Last week Bernhard Isopp dissected science writer, noted “skeptic”, and purported science historian Michael Shermer‘s claim that there is a “liberal war on science“. Shermer’s article is so simplistic that I have trouble believing that Shermer has ever read any history of science, let alone that he could be called a historian of science. Bernhard does a good job of refuting Shermer’s implied argument that assenting to the claims of scientists demonstrates rationality while failing to due so implies some sort of ideological bias. However, Shermer goes wrong on a much more basic level: whether or not there is a “war on science” has very little to due with assent.
Assuming there is such a thing, what constitutes the “conservative war on science”? It is not that conservatives assent to fewer claims of scientists than liberals. Toddlers would probably fare worse than either liberals or conservatives by such measures, yet there is no “preschooler war on science”. When people claim that there is a conservative war on science, what is usually being claimed is that there is some active movement to suppress, censor, or remove resources from scientists.
In 2007 the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report that found systematic censorship of federally-sponsored research by the Bush administration:
UCS distributed surveys to 1,600 climate scientists, asking for information about the state of federal climate research. The scientists who responded reported experiencing at least 435 occurrences of political interference in their work over the past five years. Nearly half of all respondents (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate the words “climate change,” “global warming,” or other similar terms from a variety of communications. Forty-three percent of respondents reported they had perceived or personally experienced changes or edits during review of their work that changed the meaning of their scientific findings. And nearly half (46 percent) perceived or personally experienced new or unusual administrative requirements that impair climate-related work.
On The Bubble Chamber back in 2010, we discussed an apparently similar instance in Canada. This is an ongoing and worsening problem. According to Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist at the University of Victoria,
What we’re seeing emerge in Canada is the dismantling of scientific institutions that have been in place for decades. These institutions have played important roles in ensuring the health, safety and welfare of the Canadian public. But who needs science when it can sometimes lead to inconvenient results? It’s a lot easier for the Feds to simply feed media lines to the Canadian public. Besides, as George Orwell pointed out, Big Brother knows best.
If you’re going to demonstrate a “liberal war on science”, you need to show that liberals are pushing similar measures (perhaps for kinds of scientific research they find ideologically uncomfortable). This may well be occurring, but Shermer offers absolutely no evidence that it is.