Talk of a 'secret sauce' in decision-making and charges that government groups like the Environmental Protection Agency are politically motivated are not new. Every president has its opposition party contending that the administration is manipulating science to suit its agenda - in the 1990s, Democrats got it for scuttling the Superconducting Super Collider and gutting the NIH and NASA while a decade later Republicans were called anti-science for limiting federal funding for human embryonic stem cells to existing lines.

No one voted or did not vote for a candidate because of the SSC or hESCs, they were simply talking points to confirm decisions.

In the modern instant news and social media environment, such stories can easily become magnified, and they do. As a result, the public increasingly regards government science policy as just another political marketing tool, no different than mobilizing voters by claiming the opposition is going to impeach the president to drum up voter turnout for November.

Credit: NYU

The result is a public just as divided over science as they are Obamacare and taxes. Even environmental science. It's not like some people actually hate or love the environment more based on how they vote - global warming deniers conserve electricity and recycle as much as financial donors to Sierra Club do - they just filter their belief in what is meaningful action through the latest political prism.

As politics has become more polarized during the Obama years, so have positions, according to a new paper. Though a Republican created National Parks laws, the Clean Air Act and the EPA, and President George W. Bush made the Lacey Act finally effective against illegal logging, the gap between conservatives and liberals on environmental policy has broadened drastically, according to the sociologists.

Based on what? Spending by Congress. 

That is, to conservatives, a flawed premise right out of the gate - you can't spend your way to success, as we have seen in trying to buy solar energy science breakthroughs by throwing money at them. Sociologists are overwhelmingly on the left so they may regard spending as what really matters but moderate people know better - and so does lead author Aaron McCright of Michigan State University, at least on occasion. He wrote a paper last year saying that people who accepted climate change accepted mitigation ideas regardless of being Republican or Democrat. Fewer people on the right accept climate science the same way fewer on the left accept science about vaccines and agriculture, but it isn't because the right spends more on food.

Spending as a metric is also flawed because if spending is what counts, Republicans are far more pro-science than Democrats, making a contention that they are less concerned about environmental science a hard claim to prove. Reagan was the greatest proponent of government-funded basic research in US history. Bush and a Republican Congress doubled funding for the NIH and boosted funding for NASA after declines in the Clinton years. In the Obama years, the NIH is again barely treading water and numerous NASA programs have been cut, like the Constellation

The basis for the sociology claim is annual national survey results from 1974 to 2012 that included a question on environmental spending.  The benefit of their paper for the science-reading public is that it provides a way for us to see 4 Common Warning Signs for when a paper is more about advancing a political agenda than a public service one.

Since they are using Congressional spending as a metric for a divide among the public, if you know any history at all, you will see the First Warning Sign readily enough:

Warning Sign #1 - Amateur Psychology As A Magic Bullet

The survey results found that the divide among citizens who consider themselves conservatives and liberals started growing particularly wide in 1992 - this was the year President Clinton was elected over George H. W. Bush with 43 percent of the vote, when right-wing candidate Ross Perot had a better showing than any third-party nominee in history - but highlighting 1992 and attributing an undercurrent to it shows that they are willing to draw conclusions that are not based on evidence, they are actually in defiance of it. 

McCright and colleagues ignore the acrimony of that contest and claim the widening gap between conservatives and liberals about environmental spending was because of...the fall of the Soviet Union. Republicans, in the eyes of these sociologists, just need to be afraid of something and so a "Red Scare" got replaced with a "Green Scare". 

What else did they leave out that invalidates their assertion? Congress was controlled by Democrats then. Governor Clinton was incredibly polarizing in the 1992 election, to such an extent he put conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh on the national cultural map, but claiming that desire for more environmental spending is an accurate barometer of partisanship falls flat because it simply doesn't happen anywhere else in science and medicine. When it comes to lowering costs for chronically ill people, bipartian bills sail through the House. If people are really more polarized about spending, that would not happen. 

Warning Sign #2 - They Can't See The Environmentalism For The Cheese

The sociologists contend if anyone doesn't want the curve on environmental spending to continually go up, polarization is happening.

A simple thought experiment can help show that is flawed: If, in 1990, both 75 percent of Democrats and Republicans believed the United States spent too little on cheese but by 2012 the spending on cheese was 3X what it was in 1990 yet the left had gone farther left and the right went farther right and so while 68 percent of Democrats still believed we spent too little on cheese while only 40 percent of the Republicans now believed that, sociologists say Republicans are too polarized. 

I know you are smart but in case you missed it, you can literally swap out cheese for environmental spending.

Warning Sign #3 - If The Federal Government Is Broken, It Must Be Republicans

The third warning sign the sociologists are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill - if the American public doesn't want to pay higher prices for electricity, well golly, it must be mean Republicans at work again: “This political polarization is unlikely to reverse course without noticeable convergence in support of environmental protection among policymakers, with prominent conservatives becoming less anti-environmental in their public statements and voting records,” lead author McCright says in their release.

He frames our heroes and villains quite nicely, it is just not evidence-based. If we really care about poor people and the environment, for example, we have to mention that it is Democrats demonizing the science that most helps the poor in America and worldwide and has dematerialized strain on the environment doing it - agriculture. Opponents of food science are doing far more harm to people than resisting CO2 caps and they are "liberals", in the giant stereotypical blanket used by the authors.

Warning Sign #4 - What's A Null Hypothesis?

The humanities often pick a position and then find evidence to match it. It's not a flawed strategy for literature analysts, if you want to claim da Vinci was gay, just note that he got accused of being gay one time, and cite other books claiming he might be gay. Science instead has a null hypothesis, you would have to show he was gay. You can infer some things, we do that about dark matter, but you still need evidence to do it. You can't take survey data and create a matching curve and claim it is a real finding. 

In this case, the curve is the environmental-protection voting patterns of Congress. Science 2.0 readers are smart enough to know that on principle throwing money at issues doesn't help the environment, nor does having Democrats in control. And we have evidence to reaffirm that. In the years 2007-2009, Democrats again had control of Congress but their only big environmental initiative was replacing spoons in the Congressional cafeteria with corn-based things that melted in soup - and when Republicans regained control of the House the outgoing Democrat in charge of the cafeteria asked the incoming Republican to undo that program, because it was a giant waste of money that helped no one nor the environment.

If sociologists were correct, there would have been a huge upswell in desire for environmental spending and then spending to match it. Yet that did not happen, even when there was a bulletproof majority in Congress and a President of the same party in the White House.


In conclusion, I can actually give you a 5th Warning Sign that a paper on science beliefs is not impartial. My fifth warning sign is not scientific but instead creates a belief and finds evidence to match it, so sociologists will feel right at home with my assertion - if Mother Jones endorses your paper, it is biased.

Citation: Aaron M. McCright, Chenyang Xiao, Riley E. Dunlap, 'Political polarization on support for government spending on environmental protection in the USA, 1974–2012', Social Science Research Volume 48, November 2014, Pages 251–260 DOI: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2014.06.008