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Are Democrats the Party of Science? Not Really.

Until liberals truly embrace the spirit of scientific inquiry, they'll never gain the upper hand in the policy debates of the Trump era.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Almost two years ago, on a chilly February afternoon in Washington, D.C., Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma took to the floor of the United States Senate, skeptically muttered a few things about rising global temperatures, then threw a snowball. His point, if you can call it that, was that since frozen water vapor still exists in nature (in winter no less), climate change must not really be happening. Or something.

Combined with decades of anti-intellectual posturing and pernicious legislative attempts to hobble science education in America, outrageous displays like this, whether born out of willful ignorance or duplicitous political maneuvering, have rightly earned the GOP the title of anti-science party. It’s a title some Republicans wear as a badge, the ire of liberals being a coveted mark of one’s conservative bona fides. But in the modern liberal mind, whether someone can be called a science-denier has taken on a scope limited to a small subset of scientific concepts: climate change and evolution. In essence, if you accept these concepts, you are pro-science; if you deny them, you are anti-science. True as that may be, this myopic view ignores a wide world of science, some of which is at odds with many beliefs popular on the left.

The time has come for Democrats to remove the beam from their own eyes, so to speak. Taking up the mantle of scientific liberalism—that is, adopting an evidence-based view of reality in pursuit of progressive policy—would serve both the strategic purposes of the Democratic Party in the menacing face of Trumpism, as well as the existential interests of humanity.

Take homeopathy, for example. Developed in the late 18th century by the German doctor Samuel Hahnemann, homeopathy is the dosing of a patient with a natural substance (e.g. white arsenic, deadly nightshade, poison ivy) in such a small quantity that it has been effectively diluted out of existence. In other words, there are no active ingredients in homeopathic remedies. They are basically just water. Sugar pills. Nothing more. Hahnemann’s pre-science idea is derived from the so-called “law of similars,” the idea that the key to curing an illness lies in infinitesimally small doses of substances that are harmful to healthy people in large doses. The smaller the dose, the more potent the remedy. If this sounds bonkers, that’s because it is. There is no scientific debate. Thousands of studies and meta-analyses have confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that homeopathy is bunk. Yet, more than a quarter of Americans continue to believe in its efficacy, liberals being the worst offenders. Until last year, the Green Party even promoted homeopathy by name in its official platform. In May, it replaced that endorsement with the phrase “alternative health care approaches,” which is really just a less precise way to promote the same debunked nonsense with the added benefit of plausible deniability.

So, what’s the harm in entertaining anti-science views when it comes to so-called alternative treatments like homeopathy? After all, people should be free to throw their own money away. And since there are no active ingredients, homeopathy can’t really hurt anybody, can it? In fact, homeopathy is so ineffective at doing, well, anything at all, that science geeks across the world have staged massive collective “overdoses” of homeopathy in order to demonstrate its impotence. To date, not one person has been harmed—or healed, for that matter—from any of these mass ingestions. But the fact that it doesn’t work is exactly what makes it so dangerous. Many pharmacies sell homeopathic and other alternative remedies alongside real medicine. Consumers are entitled to a reasonable expectation that treatments sold in modern pharmacies have at least demonstrated a modicum of efficacy beyond placebo. Selling snake oil on the same shelf as real drugs betrays that trust. This is a consumer protection issue if there ever was one. Democrats should be all over it.

The liberal obsession with things that are “natural” or “organic” often also clashes with science. That conflict has come to a boil over one of the most urgent global issues: food. I suspect what liberals are really after by using those terms is “healthy.” The trouble is that “natural” is decidedly not a synonym for “healthy.” Arsenic is natural. Formaldehyde is natural. Conversely, just because a product is processed, packaged, genetically modified, and full of preservatives does not mean it is unhealthy. In some cases these products can be healthier than their natural counterparts, and, in the case of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), critically important to the future of our species. GMOs are a key part of the scientific solution to a scientific problem. As population grows, so too does the demand for food. If we have the power to increase yields, improve quality, and bolster heartiness, all while maintaining the safety and integrity of the food we eat, then we have a moral obligation to do so. GMOs accomplish this, and have been doing so in increasingly sophisticated and promising ways for more than 30 years.

Based on reviews of more than 900 studies, every major health organization in the world, from The World Health Organization to the National Academy of Sciences, has confidently declared GMOs safe to eat. This is about as clear-cut as things get. There is no longer any legitimate debate over the safety of GMOs. Yet skepticism persists. Pew Research reports only 37 percent of Americans believe they are safe. I’m happy to report that the same Pew survey found that liberals were slightly better than conservatives on this point, with 41 percent agreeing with the science, compared to 37 percent of conservatives. But it’s an empty victory as both scores amount to big fat Fs on the grading scale.

Where Democrats fare worse than Republicans on the issue is on the question of product labeling. Last March, Senate Democrats killed a bill that would have prevented the mandatory labeling of GM foods. On the surface, this sounds like a victory for consumers. After all, nobody is trying to ban GMOs, just label them. Sounds reasonable enough. But the problem is that since GMOs are completely safe, to slap what amounts to a warning label on them is unnecessary, and could unjustly damage a vital industry. “What we face today is a handful of states that have chosen to enact labeling requirements on information that has nothing to do with health, safety, or nutrition,” said Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, who co-sponsored the bill. I hate to say this, but Pat Roberts is right. The Food and Drug Administration agrees with him. And in 2013, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest general science society in the world, released a statement saying that “legally mandating such a label can only serve to mislead and falsely alarm consumers.” It also pointed out that in order to receive regulatory approval in the United States, each new GM crop is subjected to such rigorous analysis that they are, as a whole, “the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply.” Sure, but let’s stick a warning label on them anyway. Makes sense.

