“For those of us who believe in science,you simply cannot ignore what the scientific community is saying almost unanimously.”
That tweet from presidential candidate Bernie Sanders could have made me #FeelTheBern. I’m a progressive and, at least if you believe the methodology of ISideWith.com, I side with Senator Sanders 95% of the time. I’m also a science advocate and I want to vote for a presidential candidate who both respects scientific expertise and wants to advance evidence-based policies. In our current “death of expertise” cultural milieu, we desperately need leaders who value the rigor of credible scientific evidence and respect the consensus of experts in their field.
But Sanders isn’t as pro-science as that tweet suggests. While his position on the existence of climate change is certainly in line with most climate scientists, his agricultural and climate change policies, as well as his views on alternative medicine, aren’t really informed by science as much as they are by Sanders’ Vermont hippie vision for America. When it comes down to it, Sanders is as erratic in his belief in science as everyone else and, yes, that includes progressives. Progressives love to cast themselves as the smarter, more forward-thinking, science-minded wing of the electorate, but they’re as inconsistent in their regard for science as the so-called “anti-science” right.
Sanders does embrace the consensus of climate change scientists who say that climate change is a real and serious threat that is likely caused by human activities. His climate change plan is incredibly aggressive -- more aggressive than Clinton’s -- with a plan that aims to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 40%. The problem is that this very ambitious plan completely rejects nuclear energy, which pro-technology environmentalists like EcoModernist Co-Founder Michael Shellenberger say would actually result in a net increase in carbon emissions. Sanders wants the country to shift away from nuclear energy to low-tech sources like solar and wind, but Shellenberger and others argue that strategy is neither feasible nor optimal. Fear of and opposition to nuclear energy is prevalent amongst many environmentalists, but pro-technology ecomodernists see nuclear energyas absolutely indispensable to tackling climate change.
Sanders’s anti-nuclear stance isn’t particularly surprising when you consider what’s driving Sanders’ policies. The Sanders campaign isn’t about science advocacy; it’s a throwback to 1960s counter-culture. And just like 1960s counterculture, Sanders’ policies include hard-hitting political activism as well as dreamy hippie idealism. Sanders may have the fiery intensity of an urban political activist, but his views of agriculture and health care are much more in line with the late 60s rural hippies of Vermont. Sanders moved to Vermont in 1968 -- at the height of the Vermont “hippie migration” -- because he found himself “captivated by rural life.” His agricultural policy reflects the anti-corporate philosophy most people associate with Sanders, but it also relies heavily on a regressive view of farming that ignores science and technology almost entirely.
In speeches about food and farm policies, Sanders rejects science and technology and instead focuses on the “hundreds of farmers markets (in Vermont)...people buyingfood, beef and poultry directly from farmers, and...a growing farm to schoolpipeline.” He wants to increase agricultural production from small farms as well as invest in agritourist, farm-to-table, and farm-to-school initiatives. While small farms are obviously a part of the agricultural landscape, an agricultural policy focused primarily on local farming is neither sustainable nor realistic given the demands of our massive and diverse country. Moreover, there are real benefits to science-based and high-tech crop and farming solutions, but Sanders and many other progressives refuse to consider them. The idea that small farms and school vegetable gardens should serve as the backbone for a serious national agricultural policy is a regressive and anti-science way of thinking that pro-science progressives really should confront.
When it comes to the safety of biotechnology and transgenic crops, Sanders rejects scientific consensus completely. He supports labeling GMO foods, even if it means a patchwork of state laws, and continues to validate fears about GMOs without acknowledging the extensive testing to which these crops are subjected. Even though the scientific consensus on GMO safety is equivalent to the consensus on climate change, Sanders and many other progressives have no problem ignoring it. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the National Academy of Science, the U.S.Department of Agriculture and the American Association for the Advancement of Science all agree that genetically modified crops are no more or less riskier than their conventional counterparts.
The term “GMO” itself is a cultural construct rather than a scientific one, which illuminates just how little a role science plays in GMO labeling laws. There is no single, easily-defined GMO ingredient. Actually, what you find in modern agriculture is a diverse collection of crop breeding and genetic engineering methods that defy simple categorization. As a result, current GMO labeling laws (like Vermont’s)define GMOs in a way that’s inconsistent with the science. For example, even though virtually all cheese is made with genetically modified rennet, cheese is exempt from Vermont’s labeling law. Sanders’ support for GMO labeling laws and refusal to acknowledge the scientific consensus on the safety of biotech crops aligns Sanders very solidly with the anti-GMO pro-organic activists who have become the loudest voices of the anti-science left.
Sanders is also a longtime supporter of alternative medicine, despite the strong body of evidence that shows these treatments aren’t more effective than conventional medicine. In the past, Sanders has worked to include alternative medical treatments like chiropractic visits in health care for veterans. On several occasions, he has praised alternative medical treatments like Chinese medicine and other non-pharmaceutical options that simply don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. On the other hand, he isn’t the only presidential contender to praise alternative medicine. Clinton has also praised integrative medicine and the Clinton family is closely connected to Dr. Mark Hyman, a longtime purveyor of pseudoscience. At least, unlike many other Vermont residents, Sanders does support childhood immunizations and has spoken out about the importance of protecting immunocompromised kids. Thankfully, that’s one aspect of anti-science hippie culture that Sanders wholeheartedly rejects.I realize presidential elections inevitably require voters to compromise, so I will vote for Sanders if he’s the eventual nominee. His agricultural policies, particularly on biotech crops, and nuclear energy policies are a huge disappointment, but at this point I’m ready to support whomever is running against Donald Trump (who just happens tobelieve vaccines cause autism, by the way). I just wish Sanders would get honest,and stop tweeting his support for the scientific community when his positions are only informed by science when politically convenient.
More importantly,progressives and Sanders supporters need to confront regressive anti-science thinking in the progressive movement. Anti-GMO and anti-nuclear policies aren’t forward thinking, evidence-based policy solutions. They’re anti-science, rooted in fear and a derailment from the fight to advance meaningful progressive change in this country.