It seems that every week we hear a new story that demonstrates a lack of scientific literacy in right-wing politics. Recently we learned that employees of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection under the tenure of Gov. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) were instructed not to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official correspondences. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) recently brandished a snowball on the Senate floor as evidence that global warming is a hoax. Last month Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) refused to state whether or not he believed in the theory of evolution, and who can forget former Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-Mo.) famous gaffe about “legitimate rape”?
These politicians have been widely criticized — and rightly so — for their anti-science views. Rarely, however, are left-wing political figures held accountable for the same crime. As a Democrat myself, I think it is crucial that we move beyond partisan criticism and call out scientific illiteracy wherever it exists.
It is tremendously ironic that the political left, which frequently attacks the right’s denial of evolution, is much more likely to oppose one of the most promising scientific advances that we have achieved through the study of genetics: GMOs. Initiatives to mandate the labeling of GMO products have found varying degrees of success in blue states like Vermont, Oregon, Maine, Hawaii, and Washington. GMO labeling might make sense if modern genetic modification techniques produced foods that were substantially different from those produced by conventional methods, but the fact is that scientific studies have consistently and overwhelmingly shown GMOs to be safe for both humans and the environment. In fact, those concerned about the environment should praise GMOs, which allow us to produce the same amount of food while using less water and land, emitting less carbon dioxide, and applying fewer pesticides.
Perhaps the worst example of anti-GMO activism is the opposition to Golden Rice, which was genetically engineered in 1999 to help people suffering from vitamin A deficiency. Despite the promise of Golden Rice, activist groups like Greenpeace have gone so far as to support the sabotage of Golden Rice field trials across the developing world. Vitamin A deficiency causes several million deaths per year, and many of these deaths could be prevented if not for widespread, anti-scientific opposition to genetic engineering.
Although the political left may be genuinely concerned about the environment, its lack of scientific literacy still inspires it to promote policies that are counterproductive to its goals. And since the political right often denies the reality of environmental issues outright, the left’s unscientific policies are the only ones discussed and implemented.
The left’s aversion to nuclear energy stands out in particular. Senate Democrats have held ten hearings on nuclear safety since the 2011 Fukushima disaster. But discussion of this disaster requires some perspective. The Fukushima plant was built on the tectonically active “Ring of Fire,” and it required a tsunami triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake to cause the meltdown. The plant itself was in violation of myriad safety recommendations. Still, short-term radiation exposure from the plant killed exactly zero people. The liberal LNT model, notorious for overestimation, predicted a total of 130 deaths from long-term exposure. The tsunami itself, by comparison, killed 16,000.
Fracking enrages the left even more. To be sure, fracking is not risk-free, and many experts have proposed better regulations to ensure that cement casings are more secure, for example. The oft-heard claims that fracking causes dangerous earthquakes, poisons drinking water, and produces exceptional air pollution, however, are misleading. The left has some legitimate concerns about fracking, such as the safe disposal of wastewater, but many charges levied against fracking are appropriately applied only to issues incidental to the process of gas extraction. Other charges — that fracking is linked to seismic activity, for example — are technically true, but also hold for conventional wells, mining, and geothermal technology.
Left-wing politicians have generally endorsed large “green energy” subsidies to combat climate change, but the reality is that today’s green energy is simply not advanced enough to fuel a Western standard of living. Subsidies for solar and wind power will do little to reduce carbon emission in the long term, and subsidies for ethanol and electric cars may actually increase carbon emissions. Vast tracts of carbon-sequestering forest and grassland have been cleared to plant corn for ethanol production, and electric cars are ultimately powered by coal. Moreover, every dollar spent subsidizing today’s unproductive renewable energy is a dollar taken away from green energy research. In the meantime, the left’s irrational fear of nuclear energy and fracking means that instead of transitioning to lower-carbon energy sources in the short run while greener technologies are developed, we will continue to rely disproportionately on dirtier oil and coal.
Finally, the left has a vaccination problem. Four of the five states with the highest vaccination-exemption rates are blue. California (my home, sweet home) is suffering from a measles outbreak. Meanwhile, leftist pundit Bill Maher is regularly applauded for his anti-vaccine rants and is rarely confronted for using the typical conspiracy theorist’s defense: I’m just asking questions.
The political left loves to bring up scientific consensus when discussing climate change and evolution, but it rejects scientific consensus as a valid metric when it comes to discussions about genetic modification, nuclear energy, and vaccines. And, in fact, while a disbelief in evolution is foolish, it is not nearly as dangerous as a rejection of modern technology.
Vaccines freed us from polio and smallpox. Genetic engineering, along with other techniques, has helped us to produce a cheap, stable, and more environmentally friendly food source. And fossil fuels, for all their problems, have made us so wealthy that we can now afford to research environmentally friendly alternatives. This is a luxury that could not be imagined by the nearly-half the world’s population that still cooks and heats its homes with wood, trash, and dung. Indoor air pollution contributes to roughly 4.3 million premature deaths each year — more than the total number of deaths caused by outdoor air pollution from all sources, including fossil fuels.
The political right is properly criticized for its anti-science views. The political left, however, is often unfairly spared similar criticism. Those on the left must be willing to criticize members of their own camp when they endorse policies based on poor scientific understanding. Otherwise, the left and right may find some common ground, but it will be to the detriment of society as a whole.
Collin Vierra is a member of the Class of 2015.