That is not to say there aren’t legitimate concerns about genetically engineered (GE) crops. Corporate patent trolls and herbicide resistant weeds can make life hell for farmers, and there are still some questions about the small-scale effects GE crops may have on insects and soil composition. But none of these issues has anything to do with food safety. As Will Saletan over at Slate correctly points out, “If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.” That hasn’t stopped liberal groups like Greenpeace, however, and even Bernie Sanders from falling under the spell of science-denialism.

As monumental as these failures of scientific literacy have been, perhaps the most damaging and confounding has been the left’s quixotic fight against nuclear power. There is a Shakespearean quality in the fact that one of the environmental movement’s biggest victories in the past 50 years—crippling the expansion of nuclear power—has actually done irreparable harm to the environment. On second thought, scratch the Shakespeare reference. It’s more like an episode of Black Mirror.

By now we’re all familiar with those iconic images of three-eyed mutant fish and ominous-looking cooling towers from The Simpsons. Almost exclusively negative portrayals in the popular culture, in concert with coordinated misinformation campaigns by environmental groups, have all but sealed the technology’s fate. By the 1990s, pollution, catastrophe, radiation, toxic green sludge, and super- (or sub-) human mutations had become so firmly associated with nuclear power that after the Watts Bar reactor in Tennessee went live in 1996, it would be 20 years before another plant would come online in the U.S. Of course, it’s not just The Simpsons’s fault. But when an entire generation grows up imagining that the only thing standing in the way of a Chernobyl-scale meltdown is the slip of a finger attached to a Duff-guzzling buffoon, it’s not hard to see why the public has become so wary of investing in the technology.

What’s so strange about all this is that none of the hallmarks of nuclear power in the popular imagination have anything to do with nuclear power in reality. Those gigantic towers spewing white clouds into the atmosphere? That’s not pollution. It’s water vapor. Nuclear power plants are responsible for exactly zero greenhouse gas emissions. Zero. How’s that for clean energy? That glowing ooze you see in the movies that finds its way into water sources and destroys ecosystems and births supervillains? That’s not even a thing. It doesn’t exist. A typical reactor produces in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 tons of waste (mostly spent fuel rods and contaminated incidentals like gloves and tools) per year that is usually stored on site. As far as large-scale energy sources go, that’s so tiny as to barely even register. What’s more, that waste is extremely valuable and can be recycled many times over to continue producing energy for years. Compare that to a coal plant in the U.S., which produces a staggering 125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge every single year.

Well, what about Chernobyl and Fukushima? Safety concerns have been the biggest hurdle facing nuclear since the world’s first plant was commissioned in 1954. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, just announced that the Indian Point nuclear plant operating just 30 miles north of New York City will be shut down amid safety concerns. The ironic thing is that, of the few legitimate reservations to be had about nuclear power (mostly centered on its high cost), safety is absolutely, certifiably not one of them. Even if we include extreme outliers like Chernobyl that have virtually nothing in common with current industry standards and practices, nuclear is indisputably the safest form of energy in existence. Yes, that includes wind and solar.

To be clear, wind and solar are vital technologies that we should be shoveling money at like there’s no tomorrow. But the depressing facts are these: For more than 60 years we’ve had access to one of the cleanest, safest, most environmentally friendly forms of energy available. And the reputed party of science and environmentalism has fought tooth and nail against it every step of the way. The damage inflicted has been lasting and severe. Energy vacuums are always filled. For each nuclear reactor proposal protested in the streets or that languished and died at the feet of lawmakers, something else took its place. In America, that means that coal, the dirtiest and deadliest source of all, overwhelmingly filled the void. And still today, only 30 percent of Democrats support increased use of nuclear power, compared to 54 percent of Republicans. Imagine the accusations of science-denial that would be hurled at Republicans if these roles were reversed.

There is a danger here of succumbing to false equivalency. That Democrats have their own issues with science does not mean they’re just as bad as Republicans. Some issues are more important than others. Studies show, for example, that Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to believe that astrology is scientific rather than the thoroughly debunked medieval hokum that it is. That’s embarrassing, but I don’t see too many Democrats sponsoring bills to teach astrology in schools. And while it’s true that the Democrats’ irrational fear of nuclear power has contributed to the destruction of the environment, let’s not forget that it was the Republicans who were all too happy to exploit that aversion to safe, clean energy in pursuit of a fossil fuel wasteland. Remember, “Drill, baby, drill!” was an actual Republican campaign slogan in 2008.

This isn’t to suggest a robotic allegiance to the idea that science has all the answers. It doesn’t. That’s one of its defining features. Falsifiability is implicit in the fundamental scientific exercise of inductive reasoning. The best scientists not only routinely and readily accept when they are wrong, but even hope to be proven wrong because that would mean the emergence of new and exciting avenues of research. Still, science has performed better than any other method in helping us feel out the contours of our reality. And an accurate picture of reality is critical to getting a handle on concrete, intrinsically apolitical issues that nevertheless must be solved by political means.

This has become even more urgent as we usher in the post-truth era of Donald Trump. Trump’s election victory has reaffirmed, through chilling melodrama, the supremacy of optics over policy, at least in the short term. In the long term, however, results matter. A prolonged tenure marked by failed solutions will eventually bring him down. If the left can anticipate this and be ready with real, evidence-based solutions then the optics will come easier, because it will have secured the greatest advantage of all: being right.