Oh, yeah! Right on! That's what my mind screamed when I opened the mailbox a few days ago and saw the headline on the cover of New Scientist: "Unscientific America -- A dangerous retreat from reason."
It's mostly Republicans who are trying to lead us back to the Dark Ages of irrationality, even though a New Scientist editorial on this subject tries (semi-successfully) to spread the anti-science blame.
Even today, as China and India flex their muscles, the world still looks to the US for leadership.
This is especially true in science. A nation founded on the Enlightenment has melded massive investment in research, an open door to the world's best minds and unparalleled entrepreneurism to become a powerhouse of innovation. Leaf through a typical issue of New Scientist, and you will witness American ingenuity on almost every page.
This is why the tone and content of some recent political debate in the US is so disquieting. When candidates for the highest office in the land appear to spurn reason, embrace anecdote over scientific evidence, and even portray scientists as the perpetrators of a massive hoax, there is reason to worry. Fortunately, there is no reason to panic.
On issues including climate change, evolution and public health, it may seem as if the forces of anti-science are in the ascendancy. If you look through the lens of history or apply a scientific approach, however, logical explanations for these apparently perverse positions emerge (see "Science in America: Decline and fall" and "Science in America: Selling the truth").
What also becomes clear is that no political party has a monopoly on unscientific thinking. While the most alarming statements may be coming from Republican quarters today, don't forget that it was a three-time Democratic presidential candidate who led the attack on evolution at the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial.
Well, when the best example of Democratic unscientific thinking dates from 86 years ago, this shows how modern attacks on science are almost universally from the Republican side of the political spectrum.
It's deeply bizarre, how every G.O.P. presidential candidate other than Jon Huntsman (who has been punished in the polls for his defense of science) is unwilling to embrace the reality of global warming, evolution, and other scientific truths.
The first article in the New Scientist special report on Unscientific America is by Shawn Lawrence Otto.
Download Science in America - Decline and fall
It's depressing reading, especially since we're faced with the near certainty of Republicans nominating an anti-science presidential candidate and, sadly, a decent chance of having this worshipper at the altar of irrationality elected.
The big thing we are working on now is the global warming hoax. It's all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax." So said Michele Bachmann, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, in 2008. Bachmann also thinks that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can cause mental retardation and that science classes should include creationism. "What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don't think it's a good idea for government to come down on one side of a scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides."
Bachmann's rival, Texas governor Rick Perry, advocates biblically based abstinence-only sex education. He argues that evolution is "a theory that is out there - and it's got some gaps in it". On climate change, Perry says "the science is not settled... just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact... Galileo got outvoted for a spell".
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tells voters that embryonic stem cell research is "killing children in order to have research materials". Rising Republican star Herman Cain claims there is no scientific evidence that homosexuality is anything other than a personal choice.
Republicans diverge from anti-science politics at their peril. When leading candidate Mitt Romney said: "I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer... humans contribute to that", conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh responded with "Bye bye, nomination". Romney back-pedalled, saying, "I don't know if it's mostly caused by humans."
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman argued that "the minute that the Republican party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem". Huntsman has since been marginalised by Republican pundits.
Otto lays out reasons for the decline and fall of our once unquestioned leadership in science, then says:
These factors have combined to create an assault on science that is unprecedented in American history. Cut loose from objective truth, America's public dialogue has become one of warring opinions and policy paralysis.
In another article about how to "sell the truth," Peter Aldhous cheered me up somewhat by explaining how supporters of science can beat reality-deniers at their own game.
Download Science in America
For example, he says that the most ardent global warming skeptics are Tea Party types. So it makes sense to have people with whom they resonate explain the climatological facts to them.
For these [Tea Party] voters, the cultural filter seems to be the idea that taking action to limit climate change means "big government" intervention in the US economy, anathema to staunch conservatives.
Hammering another nail into the coffin of the deficit [of knowledge] model, Kahan's latest survey of more than 1500 US adults indicates that far from overcoming our cultural biases, education actually strengthens them. Among those with greater numeracy and scientific literacy, opinions on climate change polarised even more strongly.
Kahan's explanation is that we have a strong interest in mirroring the views of our own cultural group. The more educated we become, he argues, the better we get at making the necessary triangulation to adopt the "correct" opinions. On issues like climate change, for most people these cultural calculations trump any attempt to make an objective assessment of the evidence.
...So who might do a better job of carrying the climate message to conservative ears? Perhaps the US military, which is worried about the security implications of climate change, or senior figures within the insurance industry, who are factoring the risk of more frequent severe weather events into their calculations.
Good ideas, but every science-admiring person in the United States has to defend objective truth against those who are attempting to substitute for it their own fantasies, opinions, and self-serving falsehoods.
