Dr. Harriet Hall on the rise of the anti-scientific left

Guest post by Dr. Harriet Hall, Science-Based Medicine

In their book Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left, Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell point out how even political progressives can hold opinions that are not based on physical reality, claiming that their beliefs are based on science – even when they are not

I try to stay out of politics, but anti-science attitudes should be discouraged wherever they are found, and the mythology of progressives as described by Berezow and Campbell is very much like the thinking of alternative medicine:

  1. Everything natural is good
  2. Everything unnatural is bad
  3. Unchecked science and progress will destroy us
  4. Science is only relative anyway

I wasn’t clear on what “progressives” meant, but apparently progressives are similar to liberals in that they value economic authoritarianism and different in that they are also social authoritarians.

Liberal economic authoritarianism favors higher taxes on the wealthy, more regulations on the marketplace, and social programs that redirect money to target social inequality.

Conservatives want to limit such government interference with the economy, but they are social authoritarians like progressives, only on different issues.

Where conservative social authoritarians want government to ban “immoral” things like sex and drugs, progressive social authoritarians endorse government control over the environment, food production, and education.

Conservatives want to ban abortion; progressives want to ban plastic grocery bags.

Republicans have been criticized for their anti-science stance on evolution, global warming, and stem cell research. There is an equally disturbing tendency for activists on the other side of the aisle to cherry pick, misinterpret, misrepresent, and abuse science to advance their ideological and political agendas. They have misused science to attack vaccines and genetically modified foods, to promote organic food, and to propose poorly thought out environmental protection legislation.

When science is co-opted to serve ideology, science is degraded and the resulting public policies do more harm than good.

The authors present many examples of progressive ideology’s misuse of science and support of injudicious policies, for example:

  • One would think animal rights activists, conservationists, and food fetishists would all be enthusiastic about innovations to improve the future of food production, like laboratory-grown meat and technology to improve agricultural efficiency; but they typically reject them, perhaps because they think of them as “unnatural.”
  • “It takes 1 gallon of gas to make 1 pound of beef” is a false claim based on math and reasoning errors: they took a fact out of context, mixed terms, and guessed.
  • Mandatory low flush toilets have inconvenienced us all, and they have also caused sludge accumulation and odors so bad that San Francisco is spending $14 million to dump bleach into the sewers to combat it (and bleach is not exactly environmentally friendly). Domestic water use only represents 1% of total use and toilets are a small fraction of that; it would make far more sense to target efficiency in power plants (49% of water use) and irrigation (31%). The toilets were a typical “Band-Aid” fix that produced “feel-good” benefits for environmentalists but essentially accomplished nothing for the environment. Ironically, many of the same people who advocate the right to choose for vaccines were quite happy to legislate away our right to choose for toilets.
  • They lament the birds killed by wind turbines, which amount to only 0.006 percent of total bird fatalities; domestic cats kill about 500 times more birds than wind turbines do. Surely it would make more sense to reduce cat numbers than wind farm numbers (or to encourage cat owners to keep their pets indoors, which is healthier for the cat and increases its life expectancy by several years). But cats are “natural” and wind farms are not.
  • They worry about possible harm to caribou and to native cultures from oil development in Alaska. But the caribou population is nine times larger in Prudhoe Bay since oil was discovered there, and the local natives who depend on caribou strongly support responsible development.
  • Even Al Gore has admitted that corn for fuel was a mistake based on faulty science: it was worse for the environment and raised prices for poor people who needed corn for food.

Pragmatism is notably absent from progressive thinking. Environmentalists tend to be inflexible absolutists, unwilling to balance the trade-offs between protecting the environment and promoting economic development. They tend not to consider economic realities. They push the precautionary principle to an extreme without considering the costs of alternatives and the risks of adverse unintended consequences.

The chapter on “vaccines and Viagra” is pure music to the ears of science-based medicine.

They agree that the anti-vaccine movement is based on outright lies, they call the Huffington Post a laughingstock of the scientific community for its endorsement of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), they call for the NCCAM to be abolished, they explain why presenting data about relative risks rather than absolute risks is misleading, and they point out that:

“Just because a published paper presents a statistically significant result does not mean it necessarily has a biologically meaningful effect.”

Scientifically studying gender or racial differences is discouraged, if not completely taboo. It would be politically incorrect to find evidence suggesting that abilities are not fairly distributed. A double standard is at work. The smaller percentage of women in science and math is seen as a problem, but the much smaller percentage of men in the social sciences is not.

