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Can the Republican Party solve its science denial problem?

Posted on 28 April 2016 by dana1981

There’s a widespread misconception about science denial – that on issues like the safety vaccines and genetically modified foods (GMOs), denial is found predominantly on the political left, mirroring the denial of evolution and climate science on the political right. This assumption has even been presented on The Daily Show, but it’s supported by precious little evidence. In fact, as Chris Mooney documented in great detail in 2014:

[The data] do not support 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 [on the political right].

New polling further debunks the science denial symmetry myth

new YouGov poll provided yet more data, asking, “Do you think it is generally safe or unsafe to eat genetically modified foods?”. There was little difference in answers across political affiliations – Democrats and Republicans were evenly split on the question of safe/unsafe, and Independents were more likely to consider GMOs unsafe. Gender and family income best predicted the answers, with men and higher-income individuals more likely to consider GMOs safe.

Those surveyed were also asked if the science supporting the safety of childhood vaccination is indisputable. In this case, Democrats were the most likely to answer yes (68%) rather than no (21%), followed by Independents (53% to 33%), with Republicans expressing the least confidence in the science supporting vaccine safety (47% yes, 42% no). Contrary to The Daily Show clip, these data show that vaccine science denial is more prevalent among conservatives than liberals.

A 2013 paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues investigated the links between ideology and science denial. The study similarly found no evidence of symmetrical science denial between liberals and conservatives on different issues. The authors concluded that conspiratorial thinking and free market support - both prevalent on the political right - were most strongly related to science denial:

Free-market worldviews are an important predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested.

The study found that libertarian objections to government intrusion arising from mandatory vaccination programs explained the prevalence of anti-vaccine views among conservatives. They also found that those on the liberal side of the spectrum are more likely to distrust the pharmaceutical industry, and thus also oppose vaccinations, but as borne out by the YouGov poll data, this appears to be a smaller effect. On GMOs, the Lewandowsky study found no link between trust in science and ideology, again, consistent with the latest polling data.

Conservative trust in science has steadily declined

The YouGov poll also asked respondents “Generally speaking, how much trust do you have that what scientists say is accurate and reliable?”. There was little difference between various ethnicities, ages, geographical regions, or genders. However, Democrats were far more likely to trust scientists than Republicans, with Independents falling in the middle, but closer to Republicans.

These results are consistent with a 2012 paper by Gordon Gauchat, which found:

public trust in science has not declined since the 1970s except among conservatives and those who frequently attend church.


Public trust in science broken down by ideology. Illustration: Gauchat (2012), American Sociological Review.

This rising distrust of science is particularly high among higher-educated conservatives, in what’s been coined the “smart idiot” effect. Essentially, on complicated scientific subjects like climate change, more highly-educated ideologically-biased individuals possess more tools to fool themselves into denying the science and rejecting the conclusions of experts.

Chris Mooney has attributed these trends to the growth of the ‘religious right’ and other changes in the Republican Party:

Clearly, The Republican War on Science’s politicization thesis is being strongly validated—a thesis that attributes the problem to the growth of a modern conservative movement, its need to appease its core interest groups and constituencies (corporate America, conservative Christians), its need to have its own alternative expertise and journalism (think tanks, Fox, Limbaugh), and so on … as the “New Right” emerged in the U.S. in the wake of the cultural battles of the 1960s and 1970s, it mobilized strong forces of authoritarianism–e.g., psychological rigidity and closed-mindedness.

Indeed, authoritarians favor Donald Trump, whose supporters have considerable overlap with climate science denialRobert Brulle’s research into the ‘dark money’ funding climate denial also helps explain the problem. The Republican Party has become increasingly dependent upon corporate funding and support, which is heavily skewed in the direction of climate denial. The near-total abandonment of party leadership on the climate issue has sent a signal to Republican voters – climate change isn’t a concern, and anyone saying otherwise is part of the hoax.

