Anti-Science: The Left Learns Slowly, The Right Not At All

It’s not exactly news that anti-science is rife on the Right, at least in English speaking countries. Climate change denial, opposition to teaching evolution, wind farms seen as worse than asbestos or passive smoking… The list goes on.

The few on the right who have not joined this stampede, and many in the center of politics, respond by arguing that “it’s just as bad on the left”. As John Quiggin has noted, this is a truly pathetic defense when coming from the right. Does it, however, have any merit as a “plague on both your houses” argument when coming from the center?

Again Quiggin has covered a lot of what I would say – most of the examples of anti-science views on the left come from fringe dwellers in no way equivalent to the overwhelming majority of Republican Senators, for example, who have signed on to the AGW denial bandwagon.

But I was struck by a different angle on this when it comes to anti-vaccination, one of the key examples of science denial in the developed world.

In Mother Jones  Tasneem Raja and Chris Mooney have a piece on the problem of people opting out of vaccinating their children, and the associated rise in whooping cough, although the same story could be written for measles.

Anti-vaccination is one of the things that those arguing that anti-science is equally distributed like to pin on the left. There certainly people on the left (and to my shame perhaps particularly in the Green component) who are susceptible to the anti-vax lines. However, the same is true on the right (there is no left-wing anti-vaxer of the status of Michele Bacchman) and among people of no clear political affiliation.

As evidence that the anti-vax movement has a left lean

Vashon Island is beautiful. The next time I come it may also be safe. Credit David Ensor

Vashon Island is beautiful. The next time I come it may also be safe. Credit David Ensor

one can point to the low rate of vaccinations in places like Byron Bay. A US equivalent is Vashon Island, where I spent three very enjoyable nights, blissfully unaware of the danger I was putting myself through, as a result of the astonishing 17% of kindergartners not being vaccinated.

Raja and Mooney have three maps indicating the situation by US state. The first two provide weak support for the idea that anti-vaccination is stronger on the left. Vaccination rates are lowest in left coast Oregon, and Michigan and Vermont are in the next bracket. On the other hand, so is hard-right Idaho, so the pattern is not quite clear. Likewise, it is generally easier to get an exemption for your child being vaccinated in Democrat states than Republican ones, although Arizona and North Dakota complicate the picture.

However, I think it is the last map that is really interesting. Some states have responded to the rise of the preventable diseases by making it harder to get exemptions. As Raja and Mooney note, this appears to raise vaccination rates – many who seek exemptions are not that passionate about it, and will drop the idea if the paperwork is too hard.

Other states, however, have gone the other way, making it easier to put your own child’s lives, and that of babies they might encounter, at risk. And here, the picture is reversed. Five of the seven states moving in the right direction are liberal strongholds. The backsliders are more mixed, but show a slight lean to the right.

What this suggests to me is that, at least among the political class, the left has been slow to get the science on this issue. They’ve bowed to demands for individual liberty or anti-science scaremongering. However, once the evidence gets really overwhelming, once people start getting sick, the left does catch on. Politicians elected by those same vaccine haters in places like Vashon get the message and start to do something. I’d much rather they listened to the scientists straight up, but at least they have grasped the core principle of science, the capacity to change one’s mind in the face of evidence.

What about the other states? The people who noticed children coming down with diseases that can kill them and said, “I’ll have me some more of that thanks”? There are some regrettable exceptions, but most of them are the same sorts of places that don’t want climate science, or even evolution, taught in schools. There is absolutely nothing that will reach these people.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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2 Responses to Anti-Science: The Left Learns Slowly, The Right Not At All

  1. Jack Davis says:

    “There is no left-wing anti-vaxer of the status of Michele Bacchman)”
    Really? Ever watch HBO? There’s a guy named Maher who just said flu vaccine is useless.

  2. Michele Bacchman was a four term congresswoman who briefly led the polls to be the Republican candidate for president – ie the most powerful position on the right in the world. Bill Maher is a comedian and commentator who has never run for office with a late night TV show and a modestly successful documentary. I don’t think their status is comparable.

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