Liberal distrust of the scientific consensus

Yesterday in my review of the recent Pew survey comparing attitudes of scientists and the general public I emphasized the fact that scientists are disproportionately godless liberals. But there are some issues where it seems that the Left is on the forefront of science-skepticism. There has been talk here on ScienceBlogs about the disproportionate Lefty orientation of anti-vaccination activists. From what I can tell this is true, but anti-vaccination sentiment is too shallow of a sentiment for it be starkly political, at least according to these data (there's little party difference). On the other hand there is a big difference when it comes to animal testing, scientists have very pro-animal testing attitudes while the public is ambivalent, with Democrats split, and Republicans favoring by a 2:1 margin. There are bigger gaps here is between men and women, and the old and young, so much of the variation might be accounted for by non-political variables.

But I want to focus on nuclear energy. The chart below lays out the gap between the public and scientists:


From the text of the Pew survey:

About half (51%) of Americans favor building more nuclear power plants to generate electricity, while 42% oppose this. Among the general public, a greater percentage of men (60%) than of women (43%) favor building additional nuclear power plants. More college graduates (59%) favor building nuclear power plants than do those with a high school education or less (46%). And larger shares of Republicans (62%) than independents (52%) or Democrats (45%) support expanding the use of nuclear power to generate electricity.

When it comes to nuclear power, the views of scientists are closer to those of Republicans than Democrats nationwide. Seven-in-ten scientists favor building more nuclear power plants to generate electricity, while 27% are opposed. Among scientists, majorities in every specialty favor building more nuclear power plants, but support is particularly widespread among physicists and astronomers (88% favor). As with the public, far more men (76%) than women (55%) support the expansion of
nuclear power.

I am very struck by the high proportion of physical scientists who are in a position to understand the ins & outs of nuclear power who support the building of more plants. I suspect that the sex difference here can partly be accounted for by different disciplinary representations; physics & astronomy are far more male than the life sciences.

In the GSS in 1993-1994 there were a few questions in regards to nuclear power. Liberals tended to be more suspicious than conservatives. Even when controlling for race and education the pattern was evident. I've posted that data at Secular Right. I also split by sex, and though if you limit men only the difference is ameliorated it remains.

More like this

Liberals have their woo just as conservatives do and they are just as reluctant to abandon it.

By Robert Jase (not verified) on 10 Jul 2009 #permalink

"physical scientists who are in a position to understand the ins & outs of nuclear power": not if the "ins and outs" include the economics. In my experience scientists are commonly complete chumps when it comes to economics.

By bioIgnoramus (not verified) on 10 Jul 2009 #permalink

My own experience leads me to believe that humans, certainly capitalist humans, are not capable of safely operating nuclear power facilities.

I have worked in academia, industry, aerospace, and finance (although only in the USA) and in all these fields I have never encountered any managerial entity that could be trusted to operate systems with the pollution potential of nuclear power plants.

In two of my careers I directly experienced this; the plutonium releases at Savannah River happened while I was working for the company responsible, and of course the Skylab incident.

Humans are fundamentally too petty and self-centered to administrate systems that have byproducts deadly for twelve thousand years. This is unfortunate, since nuclear power is preferable to fossil fuels in nearly every other way. Biomass and solar are the safe way to go; they have fault-tolerance that nuclear cannot currently achieve.

Right now, our choices for base power for the majority of the world are:

1. Coal
2. Nuclear

Take your pick.

I don't think physicists/astrophysicists higher levels of support of nuclear energy than other scientists or Joe Public is just because they (in general) have a deeper understanding of the ins and out of nuclear power plants - the pros and cons of reactor design, nuclear waste storage, (re)processing, proliferation, etc are very complicated even for people with physics degrees.

Speaking as a physicist I'd say its also driven by the fact that they don't have unrealistic fears of radiation - they have a better understanding of effects and risks radiation and nuclear radiation. Tell Joe Public that his coffee cup is radioactive, or that radioactive gas is seeping into his basement, as he tends to get stressed because the media makes nuclear radiation out to be uniformly unnatural and harmful, whereas physicists recognize natural background radiation and realize that radiation's effect depend on dosages. You cant escape nuclear radiation - the question is how much you receive, how, and where.

I remember an interesting (if apocryphal statistic) about radiation levels in the UK - you could get a higher radiation dose from living in the relatively undeveloped and unspoilt Cornwall than from living next to Sellafield (the UK's nuclear processing plant, aka Windscale) simply because the granite rocks underlying Cornwall naturally lead to high levels of Radon and hence higher radiation doses than you;d get from the discharges from a controversial nuclear reactor site.

Yet try convincing a non-scientist that they're safer (radiation-wise) living next to a nuclear power plant than their nice house in the wilds and you'd fail - that kind of quantitative appreciation of risk is simply not part of the way the public is presented complex (scientific) issues.

I agree with you completely on liberals having their (well our) woo and refusing to let go of it no matter what.
The only thing I'd point out is the right isn't agreeing with scientists on animal testing. In the broader sense of animal rights, scientists would probably fall further to the left. The general attitude on the right seems to be along the lines of animals having none whatsoever, while scientists realize banning animal testing would pretty much bring medical research to a halt.
It's along the lines of someone agreeing evolution is absolutely correct, but only because a spirit in a tree told them it was.

By JThompson (not verified) on 10 Jul 2009 #permalink

"Yet try convincing a non-scientist that they're safer (radiation-wise) living next to a nuclear power plant than their nice house in the wilds and you'd fail"

Well granite rocks won't pull another Chernobyl on you, and this is what the public fears most. If Chernobyl happened in a civilized country, there would be public inquiry which would alleviate the fears at least partially. Russia being Russia, Chernobyl was never explained to the public.