A glimmer of hope for Republicans

The growth of this anti-science strain of the Republican Party thus seems to stem from multiple sources: increased party reliance on the religious right and corporate interests, and the growth of a right-wing media echo chamber that feeds anti-science conspiratorial thinking.

However, there is good news.

Click here to read the rest

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Comments 1 to 22:

  1. I've always thought this argument very strange. The only anti-vaxer that I know supports Trump, watches Fox News, brings up the Second Amendment in every conversation, home schools his kids, and goes to bible study on Wednesdays.

    But hey, I guess he is a lefty because he has doubts about vaccines, according to the popular media.

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  2. Personaly, on the GMO issue, it is not so much the actual produce that worries me as the pesticides and herbicides that go with them. Neonic pesticides in particular are implicated in massive bee die offs. I am not convinced of the human and environmental safety of glysophate.

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  3. PS.  do not identify strongly as left or right wing, but am greatly concerned about environmental issues. That pretty much eliminates supporting right wing parties where I live.

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  4. The main reason right wingers are seen to be anti-science is because they hate government regulations and intervention. They hate vaccines because the government would like to see compulsory vaccination. They are anti-fluoride because they don't like the government adding something to the water, it could be anything not just fluoride. They hate the idea of AGW because they fear government intervention to curb the use of fossil fuels. They have completely gutted the regulatory system for the approval of GMOs and farm chemicals. They would like to see the removal of all regulatory bodies because they think that regulations affect the profits of large corporations and to heck with the health of the population. Getting rid of regulations is one of the driving forces behind those in the UK who want to get the UK out of Europe.

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  5. @2 and 4, couldn't agree more although the chemicals produced by some GMO plants, that are supposed to break down in mammal digestive tracts, have shown up in human bloodstreams, including those of pregnant women. (I should add a source there but this is just a quick reply).

    Have either of you read Poison Spring by E.G. Vallianatos? I suspect Ian has. I've always distrusted chemical sprays but the book was still an eye opener. From its inception, the EPA's mandate has been to protect the chemical manufacturers, not the public health. The book did not do a lot for my trust of scientists, either.

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  6. [A new YouGov poll provided yet more data, asking, “Do you think it is generally safe or unsafe to eat genetically modified foods?”.

    Wrong grumble mumble question, asking this is pre-spin.

    "Eat" is the wrong word.  "Make" is the question and it has to be specific.  Some genetic modifications some ways, and look at each.

    What's the issue with gm foods? It's environmental protection, not personal poison.

    If the genemod industry were to follow the path of the synthetic organic chemicals industry and the plastics industry — pollute first, no throttle unless there's immediate and serious harm turning up and attributable — it'd be a disaster.

    An environmental distaster, though, not a personal mortality/severe illness disaster.

    Most people dont' know and don't care.

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  7. @ Hank,

    I share your grumble mumble! Too often agricultural questions are posed in such a manner as to spin them! I would point out though that the primary reason GMOs might have that problem is the GMO was designed for that industrial ag system that is harmful. It is not necessary to produce food that way, and thus any GMO designed for an ecologically sound agricultural system could actually be beneficial.

    Even now many GMOs are designed for use in that destructive industrial system, but designed to make them less destructive. So the template is there. It just won't happen until regenerative systems are the norm instead of the exceptions. Once that happens then GMOs designed for those regenerative systems would be profitable to develope and sell.

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  8. Some great comments here. I don't trust Monsanto or Bayer as far as I could throw Exxon. But I do think that GMOs could be developed for legitamatly good reasons like adapting crops to a changing climate. The current model seems to be just an excuse to sell extra chemicals. They also use heavy handed tactics that make it very hard for farmers. Especially small farmers in poor countries.

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  9. Rolf, there have been a number of crops developed to combat problems which many farmers, especially in developing countries, encounter. Drought resistance, flood resistance, salinity resistance and others have been developed. They do not use the GM technology of the large corporations (rDNA and gene silencing) but use a technology called “maker assisted selection” which allows for much faster breeding of these traits than normal cross breeding since it identifies suitable partners with much more precision.

