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Have Conservatives Abandoned Rationality, Skepticism and Truth?

Has rationality itself become a partisan issue?
 
 
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Photo Credit: Answers in Genesis (L); Larry King (R); Composite Screenshot / YouTube.com

 
 
 
 

For consumer advocates and other skeptically minded folks who promote reason and evidence over wishful thinking, watching Sen. Claire McCaskill rip into Dr. Mehmet Oz—a surgeon who teaches at Columbia University who made his fame as the host of “The Dr. Oz Show”—was a thing of beauty. Despite his seemingly impeccable medical resume, Oz has long been a target for consumer advocates who criticize his endless willingness to shill for any “miracle” herbal remedy or supplement he promises will help melt the pounds off fast, while in reality, doing no such thing. (Responsible doctors continue to point out that only diet and exercise can help you lose weight.) Watching McCaskill drag Oz in front of C-SPAN cameras and make him squirm while she accused him of profiting off misleading people felt like a big win for the side of consumer protection.

But it was more than that: It was yet another high-profile case that strengthened the growing sense that science, skepticism, and reason are increasingly becoming a major part of the "liberal agenda." If you doubt it, try to imagine a Republican in McCaskill’s shoes bothering to confront anyone, much less someone who is getting rich off lying, about flying in the face of “scientific consensus.” Even though there was no discernible Republican pushback against the Oz attack, the idea that Republicans could be bothered to care much is also hard to fathom. McCaskill clearly felt confident pushing this agenda in no small part because being on the side of empirical evidence and rationality has become a huge part of the liberal/Democratic brand.

The possibility that rationality itself has become a partisan issue is disquieting to many who prefer to believe that “both sides” have topics that they are irrational about and irrationality is evenly distributed among all political stripes. That may have been true in the past, but increasingly, Americans are rearranging their political views and their views on empiricism so that liberals are putting much more of an emphasis on rationality. Indeed, many of the irrational notions floating out there that are assumed to be “liberal” are, in fact, becoming more associated with the right as this reshuffling takes place.

Take, for instance, the idea that vaccinations are dangerous or linked to autism. This is one of those views that tends to be held out as evidence that liberals are just as nutty and irrational as conservatives. Recently, "The Daily Show" held out anti-vaccination sentiment as the “liberal” version of anti-science movements on the right, such as climate change denialism. It was a funny segment and it’s important, of course, to call out misinformation campaigns regardless of the political affiliation of the people running them.

There was just one little problem: A recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling showed that more Republicans than Democrats worry that vaccines cause autism.

The difference wasn’t small, either. Over a quarter of Republicans had this concern, whereas it was closer to one in five Democrats. As the doctor interviewed in the segment mentioned, anti-vaccination sentiment is more tied up in wealth and class privilege than political leanings. Even though outbreaks occur more in blue states than red, it’s because, in no small part, blue states have more dense, expensive urban areas where wealthy people who shop organic and want to believe their kids are too good for grubby poor people vaccines live, and that matters more than political leanings.

In addition, anti-vaccination sentiment is a distinct minority in both parties. In contrast, the majority of Republicans reject the scientific consensus that global warming is real and human-caused. The two wouldn’t be comparable even if anti-vaccination folks were more liberal, which they are not.

 
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