Posted by: Chris | April 22, 2011

The American Left and Science Literacy

Chris Mooney, most notable for penning The Republican War on Science, wrote a Mother Jones article  rehashing a lot of cognitive science studies on why and how people resist facts contrary to their beliefs and leveraging them for more ideological ends.  Kevin Drum was displeased with Mooney’s characterization, in a sop towards balance, of the anti-vaccination movement as broadly left-wing, while Mooney defends himself here.

Both seem to agree, though, that opposition to science in America is still a decidedly partisan issue, where a few scientific blindspots on the left are dwarfed by the plethora and pervasiveness of the same on the right.  However, data does not seem to substantiate this rather common supposition.  Razib Khan and the Audacious Epigone both raked through the General Social Survey (GSS) looking at how different political affliations and preferences affected one’s science literacy.  Just as a general note, I personally put more weight in Razib’s stats as he a) includes p-values and r/r^2 values for regressions and b) has somewhat less of an agenda to push.  Either way, both found that Republicans and conservatives were, excepting some politically charged issues, generally speaking more scientifically literate than their counterparts, though only a few of the trends were statistically significant.  Jason Malloy, who has his own GSS-derived numbers, summarized the findings aptly:

Republicans had higher IQs, were more ‘proscience’ in values, and did better on science questions. But the two parties had different biases; Republicans unsurprisingly subscribed to more nonsense about evolution and global warming. Democrats were prone to think of all natural interventions as harmful.

However, when it comes to one’s attitudes toward science in general, liberals tend to approach science more positively than conservatives, being more likely to trust science and place with it hope for the future.  This means the American left is both more optimistic about science’s place in society but also less informed about the knowledge that science has wrought.  It is tempting to explain this in some sort of “blissfull ignorance” dismissal, but I suspect something more complex is afoot.

It should also be noted that political identifications could simply reflect a deeper, causative issue that tends to track with one’s politics, like race, belief, or gender.  Epigone and Razib both found that men tend to be more knowledgable than women, atheists than believers, and whites/Asians more than African-Americans, with Hispanics somewhere in the middle.  Finally, all parties seem to suggest that IQ and educational attainment have the strongest correlation with both a high science literacy and a cheery scientific outlook, making smart, atheistic, white/asian males with graduate degrees science’s greatest champions in America (and, not coincidentally, both a very small subest of the country and a very accurate description of the authors).

Finally, my knee-jerk inclination is to side with David Frum and argue that anti-science views, especially those like opposition to GMO’s or evidence-based medicine, track with other strains of anti-elitism and roost primarily in the ideological fringes of both parties.  However, the data suggests that scientific illiteracy and unreasonable skepticism finds the most fertile ground amongst those who self-describe as moderates or Independents.  On the other hand, this could be merely a reflection of the fact that moderates also tend to be less intelligent, less well-informed, and have lower educational attainment.



  1. […] on the right) and anti-vaccination or anti-GMO hysteria (largely conspiracy theorists on the left). Economists are hardly […]

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