    Unfortunately these strains are developed either by university researchers or small companies and do not get the publicity and support that they should. In fact, many times these successes have been wrongly attributed to GMO technology. Sir David King, ex-UK Chief Scientist, did that on at least two occasions. Sometimes the strains are acquired by the large corporations who then add there RR gene or some other patented genes then claim to have developed “drought resistant “ strains, now owning the crop.

    You can read about this successful technology here:

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  10. Thanks Ian, will read later. I agree that non GMO soloutions are great.

    This organization

    is probably doing more good than the GMO companies.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed link

  11. dklyer, I haven't read the book you mentioned but I have been a follower of rDNA technology since the original work by Cohen and Boyer (I was a post doc doing cancer research at the time, mid 1970's). I watched the technology develop through human insulin and other human pharmaceuticals to the prospect of using rDNA to produce GM crops. I was sceptical about their use at an early stage, I felt that they would not be good for the environment, nor a benefit to farmers since it appeared early on that it might get farmers too dependent on one particular crop, herbicide and company. Initially I had no worry about the health effects of anyone or any animal eating them since how could adding a single gene cause a problem? However, it eventually became known that it was not just one gene but several that were added to produce a GMO. Two of these added genes raised red flags to me. The first was that they were adding a very powerful promoter gene to make sure the gene of interest was turned on to produce as much of the gene product as it could. My work in cancer research involved what are known as onco-fetal genes and there gene products. These are genes which are turned on during fetal development, turned off after birth but can be reactivated either by adding a known chemical carcinogen or in an actual tumour. This meant that in normal adults there are a number of what I refer to as “silenced” genes which can become activated later in life with problematic health effects. What if the promoter gene was added close to a “silenced” gene, could it become activated with negative results for the organism?
    The other red flag is the use of antibiotic resistant genes during the recombination. It is well known those antibiotic resistant organisms are a very real threat to modern medical control of bacterial pathogens. Adding them to crops which could then potentially transfer them thus infecting someone who ate the crop was very troubling to me.

    Of course the industry just laughed off these suggestions when independent scientists brought them up. Most of these problems have now been shown to occur, weed resistance to glyphosate, horizontal transfer, insect resistance to BT etc.

    I am not completely against them but I am strongly in favour of having every new “event” independently tested over a long time period, not the 90 days usually used by the industry. Multi-generational studies should also be done.

    I’m not sure if you have read any of the reports submitted to regulatory agencies for approval but they are terrible, some wouldn’t even make it to a high school science fair project e.g the evidence in favour of the Flavrsavr tomato.

    Read references at 10.

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  12. Ian: The article linked to @11 is shocking. I have heard that these BT crops are devestaing to polinators including butterflies, but the reasearch into the effects on rats is something else again. It gives The Royal Society quite a black eye as well. The wikipedia article @9 goes over my head I'm afraid. The physics of climate change is simple enough for a layman like me but genetics is just too much.

    It has always annoyed me, the implication that if one accepts AGW that one should accept having GMO's rammed down one's throat as well. As far as I am concerned the big gmo outfits are just as much of a threat as the fossil fuel interests. A disturbing of the article aspect is that a respected science organization seems to be playing ball with the gmo industry and putting the public at risk. Also disturbing is that when trying to communicate with climate deniers,we often hold up organizations such as The Royal Society as trustworthy and refer to their position on global warming. Now they have lost some of their esteem in my eyes.

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  13. Rolf, I have spent countless hours studying the similarities and differences between AGW deniers and GMO apologists. The similarities are staggering, in many cases the same people are best described as both, Matt Ridley and the Averys spring to mind. The same think tanks that attack climate science and climate scientists support GMOs and smear any independent scientist who publishes a paper showing the negative effects of GMOs. Of course these people and their organizations receive money from the companies involved in these areas. The Science Media Centre has a cabal of GMO apologists hiding under their identification as “independent experts”. They do not disclose their close financial ties to the GMO indiustry.

