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An election about science

January 13th, 2012 · 10 Comments

When it comes to the November 2012elections, few people identify science as the core issue. Economic concerns (JOBS! JOBS! JOBS!), fossil-foolish fueled anger at government, passions over the role of government, the Occupy Movement (what is happening to the 99% while the 1% profit?), and otherwise are among the many “core” issues.  A hidden element of the election, for most Americans, is that this election is fundamentally about science.

Very simply, while most Americans continue to hold science and scientists in high regard, an increasingly large share of the Republican Party’s elite, office holders, candidates, and mouth pieces are taking seriously anti-science positions.

  • While the scientific community sees the Theory of Global Warming to be as strongly based as the Theory of Gravity, those dominating the Republican Party attack climate scientists as engaged in a global cabal to falsify scientific data.
  • Many senior people in the Republican Party denigrate the Theory of Evolution and promote inclusion of religious beliefs into science classrooms.
  • When it comes to environmental regulatory actions, leading Republican politicians belittle scientists and scientific work with, for a recent example, outright denials of the serious health risks and impacts of mercury poisioning.
  • Hiding under the guise of “sound science”, Republican politicians promote polluter-driven pseudo-science to skew policy away from honest science-based discussions.

As Nature magazine’s editors summarized it two years ago in Science Scorned,

The anti-science strain pervading the right wing in the United States is the last thing the country needs in a time of economic challenge.

That searing editorial began with a quotation from Rush Limbaugh:

The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That’s how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.

While, as Nature’s editors state, “it is tempting to to laugh this off,” the reality is that Rush’s bombast is the position taken by too many of 2012’s Republican Party candidates. Expertise and knowledge and institutions that value these are the enemy.

Sadly, Rush and ilk are making understanding and support of science an ideological litmus test.
While climate denial is central to that litmus test, it is far from the only element.

Denialism over global warming has become a scientific cause célèbre within the movement. Limbaugh, for instance, who has told his listeners that “science has become a home for displaced socialists and communists”, has called climate-change science “the biggest scam in the history of the world”. The Tea Party’s leanings encompass religious opposition to Darwinian evolution and to stem-cell and embryo research — which Beck has equated with eugenics. The movement is also averse to science-based regulation, which it sees as an excuse for intrusive government. Under the administration of George W. Bush, science in policy had already taken knocks from both neglect and ideology. Yet President Barack Obama’s promise to “restore science to its rightful place” seems to have linked science to liberal politics, making it even more of a target of the right.

It is hard to understate the damage that anti-science syndrome suffering ideologues create. The achievements of science are core to our existence, from medicine that saves our lives to analytical tools that enable speed-of-light communications to … Demonization of science fosters, in the near and long-term, a weakened economic competitiveness for the United States. And, it will lead to a much weaker nation in the decades to come due to climate chaos in addition to a weakening of America’s position in the sciences.

Few Americans put ‘respect for science’ and basic scientific knowledge at the top of the list when they go into the poll booth. Considering the stark contrast between the parties and the serious negative consequences of having a governing elite ignorant of and disdainful for science, perhaps it should make it higher up the list.

With the State Of The Union (SOTU) address, the President has the opportunity to seize the initiative to put science higher up the list.  He should lay out, directly, how critical science is to our current lives and for securing future prosperity and security. He should lay out, directly, the start contrasts between the parties when it comes to science and appeal (above the heads of Members of Congress) on the American people to fight to restore sanity when it comes to science in our political process.  He can start with a strong discussion of climate science, an arena of incredibly start difference between the two parties, but should not end there.  In 2009, in a speech to the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama said before the National Academy of Science,

we are restoring science to its rightful place

The SOTU speechwriters should go back to that 2009 speech and take it as inspiration to restore science to its rightful place in the national debate.


  1. See after the fold for polling information about scientists and their political affiliation. 
  2. Many are calling on the President to address climate science in the SOTU.  See, for example, here, here, and here.
  3. Science Debate formed in 2008 in an effort to give science a seat at the table in Presidential election debates and are working to do so in 2012.  Some notable points from Science Debate-related polling lay out starkly how key national issues revolve around science.  Here are some of the results from that polling:
  •  85% of US Adults Say Presidential Candidates Should Debate Science Issues
  • Majority Say Scientific Research In The Past Affects Our Present Quality of Life
  • Majority Say Scientific Research Today Affects Our Future Quality of Life
  • 83% Say It’s Important That Candidates Talk About How Science Will Affect Their Policy-making Decisions
  • 67% Say Public Policies Should Be Influenced More By Scientific Evidence Than Personal Beliefs
  • 84% Say Scientific Innovation Improves Our Standard Of Living

The Republican-Scientist Gap

There has been a growing gap between scientists and the Republican Party. In 2009, of 2500 polled scientists, just 6 percent of the polled identify themselves as Republicans (as opposed to 23 percent of the overall population). The increasing number of anti-science Republican politicians (for example, on climate change issues) will harden this divide.

In a related discussion, see David Roberts, Grist, The right’s climate denialism is part of something much larger.

Consider what the Limbaugh/Morano crowd is saying about climate: not only that that the world’s scientists and scientific institutions are systematically wrong, but that they are purposefully perpetrating a deception. Virtually all the world’s governments, scientific academies, and media are either in on it or duped by it. The only ones who have pierced the veil and seen the truth are American movement conservatives, the ones who found death panels in the healthcare bill.

It’s a species of theater, repeated so often people have become inured, but if you take it seriously it’s an extraordinary charge. For one thing, if it’s true that the world’s scientists are capable of deception and collusion on this scale, a lot more than climate change is in doubt. These same institutions have told us what we know about health and disease, species and ecosystems, energy and biochemistry. If they are corrupt, we have to consider whether any of the knowledge they’ve generated is trustworthy. We could be operating our medical facilities, economies, and technologies on faulty theories. We might not know anything! Here we are hip-deep in postmodernism and it came from the right, not the left academics they hate.

Scientific claims are now subject to ideological disputation. Rush Limbaugh is telling millions of people that they’ve taken the red pill and everything they once knew and could trust is a lie. They’ve woken up outside the Matrix and he is their corpulent, drug-addicted, thrice-divorced Morpheus. What could go wrong?

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Tags: 2012 Presidential Election · Obama Administration · political symbols · politics · President Barack Obama · republican party · research · science

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