When social psychologists see women or minorities under-represented, they see unfairness and discrimination; but conservatives are under-represented among social psychologists by a factor of more than 100 and no one seems to be worried about that. Academic science has gradually become more representative in race and gender, but has become far less representative in politics: it has become dominated by progressives.

Progressive ideology has a simple fix for complex problems: more legislation. The progressive European Union strives to regulate even the irrelevant minutiae of its citizens’ lives. Science and common sense are casualties of what amounts to a bureaucratic war on reason.

The usual division of political views into two groups (liberal vs. conservative) or four (liberal, conservative, libertarian, and progressive) doesn’t work well.

Individuals are more nuanced and don’t fit into well-defined pigeonholes. Berezow and Campbell propose another schema based on values: a triangle with freedom, fairness, and excellence at the corners.

Science would fall close to the excellence point of the triangle and more on the freedom side. Fairness is less important to science: it would be silly to treat all scientists as if they were equally competent or to consider all research projects equally deserving of funding. Science must be a meritocracy.

The U.S. leads the world in science, has the most Nobel Prize winners and more of the top 100 universities than any other country or region. Progressive European countries lag far behind. Even if we do worse than other countries on science and math tests, we seem to be better at creativity and independent thinking, and at getting results. We need to figure out how to best support those qualities rather than just throwing money at schools and trying to raise test scores.

Berezow and Campbell call for clear, unbiased thinking about public policies based on good scientific evidence rather than ideology-influenced distortions of science. They call for:

  • more basic research
  • more transparency
  • better communication of science to the public
  • more scientific rigor
  • pursuit of excellence.

They offer practical proposals for improvement. Above all, they demand that we quit politicizing science. How could anyone disagree with that?

You may very well disagree with some of the opinions in this book, or even with the way it selects its facts, but it will give you food for thought about some very important issues. I recommend it. Especially if you have read Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science.

© 2013 Dr. Harriet Hall Science-Based Medicine


When Dr. Harriet Hall graduated from medical school in 1970, only 7% of North American doctors were women. She was the second female ever to complete an internship in the U.S. Air Force.  She’s an Associate Editor at Science-Based Medicine, where she writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices, and she’s the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon, described by one reviewer as “part autobiography, part social history, and part laugh-out-loud comedy!”

Image: Kevin Maher 2011

See also:


14 thoughts on “Dr. Harriet Hall on the rise of the anti-scientific left

  1. If the tone of this guest post appeals to you, I suspect the book will as well. Any recommendations in the comments for alternate suggestions for books on this topic that adopt a different tone would be welcomed.

    Two related examples that I would recommend would be Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science and Bad Science:Quacks, Hacks and Big Pharma Flacks

    These might be of interest to those considering following Dr. Hall’s advice: this review and this review.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to share these links, but not sure why you’d recommend them anonymously since anonymous recommendations are essentially useless. If you care to ever comment again, please use your actual name.

    • I have commented to the site under this anonymous misspelling in the past and you had responded without issue. I obviously do not agree that anonymous recommendations are essentially useless, and believe there can be appropriate reasons for such postings, but it is fully your prerogative to set the rules for your site. I will continue to read your site, but will refrain from further comments. I believe I am making a respectful response, but given the last line of your post I will understand if you choose to delete this.

      • Dear Anonymous/Annonymous;
        Thank you for being so obtuse.
        I mean it sincerely, as it is people of your ilk that somehow make me feel real good about myself.

        • I posted links to 2 books I thought related to the post (both of which I’ve read), address similar issues, skewer simar targets, but adopted a tone I prefer.

          After reading the reviews I also linked to of the book I felt the tone of the post and the post were not to my tastes. I was sincere in my hope people would post additional recommendations as these are topics of interest to me. I do not feel that I was insulting to anyone and genuinely wasn’t sure why my posting this time this way had been an issue but believe sincerely that blog owners should create the environment yet consider healthiest for their blog. And, anonymous commenting can grow toxic so I can respect that. I think it’s important to be respectful in comments to others regardless of one’s degree of anonymity.

  3. This is a post I will read again when time permits…but I just must protest the comparison of “banning abortion” to “banning plastic bags”. It is a shocking and appalling statement, and I cannot imagine anyone, progressive or conservative, who would agree with this comparison. Carolyn, I have followed your writing for quite a long time, and this seems not in keeping with your balanced and insightful words.

