Anti-science vs. epistemic closure in climate science denial

I’ve finally decided I can’t claim to write about science and politics without actually writing about science and politics. People want to make generalizations about Democrats and Republicans. Since some of those generalizations involve science, it’s incumbent upon me to say something. I’ve shied away from this sort of analysis because, despite occasional excursions, I do try to avoid politics here. When the need has cropped up, I’ve focused more on refuting arguments than commenting on either party.

With that, and against my better judgment, I once again wade into the Republicans and science debate. Here’s David Roberts with some caveats to his accusation:

It’s true that Perry “hasn’t criticized the scientific method, or sent the Texas Rangers to chase out from the state anyone in a white lab coat.” But no one thinks Perry is opposed to science as such.

Well if Perry hasn’t criticized the scientific method and if he actually welcomes research and technology, what does it even mean to be anti-science? When even liberal stalwarts like David Roberts have to hedge their rhetoric and admit Republicans aren’t against science as such, it’s proof enough that the term is poorly thought out and shouldn’t be used.

Sloppy terminology aside, there does seem to be something here. According to Pew,two-thirds of Republicans either deny warming or attribute it to natural variation. Only 21% of the most conservative believe humans cause climate change. The corresponding numbers for Democrats are 33% and 74%.

It’s not really shocking so many people find these numbers concerning. The question is what exactly we should be concerned about. The anti-science crowd sees these poll results and infer that Republicans deny the evidence. That’s one possibility. Another is that they were not exposed to the evidence in the first place. A lack of exposure rather than outright hostility could also explain the outcome. It’s easy to reject climate science if Joe Bastardi is your only news source and you never hear about the IPCC. If Julian Sanchez’s “epistemic closure” thesis is true, Republicans’ don’t have an aversion to data per se. It’s that a closed information loop prevents contrary facts from ever surfacing at all.

These are two very different accounts for the same phenomenon and it’s the sort of debate I would love to see the blogosphere take up. Why exactly do Republicans reject climate science? I suspect it’s some combination of motivated reasoning, a general identification of this issue with Democrats in an era of increased partisanship, and epistemic closure. Even if anyone could ever define it, anti-science would add nothing. It’s unfortunate to see David Roberts use such a careless term when I know he understands these topics better than I do.

Unfortunate, but not surprising. By neglecting to acknowledge and respond to the fact that Republicans do deny global warming and it is a big deal, I’ve left the space open for those happy to use bad arguments for political gain (nothing wrong with that by the way!). Hopefully this post is a stab in the right direction.

So if you want to bash Republicans for rejecting climate science, and if you care about precise language, don’t call them anti-science. It might not have as nice of a ring to it, but epistemic closure is more coherent, better defined, and probably much closer to the truth.


  1. I’ve ben following this issue for a while thanks to my former professor Aaron McCright… look up some of his work (he’s a sociologist), it addresses some of the points you bring up (particularly his latest- “Cool dudes”). For example, some of the strongest climate deniers self-identify as the most informed. They do know what the IPCC is, but they view it through Sarewitz’s lens of “excess of objectivity” (picking and choosing data that supports your epistemic position/worldview).

    But larger than climate change, I also find it interesting that we paint republicans as anti-science mainly based on two issues: evolution and climate change. When you move past those two things (both of which are extremely value laden/politically entrenched/polarized), it’s not as clear cut if anyone is really “anti-science” (despite Mooney’s “Republican War on Science”).

    1. Thanks for your comment! I had heard of the “Cool dudes” study, but didn’t know he was your former professor.

      I completely agree with your analysis regarding republicans. It’s not clear what “anti-science” even means, and it’s odd that we cherry pick two examples to make the case. I thought cherry picking data points was a sign of being anti-science!

  2. Perhaps something similar can be said about anthropogenic climate change alarmists; perhaps they suffer from a closed information loop which prevents contrary facts from surfacing as well. Before the spring of 2009, there were almost no blogs which would allow any sceptics a voice, they were deleted immediately. The media was entirely on the alarmist side, presenting evidence of climate change almost every evening during the newscast and implying that it was all attributable to human activity. I had to endure this period, it was extremely frustrating. It was not until the fall of 2009 after Climategate that the media began to present opposing views and alarmist blogs allowed skeptics to post their views. To this day I can’t speak to alarmists about ACC, it offends them and they deny everything I say.

    By the way, I have been a science nerd since I was a kid, I did an undergrad degree in science, and I work fulltime in science with an office full of scientists. Like most I was born and raised a christion but I don’t beleive a word of it now. I do not deny science, I love science, I deny catastrophic climate predictions only.


    1. Hi Klem. Thanks for your comment. That’s a good point, and one I hadn’t considered. It does turn out that climate alarmists tend to know less about the science than the outright deniers, who have often done a lot of research.

      Thanks again.

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