    The big difference is that at the start the GMO apologists and their companies did and controlled the research. Any scientist wishing to study the GMO crops had firstly to get samples from the company involved and had to allow the company to vet and veto any results before they could be published. It is no wonder that the initial impression was that these crops were safe, the only research allowed out was controlled by the companies. It was only later that independent scientists such as Arpad Pusztai published results showing negative effects. The industry and its apologists were so incensed by this that they got him fired from his position at the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen. Since then there have been quite a few similar studies showing problems. The industry has responded in a similar fashion smearing and vilifying the scientists.

    The other big difference is the argument about consensus. The AGW deniers argue that there is no consensus regarding AGW when in fact approximately 97 % of scientists and science papers agree that there is. The GMO apologists claim that there is a consensus supporting “GMOs are safe”. This is just not true.

    You are perfectly correct when you state that the science involved in rDNA technology is much more complicated than climate science. I’ll just throw out a few terms which I’m sure most people have never heard of but are critical to understanding what could go wrong with the technology: post-translational modification, cryptic transcription, horizontal gene transfer, activation of silenced genes etc.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed link

  14. Thank you Ian. It is refreshing to hear from someone who thinks that both AGW and the GMO industry are threats to our well being. I have long thought so myself. The Union of Concerned Scientists also campaign for action on climate change and issuses about food saftey and the risks to pollinators from big Ag.

    Here in Canada, Glysophate is widely used though the government cannot show that they have proved its saftey. I am not feeling too well myself. I may well have some kind of chronic inflamation. I try to eat healthy but probably am exposed to glysophate and GMO's.

    BTW your link just goes to the sks homepage for some reason. I did visit the gmwatch site. Thanks again.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] To all commentators: while government evaluation of science and industry influence are definitely on-topic, please do not this thread degenerate into a discussion of GM technologies. There are more appropriate websites for such a discussion.

  15. OK let's try that link again


    I don't kinow what happened last time.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed link.

  16. Same thing happenned again. Try copying it and pasting it into your browser window.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Sorry about that. I have asked our technical team to look at the problem. I assume you are using the link button in the comment editor to create links?

  17. I've always had a gut-feeling that there was something dodgy about the GMO industry.  It seems I was right.

    However, has anyone noticed the pattern: a powerful industry (often American, I'm sorry to say) resorting to reprehensible methods to silence critics, bury adverse scientific findings, and sabotage attempts at regulating their industry.  I can think of the following examples:

    (1) Sugar industry and deleterious effects of sugar on diet

    (2) Chemical industry and DDT

    (3) Tobacco industry and smoking

    (4) Fossil-fuel industry and climate change

    (5) And now, GMO industry and deleterious effects of GMOs

    Any more?  I'm reminded of that saying: "A psycopath born into a poor family goes to jail; a psycopath born into a rich family goes to business school".

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  18. PS: I have figurd out what i did wrong. i was in a hury both times and pasted the url link into the top line instead of the second line. Sorry about that.

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  19. Digby, you can add to your list the asbestos industry and the chemical industry who denied CFCs harmed in the ozone layer.

    Fred Singer has been involved with just about all of these industries.

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  20. An article that I wrote after being a ron paul delegate to the 2008 Nevada state convention that I called orwells boot became #1 and has been #1, after paid links, on all search engines for the past 7 years.   Do a search on orwells boot.   Spend a 1./2 hour to read this 6000 word article:

    That pleasant response has lead me to do more research and I came up with this:

    Look at the definition of conservative. A person adverse to change. It is someone who does not want to learn or is unable to learn new stuff. Personally? I can think of no better definition of stupid. Of course, stupid people can not follow complex chains of logical reasoning, live in a state of denial, and are often surprised by the logical consequences of their actions. When change becomes undeniable, they still deny it or are surprised by it.   Sometimes they accept the new idea, and say that they have always accepted it.   Stupid people are very good at self deception

    Now think about scientists. If they refuse to learn new stuff they fail. There is a reason that less than 5% self identify as conservative or republican. Scientific minds -— minds that can not be both successful and stupid -— they are wired different than minds that are, by definition, stupid.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] This is stepping over the line. Please read and comply with the comments Policy.

