Shermer, Isopp, and the ‘Liberal War on Science’

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.


  • Michael Barton Reply

    For what it’s worth and I’m not claiming Shermer is wrong regarding your post, he does have a PhD in the history of science (from 1991) and published his dissertation as In Darwin’s Shadow: The Life and Science of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Biographical Study on the Psychology of History.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      I was being flippant there, obviously, but even if Shermer was active as a professional historian only in the early 90s, he should be aware that the deficit model of science he’s endorsing has at the very least been highly problematized. For example, Brian Wynne’s study of Cumbrian sheep farmers (“Misunderstood misunderstanding: social identities and public uptake of science”) was published in 1992. Given only what Shermer argued in this article—it’s all I’ve read of him—he seems to have no sensitivity to the complex relationship between people’s ideological attitudes, education, and their assent to the claims of scientists.

  • Bernhard Isopp Reply

    Nice follow-up. Clearly I don’t have much sympathy for the war metaphor, and is partly why I didn’t spend much time assessing if it actually makes sense in my post – I wanted to talk about different issues, anyway. But, I think you do a good job of making sense of it, and show why if we are going to take it seriously, Shermer really misses the point.

    Obviously, part of the Shermer’s problem is that he just makes too many generalizing claims with no real specific evidence. He starts talking about Democrats (which means registered members of the Democratic party), and then compares them to Republicans (which are mostly about Republican Politicians), and then just vaguely talking about liberals, progressives, etc.

    But of course, as you point out, this has virtually nothing to do with public acceptance of scientific knowledge claims, unless one would suggest that the Republicans (and Conservatives in Canada) can get away with such things because of the scientific understanding of their constituents. But we already know that Democrats and Republicans have similar understandings of science generally. The reason this doesn’t explain anything, is because this is a deficit-model assessment of understanding, whereas differing views on climate change between Democrats and Republicans, for example, have to do with the broader attitudes (dare I say, philosophical differences) that Shermer fails to consider.

    Likewise, the issue probably has equally little to do with the scientific understanding of Republican politicians. It’s doubtful the material is being censored because it’s seen as unbelievable, but rather because it’s inconvenient for certain economic and industrial interests. And so again, the broader issues have to do with conceptions of risk, resource management, competing interests, broader attitudes about science’s role in society, the proper scope of science’s authority, etc. – a whole slew of things more or less unrelated to how many people believe in creationism.

    I was also going to make a similar comment about Shermer’s education – I knew that he had a PhD in History of Science, but didn’t mention in my post for various reasons. I probably should have for effect, since, as you point out, it makes his position all the more surprising. At the very least he would have been exposed to many ideas demonstrating why his vision of PUS is problematic.

  • Ori Reply

    Thanks for the interesting post, and also for the link of Bernhard Isopp’s. I share with you my thoughts in light of them, and would appreciate, if you find the time, to share your opinion about them, or how can I “STS” them.

    When I read Shermer’s article few weeks ago, I had few thoughts, but they were far away from being STS-style. I was curious how will STS thinkers criticize this article.

    I thought that, rhetorically speaking, Scientific American is the propaganda instruments aimed at scientists, and Shermer’s “rational” & “skeptic” views are part of the “herding” voices in the process of readers’ belief acquisition.

    As for the war on science, that is being done with instruments such as propaganda: Doesn’t it makes the real war on the culture which cultivates indoctrinated thoughts…? Scientific American, which are part of the Nature group – are just part in the orchestra of the VerlagsGruppe Information corporation… Doesn’t it make them acountable for the “herding” voices and the limitted frames of debates being made, specially on the topic of science it-self?
    The convention of reading popular science in corporated journals must change…

    Regarding Shermer himself: I read his articles once in a while. Every time I read him, I became a little more skeptic myself. But the kind of skepticism I become, is Skepticism regarding skeptics. Your post, in a sense, supported this…

    Again, thanks for your post that showed me a possibility of STS thoughts about that article, which I was very curious about.

    new STS student of Boaz@BIU, Israel.

    • Mike Thicke
      Mike Thicke Reply

      Thanks Ori.

      I think you’re right that Scientific American is in many ways a propaganda instrument. If you’re looking for STS perspectives on this, I’d recommend Bruno Latour’s *The Pasteurization of France* or Daniel S. Greenberg’s *Science, Money, and Politics*.

      I also agree that Shermer isn’t a skeptic in the way that philosophers define skeptics: as people who suspend belief. Shermer seems very sure of his beliefs. Perhaps he would be better labelled a positivist.

      • Boaz Miller
        Boaz Miller Reply

        You can offer an STS analysis of the dynamics of the debate, for example, an Actor-Network analysis of the battlefield in the liberal war for and against science. But this may be missing the point. A more fruitful way to go may be to draw on STS literature to see how there can be public engagement that is both respectful of science and at the same time critical. It seems that for Shermer anybody who doubts the epistemic authority of science in some context is an enemy of science and rationality. Work such as Mark Brown’s Science in Democracy may be relevant here. I don’t like his reliance on ANT, but there is some good stuff there.

  • Allan Olley
    Allan Olley Reply

    I’m not surprised someone with a PhD in history of science still subscribes to an asymmetric theory of how beliefs are formed based on their content (i.e. “bad” beliefs must be the result of bad methods, while “good” results are based on good). The truth is I meet people who take that view consciously or not all the time at conferences and the like. Even if in your historical work you admit the contingency and commonality of belief formation, you won’t necessarily generalize this to all aspects of life, for example, skimming through the Amazon sample of “Darwin’s Shadow” I think Shemer has a somewhat complex view of how Wallace’s naturalist/evolutionary ideas and his spiritualist ideas interacted. Also, plenty of philosophers familiar with science fall into the same trap in either subtle or gross ways. Also, reading sociology of science is not something all historians of science do now, much less in the 90s (Wynne is a sociologist).

    Also, you have to consider the context of the polemic and the didactic. I’m going to say that with some exceptions (his book on Wallace looks like a pretty scholarly tome) he is more a popularizer of certain science and a champion of certain social/political causes. While that may not excuse outright inaccuracy in his writings, unpacking complexities would at some point change the genre from popular to academic.

    In truth in political arguments I think we all find it hard if not impossible to avoid accusing political opponents of some bad faith (either failure of intellectual rigour or simple hypocrisy) at least occasionally.

    Shemer is a skeptic in the sense of the various skeptical societies, debunkers and denouncers of pseudoscience that call themselves “skeptics”. It is also the definition of skeptic often used by scientists who attempt to popularize science and scientific thinking (such as Carl Sagan). Whether such people’s attitudes is a coherent philosophical skepticism I’m never sure. I think there is a certain positivistic (and falsificationist) conceptions of scientific method. But it is a pretty clearly a use of the word skeptic that has moved into the English lexicon (even though skeptics are the kind of people who do not like to be labelled).

    I’m interested that although it seems as though Shemer is not primarily a historian (he has been an adjunct professor from time to time, I listened to a sample of a 1991 general history of science course he gave now available as an audio book from Amazon/Audible, interesting at that point he thought of himself more as a psychologist by training) he did publish the book based on his thesis 11 years later (2002), rather than giving it up all together as some might.

  • Randel Reply

    >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.<
    There is a long running and very active movement to do this to text books for grade school children here in Texas. And they are being successful. It's not the liberals doing it. I guess you could call 4th and 5th graders potential scientists but not if our State Board of Education has it's way. Nothing to do with Shermer, I know, but I had to point that out.

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