Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait is irked by the counterpoint that anti-science attitudes permeate the Left just as they do the Right, calling it false equivalence. Certainly it’s not like liberals have no unscientific views and the bedrocks of anti-vaccination sentiment reliably tend to be highly educated liberal towns, and yes they have a thing for quantum woo and post-modernist pretentions but could you really compare them to the organized and deliberate efforts of creationists and religious fundamentalists on the warpath? After all, it’s not like there are groups of people in white flowing robes attending meetings in liberal districts to deride school boards for the blasphemy of teaching their children "the left-brain arrogance of science" instead of "the story of how they were created by Mother Earth as spiritual manifestations" from whatever dimension is all the rage nowadays, so the conservative fundamentalists must be worse, right? Well, no, not exactly. Comparing the anti-scientific attitudes of different cultures isn’t really all that straightforward and there isn’t a simple mitigating factor to use as a trump card in declaring the greater or lesser evil. And in this case, the issue is primarily about focus.
Generally, most skeptical blogs follow the same trend as many scientists when they approach liberals and see them as more or less natural allies in spreading facts and education. After all, conservatives often add an inordinate amount of animosity to anything that contradicts their dogma and will immediately start bashing all the groups they loathe in response. But just because the left doesn’t object to teaching good science doesn’t mean that its anti-scientific attitudes aren’t a problem or that they can be downplayed when talking about anti- scientific movements. Just like religious fundamentalists have creationism, New Age converts have a theistic evolution narrative that muddles quantum mechanics and a hodgepodge of scientific jargon into pointless ruminations on the nature of the human soul. They will also follow self-aggrandizing notions of determinism which argue that humans are a predetermined outcome of evolution, and whatever they’ll need to add to the idea to make it work, they will. At the turn of the past century, they added heavy doses of Occultism, mysticism, and spiritualism. In the middle of the century, they layered on conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, based on either real world events, their ruminations on Occultism, or a bizarre mix of both. Nowadays, there’s a vast and diverse range of conspiracies, ancient astronauts, pseudoscientific profundities, and plain old woo that’s been repackaged for new generations as some great illumination into the secrets of the universe.
While the religious fundamentalist will pound the Bible with his homeschooled kids and teach them that they are to devote their lives to a deity that created them and requires their submission and that they are treat every fact contrary to this premise as inherently false and evil, New Age disciples will tell their kids that science is a materialistic, left-brained, arrogant pursuit of truth without the use of meditation that falls pray to conspiracies by bizarre secret societies, and that they’re spiritual beings who can get in tune with nature. In either case, we have anti-scientific attitudes preaching that science leads to nihilism and that the only true path to knowledge lies elsewhere. Yes, sure, the New Age followers of post-modernist woomeisters who fill up HuffPo with their best impressions of The Dude when it comes to scientific literacy (because you know man, gravity is like your opinion and anyway, it’s not like we know what gravity was meant to teach us) aren’t trying to change the law to get quantum woo into the classroom, but they are certainly not friends and allies of scientific education. They just view science as a starting point for their brand of beliefs. Get someone educated enough about quantum physics and biology and they’ll be able to "get it" when you talk to them about the alien visitors and life being a holographic projection of your past consciousnesses, just like any New Age bestseller will lay out for you.
But despite the long standing dedication to warping science into justifications for their personal beliefs, New Agers lack the kind of focus you get from a single, dogmatic, and very zealously religious following which is a lot less forgiving about making it up as you go along and demands far more conformity in beliefs. The right is much better organized and unified in its efforts, something you’ll hear from every blogger covering their war on facts they don’t want to hear and findings they don’t want taught. If you were surrounded by two dogs, with one barking, snarling, and foaming at the mouth, and the other circling behind you more or less quietly, you’ll pay a lot more attention to the threatening beast right in front of you, as you probably should. However, you shouldn’t assume that the dog behind you won’t bite you when you’re not looking or that its jaws can’t put you in world of hurt just because it’s not actively threatening you right now. And so while the homogenous vocal right lets out war cry after war cry, a lot of science bloggers fail to highlight the far more calm, but very virulent anti-scientific rumblings from the subdued and more heterogeneous left, Phil included. For me, it’s very hard to say that the right is more anti-scientific than the left because as creationists support a pro-pseudoscience bill, rabid anti- vaccinationists are pushing for exemptions from immunizations while citing conspiracy theories…
[ illustration by Yang Xueguo ]