The impact of anti-science ideology on conservative American politics is unavoidable and many wonder what sort of impact it may have on American society over the coming decades. Well, some lessons can be had from the history of other countries where anti-scientific thinking on behalf of some political ideology has come to control national politics.
Not a single one of those situations turned out well for anyone involved.
Anti-science ideology has taken hold before, differently, but history may provide some lessons. The fundamental elements were similar when the Soviet Union elevated the ideology of Lysenkoism ahead of the warnings of geneticists, whom Trofim Lysenko called "caste priests of ivory tower bourgeois pseudoscience", not unlike Sarah Palin's characterisations of global warming as "doomsday scare tactics pushed by an environmental priesthood". Soviet agriculture was set back 40 years.
The political right in Weimar Germany called Einstein's theory of relativity a "hoax" and said he was in it for the money--much as climate deniers argue today.
During the Nuremberg trials, Hitler's Minister for Armaments, Albert Speer, recounted the use of new technology to deliver a uniform ideological message, much like today's political echo chambers: "Through technical devices like the radio and the loudspeaker, 80 million people were deprived of independent thought." In other words, "Dittoheads".
In his Great Leap Forward, Mao set forth a plan to transform China into a modern society in 15 years. Scientists who advised against his ideas were harassed or jailed. Mao's policies led to the greatest famine in human history and the deaths of over 40 million people.
The US is obviously nowhere near any of these situations, but is reaching a crisis point uniquely its own. With every step away from reason and into ideology, the country moves toward a state of tyranny in which public policy comes to be based not on knowledge, but on the most loudly voiced opinions.
Source: New Scientist, October 29, 2011
For something a bit more recent, consider the decision of South African president Thabo Mbeki to reject the use of antiretroviral drugs for treating AIDS. This was part of his flirtation with the anti-scientific movement that denies that HIV causes AIDS. According to the Journal of AIDS, this resulted in more than 300,000 premature deaths in South Africa.
Science isn't perfect, but anti-scientific ideologies kill. The history of the 20th century is filled with examples of people being killed or dying prematurely because of anti-scientific thinking in high political circles. If such thinking becomes rooted too firmly in the American government, like via a Republican president who denies basic science, then even more people will die.
So how can the scientific community combat the anti-science ideology that is taking hold in America? Becoming more engaged with the public is probably the best first step. Science is inherently political, not simply a matter of neutral facts, so the scientific community needs to be engaged in the political debates that are going on. Mere facts won't change people's minds, but an engaged scientific community may help move some people over time.