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Austin Cline

Science Denial and the Republican Party

By February 28, 2013

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Denying science and reality should, in principle, be non-partisan. No general political orientation should be more or less predisposed to it. In the real world, though, denial of science and reality is heavily weighted towards conservatism and the Republican Party.

Science vs. Religion
Science vs. Religion
Photo: Jupiterimages / Getty

You can find science denial on the other end of the political spectrum, but it's not nearly as common, as loud, or as influential outside American conservatism. Science denial among conservatives also covers a larger number of important subjects than it does among liberals.

This means that conservatives' science denial is far more likely to harm American interests and even America's future. Yet these are the same people who consistently denounce their political opponents as un-American or even anti-American.

Shawn Lawrence Otto writes in Scientific American:

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.

It gives me no pleasure to say this. My family founded the Minnesota Republican Party. 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.

Authoritarianism of every and any sort always ends up in some form of science denial because it always demands ideological and political conformity, regardless of the facts. It's inevitable that every human ideology will have some flaws and errors because humans are fallible. So every human ideology will either have to adjust to deal with new information or deny reality in order to hold on to earlier but erroneous beliefs.

Authoritarianism of every and any sort is ill-suited to make adjustments to deal with new facts -- it's probably not impossible, but it is unlikely, given its overall nature. This is probably why today's conservatism in America has become so heavily invested in science denial: it's become ever more authoritarian and the number of facts that need to be denied have grown.

What's particularly unfortunate, though, is how popular the authoritarian science denial is among conservative voters.

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-yearold 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.

In a separate debate, Republican candidate Jon Huntsman was asked about comments he had made that the Republican Party is becoming the antiscience party. "All I'm saying," he replied, "is that for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science." Republican primary voters apparently disagreed. Huntsman, the lone candidate to actively embrace science, finished last in the polls.

In fact, candidates who began to lag in the GOP presidential primaries would often make antiscience statements and would subsequently rise in the polls. 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."

So it seems that Republican candidates may not have a lot of choice when it comes to denying science. I expect that many of them aren't really faced with a decision to make because they sincerely deny science, but others it seems would like to defend science and reality but can't if they want to be elected. What does this say about conservatives and Republicans in America today?

If both Democrats and Republicans have worn the antiscience mantle, why not just wait until the pendulum swings again and denialism loses its political potency?

The case for action rests on the realization that for the first time since the beginning of the Enlightenment era in the mid-17th century, the very idea of science as a way to establish a common book of knowledge about the world is being broadly called into question by heavily financed public relations campaigns.

Random anti-science attitudes among one or other political group may be problematic, but not necessarily a danger to the country. Denying science is bad, but not necessarily fatal. Among conservatives in America today, though, it's no longer merely a denial of science in some random subject area; instead, it's become a pattern and an integral part of a larger political ideology. It's become a force in and of itself, self-perpetuating and thus far more dangerous than science denial has ever been before.

August 17, 2013 at 10:48 am
(1) Jeanne says:

Since being taken over by the Christian Coalition, the republican party has morphed into something almost unrecognizable as evidenced, not only by their anti-science and anti-reality stance, but by the people they have pushed in the American public. There was a time when idiots like Saran Palin and Michelle Bachmann would have been laughed off the stage. Now their are treated as intellectuals. Palin thinks that Paul Revere was warning the British and that looking out her kitchen window at Russia counts a foreign policy experience. Was the republican party really serious about her? Does anyone really want this moron to have the nuclear code? They are not only anti-science but anti-education period. We need more science and critical thinking skills taught in school, not less and we certainly do not need the “bible as literature”. Unless, of course, science textbooks are given equal time in Sunday school, which will never happen.

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