    • Hi Neal – as you know, these were not my words, but those of Dr. Harriet Hall who wrote this guest post. I chose to run her original piece as is – sorry if you took offense at what she said.

  4. Dear Miss Carolyn;
    I too will be making my way back here- Perhaps I just need a bit more caffeine before my brain really kicks in.

    Right now I cannot even get past all the double standards- (not only male vs female). But I do know I would pay good money to see a cat in a turbine – chasing the bird of course…

  5. “Berezow and Campbell call for clear, unbiased thinking about public policies based on good scientific evidence rather than ideology-influenced distortions of science. They call for:

    more basic research
    more transparency
    better communication of science to the public
    more scientific rigor
    pursuit of excellence.

    They offer practical proposals for improvement. Above all, they demand that we quit politicizing science. How could anyone disagree with that?”

    Its very easy to disagree with people who are hypocrites in action and don’t actually mean a thing they write. Having attempted to have a polite conversation with Hank, who would rather stick people into ill- fitting fictional categories than actually debate science he just doesn’t get (or perhaps alternately finds politically/ economically unpalatable); and having just recently engaged on the subject of GMOs with Alex, who in the course of the online conversation failed to demonstrate any evidence of comprehension of the science itself– I find it a waste of my time to dwell on an article whose author cites these two as credible authorities. And speaking broadly I find categorizing people ( authoritarian / anti-science, etc etc etc) to be as artificial and worthless as any exercise in generalizing and trying to squeeze complex multifaceted individuals into any ill-fitting box.

    Sorry Carolyn.

    • Hello Ena – sounds like you’ve had firsthand experience with the book’s authors directly, with little satisfaction. And considering that dwelling on an article whose author (Dr. Hall) cites “these two as credible” is a waste of your time, you’ve likely wasted as much time as you’d ever want to on this post.

  6. One of the difficulties I had with Dr. Hall’s blog is that as Canadians there is a different connotation of the political system (parties) than the US.

    Her lack of (admitted) understanding and personal attempt to avoid politics was peculiar to me and I became frustrated since science and politics go hand in hand.

    A liberal in the US can mean any number of things and certainly does not usually mean ‘left’. A liberal in Canada is not considered ‘left’ as we have a party that represents the left (NDP). However, admittedly, none of these categories are as clear cut as one might suppose.

    To call oneself a socialist in Canada does not raise eyebrows, yet to even admit to being a liberal in the US can have devastating effects. For Dr. Hall to say that science should not be political is extremely naïve, as it always has been. I agree that it should not be but it is what it is!

    What the conservative government in Canada has done to science in the past decade is shameful. SCIENCE IS POLITICALLY MOTIVATED, that is, what is funded, how scientists are respected (or not), who does the funding of projects etc..

    I am a socialist, not a fan of CAM, a social scientist, embrace science-based medicine and would take a balanced view of environmental issues. Needless to say gender and race are extremely important (variables) for me in any kinds of research.

    I don’t think I am an anomaly and I am definitely ‘left’. In spite of this, I would happily read the book and other works of Dr. Hall herself as I have already mentioned pseudo-science is alive and well (and counter-productive). This return to what is ‘natural’ crosses party lines.

    • Thanks Barbara for your insightful response. I suspect that – aside from U.S. politics – you and Dr. Hall may be making a similar key observation, which is that pseudo science is indeed alive and well, whether you’re left/liberal/progressive or right/conservative. As she writes: “Anti-science attitudes should be discouraged wherever they are found.”

  7. Please do not lump all animal rights activists together. This does a disservice to this community and the author who is not applying her critical thinking skills. Animal “rights” activist and vegans present a diverse and engaged community with many different and evolving opinions.

    Animal “rights” is in fact based on embracing the scientific conclusions of evolution, neurobiology and animal ethology. Many of us are staunchly pro-science. Indeed, many animal activists welcome lab-grown meat as an alternative to killing trillions of sentient beings (if one includes land, air and ocean animals). Further, many animal rights theorists reject arguments based on perceived ideas of what is “natural.”

    The same could be said for lumping together all environmental activists.

    Also, like a commentator above, I completely disagree with comparing banning plastic bags and banning abortion as equally outrageous ideals.

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