Subjectivity is a big part of being human. "I like..." and "I believe..." are eminently proper attitudes which everybody is entitled to. But NOT when it comes to objective reality. That belongs to everybody. It is the common ground of humanity. No one is entitled to hijack it for their own ends.
I understand that many people want to believe that fossil fuels can be freely used with no adverse consequences. I realize that Al Gore irritates conservatives who suspect that he is making up global warming myths so a One World government can control everything and everybody. If these private irrationalities remained in individual psyches, I'd say "enjoy your fantasies."
However, reality is too important to waste. Neither the United States, nor the rest of the world, can afford to have political discourse dominated by heads-in-the-sand anti-science zealots who refuse to acknowledge facts.
It's time to fight back. Truth has to be defended. On the back cover of Carl Sagan's book, "The Demon Haunted World," are these words. They're as true now as they were back in 1995, when the book was published.
We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces...
I worry that, especially as the Millenium edges nearer, pseudo-science and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before?
Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us -- then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. It's little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
Really great article. I can't believe some of the garbage the republicans believe and stand for. I wish that there was a candidate who could take some of the Republican economic models with more Democratic personal beliefs. I couldn't imagine living in a country with someone like Perry preaching Christianity and trying to brainwash everyone.
I don't understand how people discount science so much and still believe in any religion. Religion was great to help people before science was able to explain things, but now its like are you serious, how do you not believe in hard facts that have proof? How can you believe in a "god" when there is 0 proof one exists, but 100% proof science is real. Its ridiculous.
I was wondering if you take suggestions for article ideas. I work for a website that might be interesting to you for you to share in a post. We do comparisons and actually have a whole 2012 presidential candidate comparison that lays out the platforms of all the candidates and lets people actually see what these people believe. You can check it out here: http://2012-presidential-candidates.findthedata.org/
Please send me an email and I would love to give you more information and other comparisons that would be cool to share.
Thanks so much Brian.
Posted by: Kevin Sloan | November 03, 2011 at 10:54 AM
Does anyone else besides Brian not see the irony and contradictions oozing from his post?
For contradiction, compare the two theses that Brian presents to you for why Republicans are so “unscientific:”
- are Republicans “unscientific” because, as New Scientists says, they’re educated and scientifically LITERATE – and therefore opinionated?
- or, are Republicans “unscientific” because, as Carl Sagan says, people are scientifically ILLITERATE and become fanatical demons attracted to pseudo-science?
Two very contradictory theses, but Brian likes them both. Any thesis will do so long as it fits Brian’s “Democrat good/Republican bad” progressive cultural bias.
For irony, compare Brian’s preface to Aldous:
“…the most ardent global warming skeptics are Tea Party types. So it makes sense to have people WITH WHOM THEY RESONATE explain the climatological facts to them.”
…to Brian’s opening paragraph to the post itself:
“Oh, yeah! Right on! That's what my mind screamed when I opened the mailbox a few days ago and saw the headline on the cover of New Scientist.”
Oh, yeah? Right on? Sounds to me like Brian has been conditioned to tune in to those WITH WHOM HE RESONATES as well.
And, Brian, that means your “cultural filter” (New Scientists term, not mine) is fully engaged. Case in point your comment, “Well, when the best example of Democratic unscientific thinking dates from 86 years ago, this shows how modern attacks on science are almost universally from the Republican side of the political spectrum. Seriously??
Did you filter out the fact that Democrats tend to be more anti-biotech with regard to food safety and genetically enhanced crops/animals?
Did you filter out the fact that Democrats tend to be more anti-biomedical research when animal testing is involved?
Did you filter out the fact that Democrats tend to be more anti-nuclear power?
Did you not know that poll data shows that 22 percent of Democrats believe evolution was guided by a supreme being, and that 30 percent don’t believe in evolution at all?
Did you forget that Democrats tend to be more anti-vaccine when compared to Republicans? In fact, while scientists overwhelmingly favor mandatory childhood vaccinations, Barack Obama said this on the campaign trail in 2008: “We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included.”
So, no, the best examples of Democratic unscientific thinking do not date from 86 years ago. They exist today – not only here in this post and not just among your fellow progressive laymen, but in the Democratic White House itself.
Posted by: DJ | November 07, 2011 at 09:15 PM
DJ, good try, but the facts aren't on your side. Republicans are more anti-science than Democrats. Read and believe:
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 07, 2011 at 09:40 PM
Brian, I have to agree with some of DJ's observations. You do seem to view the political landscape through a liberal/democrat=good, conservative/republican=bad filter. Are things really that black and white? But hey, it's your blog.
Frankly, I think both sides have screwed things up nicely and I think we need to clean up Washington in order to clean up Wall St.
I just want government to back off until it can find a way to quit wasting our money. Until then, the bad boy should not get an increase in his allowance.