  21. Factotum @20:

    1)  Your definition of "conservative" is very selective.  One might even say "cherry picked".  Here is a fuller definition:

    "Full Definition of conservative
    : preservative
    a : of or relating to a philosophy of conservatism
    b capitalized : of or constituting a political party professing the principles of conservatism: as (1) : of or constituting a party of the United Kingdom advocating support of established institutions (2) : progressive conservative
    a : tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions : traditional
    b : marked by moderation or caution
    c : marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners
    : of, relating to, or practicing Conservative Judaism"

    The fuller definition clearly does not support your specious ad hominen.

    2)  The political philosophy conservatism was articulated by Edmund Burke as a reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution.  He argued that the preservation of England's ancient institutions acted to avoid the excesses to be found in the French Revolution.  Given the nature of those excesses, his argument cannot be considered unintelligent.

    Indeed, true conservatism in politics is based on one simple principle - that our political institutions of the past have handed us a workable, if not ideal society.  Given this, our natural tendency should be to preserve those institutions absent a clear and convincing argument that any change in those institutions will improve the situation.  Again, this is not an unintelligent position.  Quite the contrary.  It is certainly far more intelligent than the position that change should be accepted for changes sake, which you appear to articulate.

    3)  What is missing from your ad hominen attack on conservatives is any recognition that changes need to be justified in order to be accepted.  Apparently, for you, any proposed change should be accepted simply on the basis that it is a change.  No requirement of evidence in favour of the change is apparently required, let alone a requirement that the evidence be robust.  You would have our political institutions become as arbitrary and changable as fashion.  I would struggle to find a less intelligent position.

    4)  Your gloss that conservatives are people who " someone who [do] not want to learn or is unable to learn new stuff" does not follow even from your cherry picked definition - and represents an unsupported, arbitrary insult.  It requires no further refutation.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] To all commentators -this article obviously invites political commentary, however, please note the comments policy, specifically.

    "Rants about politics, religion, faith, ideology or one world governments will be deleted."

    "No profanity or inflammatory toneAgain, constructive discussion is difficult when overheated rhetoric or profanity is flying around."

    Please keep this civil or risk having your post deleted.


  22. I apologize for continuing the descent into a GMO discussion. It is, at least, immune to political rants as both republican and democratic administrations have come down solidly on the side of protecting the chemical industry rather than protecting the public. Ian (11 and 13) thank you for the great replies. The criminal activity of private labs producing research in support of approval of new pesticides, etc. is part of the book Poison Spring. One large lab was caught and several members received (short) criminal sentences. Other small labs produce more reports with a small number of poorly trained personnel than a real lab with an adequate number of highly trained researchers could ever hope to produce. The EPA looks the other way. Any attempt by EPA scientists to show contrary research quickly gets them relegated to a clerk position.

    The saturation of America with pesticides and herbicides has been going on since the late 1940’s. The GMO revolution has made that worse. Don Huber is a retired colonel from the Army’s biological warfare program. He taught plant diseases and soil microbiology at Purdue for 35 years. He also has been the coordinator of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service National Plant Disease Recovery System, a program of the U.S.D.A. Huber worries about glyphosate not only for its affects but as a driver of genetic engineering. With decades of experience in biological warfare and crop diseases, Huber was convinced, in 2011, that the use of glyphosate had brought about a new pathogen that was endangering American agriculture.

    I will be offering to buy my local library a copy of Poison Spring.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Enough. This is off-topic. Further off-topic posts will be deleted.

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