I don’t often tell readers about articles that they simply have to read, but this pair qualifies. Together they’re not terribly short (about 7000 words in toto), but I like to think that my readers have decent attention spans—and the interest in science and politics that makes this Scientific American essay, “Antiscience beliefs jeopardize U.S. democracy” by Shawn Lawrence Otto, mandatory reading. When you finish Otto’s piece, go read the related Sci. Am. piece: “Science in an election year,” which summarizes and rates the Presidential candidates’ stands on 14 critical scientific and technological issues.
In fact, go read them now before you read any other posts on this website.
Otto’s piece not only summarizes the current anti-science strain in American politics, but traces its origins back to the time of the Founding Fathers, who were clearly pro-science (Jefferson and Franklin come to mind). From those early Enlightenment views, things have degraded to the current situation, where scientific facts now seem disposable, readily trumped by personal opinions and religious beliefs.
Otto faults both Democrats and Republics for the current climate, though Republicans bear the brunt of the responsibility:
Today’s denial of inconvenient science comes from partisans on both ends of the political spectrum. Science denialism among Democrats tends to be motivated by unsupported suspicions of hidden dangers to health and the environment. Common examples include the belief that cell phones cause brain cancer (high school physics shows why this is impossible) or that vaccines cause autism (science has shown no link whatsoever). Republican science denialism tends to be motivated by antiregulatory fervor and fundamentalist concerns over control of the reproductive cycle. Examples are the conviction that global warming is a hoax (billions of measurements show it is a fact) or that we should “teach the controversy” to schoolchildren over whether life on the planet was shaped by evolution over millions of years or an intelligent designer over thousands of years (scientists agree evolution is real). Of these two forms of science denialism, the Republican version is more dangerous because the party has taken to attacking the validity of science itself as a basis for public policy when science disagrees with its ideology.
Postmodernism, beloved by many on the left, is also responsible, since many of its acolytes claim that all truths are subjective ones, and that science is merely one form of ideology.
The litany of Republican attacks on science is depressing:
But much of the Republican Party has adopted an authoritarian approach that demands ideological conformity, even when contradicted by scientific evidence, and ostracizes those who do not conform. It may work well for uniform messaging, but in the end it drives diverse thinkers away—and thinkers are what we need to solve today’s complex problems. . .
. . . Republican attacks on settled scientific issues—such as anthropogenic climate change and evolution—have too often been met with silence or, worse, appeasement by Democrats.
Governor Romney’s path to endorsement exemplifies the problem. “I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world is getting warmer,” Romney told voters in June 2011 at a town hall meeting after announcing his candidacy. “I can’t prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer, and number two, I believe that humans contribute to that.” Four days later radio commentator Rush Limbaugh blasted Romney on his show, saying, “Bye-bye nomination. Bye-bye nomination, another one down. We’re in the midst here of discovering that this is all a hoax. The last year has established that the whole premise of man-made global warming is a hoax! And we still have presidential candidates who want to buy into it.
By October 2011 Romney had done an about-face. “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us,” he told an audience in Pittsburgh, then advocated for aggressive oil drilling. And on the day after the Republican National Convention, he tacked back toward his June 2011 position when he submitted his answers to ScienceDebate.org.
The litany never ends:
House Speaker John A. Boehner, who controls the flow of much legislation through Congress, once argued for teaching creationism in science classes and asserted on national television that climate scientists are suggesting that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen. They are not. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota warned in 2011 during a Florida presidential primary debate that “innocent little 12-year-old girls” were being “forced to have a government injection” to prevent infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) and later said the vaccine caused “mental retardation.” HPV vaccine prevents the main cause of cervical cancer. Religious conservatives believe this encourages promiscuity. There is no evidence of a link to mental retardation.
. . . Herman Cain, who is well respected in business circles, told voters that “global warming is poppycock.” Newt Gingrich, who supported doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health and who is also a supporter of ScienceDebate.org, began describing stem cell research as “killing children in order to get research material.” Candidates Rick Perry and Ron Paul both called climate change “a hoax.” In February, Rick Santorum railed that the left brands Republicans as the antiscience party. “No. No, we’re not,” he announced. “We’re the truth party.”
It is this distinction between “science” and “truth” (i.e., personal opinion, religious belief, and desire to placate the wealthy) that really characterizes mainstream Republicans.
And I find this the most depressing of all (I refer to the statement that I’ve put in bold type):
Tennessee, South Dakota and Louisiana have all recently passed legislation that encourages unwarranted criticisms of evolution to be taught in the states’ public schools. Evangelical state legislators and school board members mounted similar efforts this year in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Alabama, and the Texas Republican Party platform opposes “the teaching of … critical thinking skills and similar programs that … have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”
“The student’s fixed beliefs.” Think about that.
Otto sees two damaging effects of anti-science strains in American politics. I’ve written about the first before:
1. Science journalism won’t adjudicate issues for the public. Part of this is from the American ethos of “fair play,” which has fostered the “teach-all-sides” view of evolution, and part is because science journalists simply aren’t equipped, nor have the desire, to understand the issues. As Otto says:
Reporters who agree with this statement [the postmodern view that "there is no such thing as objectivity"] will not dig to get to the truth and will tend to simply present “both sides” of contentious issues, especially if they cannot judge the validity of scientific evidence. This kind of false balance becomes a problem when one side is based on knowledge and the other is merely an opinion, as often occurs when policy problems intersect with science. If the press corps does not strive to report objective reality, for which scientific evidence is our only reliable guide, the ship of democracy is set adrift from its moorings in the well-informed voter and becomes vulnerable once again to the tyranny that Jefferson feared.
There are exceptions, of course, but too often reporters like the now-disgraced Jonah Lehrer simply refuse to do the hard work of finding out which side of a scientific debate is best supported by facts. That holds not only for issues of public import, but also scientific controversies, like E. O. Wilson’s contention that kin selection is irrelevant to evolution.
2. A public swayed by opinion and wish-thinking rather than evidence can’t support democracy. Otto cites Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding on how “knowledge must be grounded in observations of the physical world” (shades of scientism!), and then argues:
By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. . .
When facts become opinions, the collective policymaking process of democracy begins to break down. Gone is the common denominator—knowledge—that can bring opposing sides together. Government becomes reactive, expensive and late at solving problems, and the national dialogue becomes mired in warring opinions.
That’s about the clearest statement of the dangers of wish-thinking I’ve seen. And of course much of that wish-thinking comes from religion. It is in fact the wedding of religious fundamentalism with untrammeled capitalism that, to Otto, is the real cause of America’s opposition to science.
- Innovation and the economy
- Climate change
- Research and the future
- Pandemics and biosecurity
- The Internet
- Ocean Health
- Science in Public Policy
- Critical Natural Resources
- Vaccination and Public Health
You’ll find the answers enlightening and, if you’re an Obama fan, not that heartening. The editors’ verdict?
Overall, we found that Romney was more specific about what he would like to do in the next four years than Obama. His responses also fared better on feasibility. Obama had the upper hand on scientific accuracy. Romney’s answers on climate change, ocean health and freshwater, in particular, revealed an unfamiliarity with the evidence that shows how urgent these issues have become. In a few cases, the candidates received identical scores for different reasons.
The only thing I was unreservedly happy to see in both pieces was this statement from Otto’s article:
This antiregulatory-antiscience alliance largely defines the political parties today and helps to explain why, according to a 2009 survey, nine out of 10 scientists who identified with a major political party said they were Democrats.
Science really is the Truth Party.