In the nearly 48 hours since President Obama, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul made their comments on vaccination, the issue has become a partisan sideshow. Bolstered by media critiques of Christie and Paul, Democrats gleefully accused Republicans of anti-science views. And conservatives, miffed by a perceived double standard, replied in kind.
“It is indefensible to spin this as a problem for Republicans,” wrote Mollie Hemingway, senior editor for the Federalist, pointing to the prevalence of vaccine skeptics in liberal enclaves like Marin County, California, and the presence of the same in liberal magazines like Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, and Salon. Her colleague, fellow senior editor David Harsanyi, went further, listing “five ways liberals ignore science,” from anti-vaccination and anti-genetically modified foods dogma, to global warming “alarmism,” fracking, and a whole host of parascience beliefs. “Among those who do believe extraterrestrials are hanging around, 69 percent are Democrats, a far higher number than Republicans,” he writes, citing a 2013 poll from YouGov and the Huffington Post. “Democrats were also significantly more likely than Republicans to believe in fortune telling, and about twice as likely to believe in the astrology.”
I sympathize with the impulse behind both arguments. It’s maddening to see thoughtful friends and smart allies tarred with the brush of “anti-science,” especially when the charge still stings. The fame of Neil deGrasse Tyson or the massive popularity of fictional characters like Tony Stark is a sure sign that science—or at least, a crude scientism—retains great influence in public life, even as the broad culture faces a crisis of confidence in authority. To stand against science in many places is to invite stigma and disdain.
Which is to say that overall, both Hemingway and Harsanyi are right: Fairness requires an evenhanded look at the presence of anti-science beliefs on the left and the right. With that in mind, vaccine skepticism is mostly ecumenical. The Pew Research Center finds modest differences in views about vaccination—34 percent of Republicans, 33 percent of independents, and 22 percent of Democrats believe parents should have final say on vaccination—while we know from anecdotes that vaccine rejection is present in conservative religious communities (like the Amish in Ohio) as well as in crunchy college-town communes like Boulder, Colorado. In fact, the available data shows stability in anti-vaccination views across ideology—neither side is substantially more likely than the other to hold anti-vaccine beliefs.
Which gets to the problem of this conversation: It is annoyingly, frustratingly imprecise. Because we see the strongest anti-vaccination beliefs among clusters of affluent, left-wing parents, we assume a one-to-one connection—it’s their politics that drive their conviction. And when their conversations turn to deceitful doctors and untrustworthy pharmaceuticals companies, that’s a fair assumption to make. At the same time, as Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan makes clear, “[P]olitical liberalism is part of a correlated cluster of beliefs and lifestyles in those places and isn’t seemingly the most important explanatory factor in determining who’s a vaccine skeptic.” That many vaccine skeptics are liberal doesn’t make vaccination skepticism a liberal belief, driven by liberal concerns. And this is true for a whole host of anti-science beliefs—like belief in astrology—that are associated with particular political teams but aren’t themselves political.
All of which raises a question: When is an anti-science belief political? At the risk of tautology, it’s when it becomes an agenda item for the party in question. Neither vaccine skepticism nor its cousin, GMO skepticism, is a particular Republican or Democratic problem, because neither party advances policies or agendas around either concern. (Although, if either issue developed a distinct political constituency, that could happen, which is one critical reason we don’t want vaccination to become part of the partisan landscape.) By contrast, something like climate skepticism is a Republican problem—distinct from other anti-science beliefs—because of its huge currency in actual Republican politics. Sure, both parties have members with anti-science beliefs. But it’s the GOP that’s elevated a few of those beliefs to the party platform.
Are Democrats in a similar situation? Not quite. While some conservatives describe abortion rights as anti-science—citing the truth that a human life is created at the moment of fertilization—that confuses a biological question with a metaphysical one. The question for most abortion rights advocates isn’t whether the fetus is human, it’s whether it stands as a person with the rights and protections of an infant or a child. That’s a question for religion, philosophy, and law, not science.
And this is true of a whole host of political and politicized beliefs. In the quest for partisan advantage, everyone scrambles to clothe his or her beliefs in the guise of objectivity. The reality, however, is that our beliefs are nothing of the sort. We construct them outside the scope of scientific observation, with ideas that come to us through custom, experience, and education, and for which science gives little confirmation or support. “We see what we want to see,” writes John Dewey in Human Nature and Conduct, “We dwell upon favoring circumstances till they become weighted with reinforcing considerations.” In that environment, honest deliberation, he says, “needs every possible help it can get against the twisting, exaggerating, and slighting tendency of passion and habit.”
Instead of trying to attack each other for our fealty to science—or lack thereof—let’s acknowledge the deep subjectivity of our views but try to use the tools and methods of science to help us inform and strengthen them; to challenge them, to sharpen them, and to try to root them in our shared reality.