Skeptical Voting

Posted on April 16, 2011


Partisan Hackery Alert: In this post, I defend the Green Party.

A facebook friend of mine recently linked to a blog post, entitled “Don’t Not Vote for the Anti-Science Green Party” by a self-described skeptical biochemist. The gist of it is summed up by this quote:

“I will never vote for a political party that promotes naturopathy and homeopathy in such a prominent manner. Naturopathy and homeopathy are examples of anti-science quack medicine. The fact that the leaders of the party would even include this in their platform tells me that scientific thinking is not part of their worldview and it calls into question their positions on everything else.

The Green Party wants to use my tax dollars to support these quacks.

This is very wrong.

Do not vote for the Green Party. If you want to cast a protest vote then spoil your ballot or vote for some other party that cannot be elected in your riding. Every vote for the Green Party is a vote against science.”

I consider myself a skeptic, and as such I must agree that many forms of alternative medicine are at best ineffectual and at worst a dangerous, if lucrative, distraction from evidence-based medicine. Homeopathy, to take a particularly egregious example has resulted in several preventable deaths. As such, join Lawrence A. Moran in being quite concerned about this aspect of the Green Party platform. Moran’s stance on the matter is, however far too extreme for two reasons.

Firstly, scientific studies of alternative medicine generally conclude that they are no more effective than a placebo. This is not the same thing as not effective at all! The placebo effect can be very powerful, controlling things like pain or depression. While it would be irresponsible to prescribe a homeopathic remedy to a cancer patient, there is no reason to not offer a homeopathic remedy to ease their pain if that is the sort of treatment they prefer, for traditional or personal reasons. Alternative medicine tends to be more personal and less alienating than scientific medicine, and many forms of alternative medicine carry with them a sense of tradition that some people value. While none of these factors justifies alternative remedies for serious life-threatening conditions, there is no reason not to give some support to alternative medicine for smaller things.

Even if you disagree with my above argument, the fact remains that the Greens’ support for alternative medicine a relatively minor mention in a party platform.  It would be silly, therefore, to use this as grounds for ruling out an entire political party, and all the rest of the things they stand for. This is made especially true by the demonstrated lack of evidence-based legislation demonstrated by all four of the other parties. To take one highly visible example, the Conservatives insist that mandatory minimum sentencing will help reduce the crime rate and that corporate tax cuts will be an effective stimulus to the contrary despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary on both counts. Marijuana continues to be illegal, despite repeated studies confirming that it is harmless, and all three sitting parties continue to overtly or implicitly subscribe to the economic ideology of perpetual growth, whose realization would violate the laws of thermodynamics.

There is a lot in Canadian federal policy that should make skeptics angry. Governments are really not very good at heeding the advice of scientists, because public opinion does not have any effect on what the evidence actually says. The world needs skeptics as a powerful political force to ensure that the (potentially) unpopular conclusions demanded by the evidence are heeded and acted on. The skeptical movement, meanwhile, seems to insist on concentrating all its energies on easy targets such as creationism and alternative medicine. The combined harms of creationism and alternative medicine pale in comparison to those brought on by climate change denial!

There are a number of philosophical standpoints that can be used to inform responsible voting. Skepticism can be one of these, but only if it comes along with some consideration of priorities. A world with homeopathy but no climate change is much better than its inverse. So if you are a skeptic, vote for the party that will implement evidence-based policy to solve our biggest problems, such as criminal justice, environmental degradation, and economic instability. The evidence demands it.