Politics Ain’t Rocket Science — Or Any Other Kind

At Reason on Friday, Ronald Bailey examines (among other things) the myth that one side or another of the ongoing political struggle is grounded in science, while their opposite numbers are so many benighted troglodytes. It turns out that neither side has much to brag about, but an interesting aspect of all this brings us back to our buddy Jonathan Haidt and his observations on political leanings and perceptual screens.

[Yale’s Dan] Kahan identifies the ideological left as people who tend to have egalitarian or communitarian views. Egalitarians want to reduce disparities between people, and communitarians believe that society is obliged to take care of everyone. People holding these cultural values are naturally biased toward collective action to address inequality and the lack of solidarity. When the results of scientific research are perceived to perturb those values, it should be no surprise that left-leaners have a greater tendency to moralize them, to favor government intervention to control them, and to disdain conservatives who resist liberal moralizing.

Haidt’s moral survey data suggests that ideological conservatives have a greater tendency to moralize about purity and sanctity than do liberals. This may be so, but it’s pretty clear that liberals are not immune from concerns about purity and sanctity. While conservatives moralize about the purity and sanctity of sex and reproduction, liberals fret about the moral purity of foods and the sanctity of the natural world.

One particularly powerful moralizing tool that is chiefly deployed by progressives is the precautionary principle. [Mother Jones writer Chris] Mooney blandly writes that this “is not an anti-science view, it is a policy view about how to minimize risk.” Beliefs about how much risk people should allowed to take or to be exposed to are moral views. In fact, as Kahan and his colleagues have shown, the strong urge to avoid scientific and technological risk is far more characteristic of people who have egalitarian and communitarian values. The precautionary principle is not a neutral risk analysis tool; it is an embodiment of left-leaning moral values.

Bailey goes on to consider a number of scientific issues, and considers how they are viewed by differing ideological camps. A point that I find of some interest is that a number progressives prefer to think of themselves as rational pragmatists, going where the data lead them. But as Bailey shows us, neither side has a monopoly on the facts, and each side winds up attempting to impose its morality on others. Funny how seldom they’ll admit that, though.

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About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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2 Responses to Politics Ain’t Rocket Science — Or Any Other Kind

  1. Mr. Shreck says:

    This is a topic I’ve been dismaying for some time and sadly it seems one over which I will be bashing my head against the coffin lid.

    I consider myself a scientific skeptic, but I have found on a number of occasions a clear (at least to me) political bias among skeptic circles as to what science will be accepted. It came up most recently and obviously for me as the gun control debate started heating up again. Many among the group were willing to jump on studies showing reduction in gun crime as supporting their anti-gun or anti-some-gun worldview where in similar circumstances on other topics they are typically much more hesitant to accept such short-term, nearly anecdotal, evidence as valid. To trot out one of their own favorite talking points, there is a difference between weather and climate. Unless the weather confirms your assumptions about climate, perhaps?

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