By Roman Werpachowski (not verified) on 11 Jul 2009 #permalink

liberal scientist here. another factor driving the support for nuclear power among physical scientists is the "cool factor." People who are enthusiastic about physical science are inclined to be enthusiastic about high-tech power plants. Perhaps their decision making isn't entirely rational either.

To me the real issues with nuclear power aren't the risks of radiation from an operating plant (which you cite in the blog, in relation to granite) but the risks due to human stupidity and organizational greed (which were the driving factors at TMI). Charlie #3 above nailed it. We don't have a safe way to store the waste, we can't transport the waste without exposing it to terrorist attack, we can't trust utility companies to operate highly complex systems with the required low failure rate, and we can't trust government regulatory agencies to be unbiased and effective.

Since the majority ( 52%& 93%) of people are in favor of using animals for research, I would question the wisdom of allowing doctors to use "human lab rats" to test the efficacy of drug samples given to them by big pharma, for example, antibiotics like Levaquin, without any warnings as to negative effects. I speak from experience; the results were just short of disastrous.There is too much trust placed in the medical community. Even though I am well-educated in the field of science, I was too sick to care or to investigate the drug; I placed myself in the hands of a doctor and the FDA (silly me).

Those are interesting results, but we need to be wary of drawing general conclusions based on single results. One could say that the scientists are totalitarian radiation-addicted freaks, or you could say that they are aware of the deeper issues because of their better education and therefore their answers make more sense.

The physical scientists understand that radiation is simply another force of nature. They are not mystified by the dark energy narrative.

The public rejection of nuclear power is absolutely the most anti science episode of the twentieth century. By a pure, hard, scientific analysis nuclear power is utterly safe, clean and cheap.

Animal research raises an interesting, although completely unrealistic (and StarTrek-like) question. Suppose human race came into contact with a superior civilization, who wanted to conduct research experiments on humans. Assume the difference in development is so huge that for all practical purposes, we look to them as rats look to us. Having conducted experiments on animals, could we question the aliens' right to conduct experiments on us?

By Roman Werpachowski (not verified) on 12 Jul 2009 #permalink

This isn't that surprising. Large parts of the left still associate scientists as part of the evil establishment/military-industrial complex (slight hyperbole but the basic idea remains).

The fact that the left right now is better about many science issues it large a coincidence of attitudes. Much science happens to agree with their ideological desires while much science happens to disagree with many right-wing ideologies. If science didn't support many of their views they'd simply adopt the same anti-science views as the right. It wouldn't result in much in the way of actual change in their attitudes about policy or anything else.

"Large parts of the left still associate scientists as part of the evil establishment/military-industrial complex"

They have reasons to do so -- atomic physicists, for example, got a lot of funding from Reagan's Star Wars project ;-)

By Roman Werpachowski (not verified) on 12 Jul 2009 #permalink

We don't have a safe way to store the waste,

Between reprocessing, geologic disposal and transmutation this is a puzzling sentence. I imagine this is about the long term radioactivity of waste as coal plants currently emit more radiation than nuclear plants in the short term. Certainly, storing waste isn't even close to as bad as storing waste for fossil fuels in the short term. Otherwise a combination of those first three are the current approach to storing waste with many more even better solutions currently being researched. Considering those solutions its a strange claim to say that there is no 'safe' way to store the waste. Somebody should alert the French!

we can't transport the waste without exposing it to terrorist attack,

We seem to do fine with respect to transporting nuclear weapons and other hot radioactive material. The french and other countries also seem to do fine with this. It's not like we're going to be sending run of the mill double wide trailers with Uranium and Plutonium here. Considering the material being transported I'm sure that security would be even greater than typical fuel transportation. In this day and age everything is 'exposed' to terrorist attack. That shouldn't preclude movement of fuels and other important goods.

we can't trust utility companies to operate highly complex systems with the required low failure rate,
and we can't trust government regulatory agencies to be unbiased and effective.

Perhaps you're uneasy with it, but that's just your prejudice against the ability of engineers and management to control these plants. It amazes me that anybody who reads these blogs and understands the complexity of running/producing everything from satellite communications to weapons testing to GM foods could write such a sentence. Ditto for regulatory agencies.

Are these systems flawed? Obviously. Clearly however the cost/benefit analysis would be steepened for nuclear power and the ensuing politics (again the french case is the best demonstration here) but its certainly not intractable. Somebody else said pick between nuclear power and coal. Sadly, that's probably somewhat true. Considering how nuclear power was assailed in this comment, I imagine the same commentators would laugh off our current infatuation with solar and wind power considering the enormous scientific and political problems with both (not to mention hydropower). In that case nuclear power, which is relatively safe, incredibly powerful and much farther along in terms of research to make use even more efficient/safe is clearly the best option.


The funny thing is the joke is kind of true too--or at least that's what I've gained from some profs in the area. I'd be careful about walking down this path though or you'll get 'skeptics' pointing out the same bogeyman with respect to global warming and the NSF/etc.

By physicsgradlackey (not verified) on 12 Jul 2009 #permalink

I'd just note that policy questions aren't strictly science questions. Someone could think that "teach the controversy" over creationism in schools is fine yet believe in evolution.

A lot of the questions that Razib cited have non-scientific components to the potential response, like ethics and economics.

My own example - I don't question that using chimps and potentially other great apes in medical experiments would have a lot of scientific value, but the ethical cost exceeds the benefit. I'm not skeptical of science in taking this position.

By Brian Schmidt (not verified) on 13 Jul 2009 #permalink