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Opinion

Op-Ed: When it comes to science ‘sense,’ are Trump and the Republicans really worse than Democrats?

Donald Trump during the CNN GOP Debate

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump takes part in the presidential debates at the Reagan Library on September 16 in Simi Valley.

(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Isn’t it fun to bash Republicans for being “anti-science”?   

If you’re the type of Democrat who goes in for that kind of thing, last night’s GOP presidential debate was catnip for you. The always-entertaining Donald Trump railed about vaccines causing autism, drawing a gentle rebuke from Ben Carson. But then Carson and Rand Paul — the other physician onstage — said that young children are receiving too many vaccines, which is every bit as false as Trump’s claim linking the vaccines to autism.   

The blogosphere lit up with gleeful I-told-you-so posts from liberals, reminding us that Republicans ignore science. But here’s what they didn’t tell you: Democrats do the same thing. The so-called “War on Science” is a bipartisan attack, not a GOP jihad. And that makes it even scarier.    

Take vaccines, for example. Or don’t take them, which is what’s been happening in liberal strongholds like Boulder, Colo., and the Bay Area of California. A recent investigation of 12 day-care centers affiliated with tech companies in the Silicon Valley found that half of them didn’t have a high enough vaccination rate to provide herd immunity against measles.   

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Nationwide, a 2009 Pew Research Center survey found that 27% of Republicans and 26% of Democrats believed that parents should be allowed to decide whether to vaccinate their children. By 2014, the number of Republicans agreeing with that statement had risen to 34%, while the Democratic percentage dipped to 22%.    

So there is a difference, but it’s a modest one. The gap is much wider on climate change, where 27% of Republicans and 71% of Democrats say changes in the earth’s temperature are “mostly due to human activity.”   

But on other issues, Democrats have a firm lead on the anti-science front. In a recent ABC poll about genetically modified food, for example, Republicans were split evenly about whether such foods were unsafe. But among Democrats, 26 percent more people said the foods were unsafe than safe.

And what does the science say? After reviewing 25 years of research, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported in 2012 that genetically modified foods are no riskier than food grown in a conventional fashion. “The science is quite clear: crop improvement by modern molecular biotechnology is safe,” the AAAS declared.    

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Or consider the highly charged question of whether homosexuality is innate. People with gay siblings are more likely to become gay themselves, which suggests a genetic component for sexual orientation. But it’s simply false to say that gays are “born that way.” There is no “gay gene” for homosexuality, which is rooted in our social conditioning as well as in our biology.    

That didn’t prevent 62% of Democrats from telling Gallup pollsters earlier this year that homosexuality is innate; among Republicans, only 40% thought so. Liberals want homosexuality to be inherited, so it’s accepted rather than scorned. Conservatives are more likely to believe that gay behavior is learned, which suggests that it also could be altered.    

On issue after issue, then, both teams distort science when it serves their purposes. Our brains are wired to look for material that confirms our biases and to ignore information that challenges them. But we can also teach ourselves to resist this tendency, if we’re disciplined about it.    

So I’ve got a modest proposal for our circus-like presidential campaign. Instead of asking each candidate for scientific evidence that supports their positions, we should ask them to identify sound science that seems to run counter to these positions.   

Conservatives would have to acknowledge the wealth of research establishing human-made climate change, but explain why they still oppose limits on coal-burning plants. Liberals would have to admit that genetically modified foods are safe, but then make the case for labeling them anyhow.    

That would improve the dismal quality of our public dialogue, moving us beyond pseudo-debates and into real ones. There is no serious scientific controversy about climate change, but there’s a huge political question about how to address it. And we can’t get to the actual issue unless we put aside the fake one.   

I know, it’s a long shot. It’s so much easier to consult “The University of Google” — as the actress and anti-vaccination activist Jenny McCarthy calls it — to find half-baked “theories” that confirm what we already thought. Over at the real Google, meanwhile, less than half of the kids at a company-sponsored day care were completely vaccinated as of earlier this year. And almost everyone there, I would hazard to guess, is a Democrat.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education,” which was published in March by Princeton University Press.

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