, do people so readily assume that vaccine and GMO denial are fundamentally left-wing causes? I suspect because those of us who live in liberal, largely bicoastal cities meet vastly more liberals than conservatives; and thus, we are far more likely to actually encounter liberal or left-wing people who hold these beliefs.
However, unlike pollsters, we aren't sampling the whole country in a statistically reliable way through our experiences. Science, though, is all about putting aside beliefs and anecdotes in the face of data.