I don't care if the next president believes God is a Flying Spaghetti Monster as long as he/she also believes in fiscal responsibility, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
Posted by: tucson | November 07, 2011 at 10:24 PM
Brian, please do explain how you can read that article with your filter off and conclude, "Well, when the best example of Democratic unscientific thinking dates from 86 years ago, this shows how modern attacks on science are ALMOST UNIVERSALLY from the Republican side of the political spectrum."
Posted by: DJ | November 07, 2011 at 10:29 PM
DJ, open your eyes. How many Democratic vs. Republican members of Congress deny the scientific reality of global warming? How many D's vs. R's oppose embryonic stem cell research, or believe that evolution is an unproven theory?
Yes, Democrats can ignore scientific facts also. But what I was referring to when I talked about modern attacks on science was, obviously, attacks on science. Meaning, Democrats may disagree with certain scientific findings without good reason, but Republicans are MUCH more likely to attack science as a whole -- often for religious reasons.
Every Republican presidential candidate other than Jon Huntsman is anti-science, in that each denies the reality of global warming and often also of evolution. Can you imagine the same number of Democratic presidential candidates getting such high approval numbers from his/her party for being anti-science?
The facts are clear. The Republican party is much more anti-science than the Democratic party.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 07, 2011 at 11:38 PM
Brian once again proves he’s the master contortionist. Move that goalpost, Brian!
OK, so you’re no longer making your claim regarding ALL of science? Just three topics…global warming, evolution, and embryonic stem cell research?? From reading the article you provided, I can understand why. Food safety, genetically enhanced food, medical testing on animals, nuclear power, vaccinations…your article points out that Democrats are more anti-science on each of these topics.
Fine, let’s take one of your chosen topics, embryonic stem cell research. Mooney (the voice your thesis most RESONATES WITH in your ‘supporting article’) believes partisan differences on this topic are a “science-related POLICY disagreement” not to be “confused with cases of science rejection.”
Explain how you can read that with your filter off and still conclude it is an example of a Republican attack on science. If Mooney dismisses anti-science as the source of Republican disagreement, why don’t you? Doesn’t it support your argument?
Your claim is now down to just two topics, and arguably less than that given the Democrat poll stats on evolution. The last time I checked two is not a trend. And lack of trend hardly qualifies as a UNIVERSAL ATTACK by Republicans.
PS: For your own credibility you might want to stop citing Huntsman as credible on science. As I’ve pointed out on your blog before he holds among the least scientific credentials of the Republican candidates. He’s what Carl Sagan warned about. A spoiled rich kid with family connections who dropped out of high school to join a rock band, had to instead later get his GED, and went on to get a bachelor’s degree in political science. A degree in political science with no scientific understanding means a career of politicized science.
Posted by: DJ | November 08, 2011 at 10:34 AM
DJ, thanks for proving the point of this right-on piece: "Classic false equivalence on political abuse of science."
Your comment is a classic use of "they all do this, so Republicans and Democrats are equally at fault." Wrong. Quantity matters, as does quality.
The sucking-up of every leading Republican presidential candidate (other than Huntsman) to anti-science rhetoric speaks loudly to the voters they're trying to attract. If a Dem did that, they'd lose voters, because anti-science doesn't play well with the Democratic base.
Check out "The Republicans' War on Science and Reason."
Also, "The Republican War on Science."
Then you can send me links to books and opinion pieces in leading newspapers about the Democratic war on science. Since you claim equivalence between the two parties, you shouldn't have any trouble sending me an Amazon link to a book I can read about how Democratic political leaders, and the party itself, are engaged in an effort to make science irrelevant to policy-making.
I don't want individual instances of anti-science views. I want evidence that the Democratic party as a whole is strongly anti-science. If you're correct, this should be easy for you to provide.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 08, 2011 at 11:04 AM
And there you go moving the goalpost again, Brian.
Your original position: "Well, when the best example of Democratic unscientific thinking dates from 86 years ago, this shows how modern attacks on science are almost universally from the Republican side of the political spectrum.”
Your latest watered-down challenge: "I don't want individual instances of anti-science views. I want evidence that the Democratic party as a whole is strongly anti-science."
I love it. In the span of a few comments you've had to alter your view from admitting zero “individual instances” of Democratic anti-science in the last 86 years - all the way to “show me the party as a whole is anti-science.” I’ll call that a win and cash in my chips.
My work here is done.
Posted by: DJ | November 08, 2011 at 07:59 PM
DJ, I guess what you're trying to say -- but without really saying it-- is that I was correct in this post when I wrote, "It's mostly Republicans who are trying to lead us back to the Dark Ages of irrationality."
Thanks for agreeing with me that there isn't any evidence of the Democratic Party leading an anti-science crusade, while there is lots of evidence that Republicans have gone off the irrational deep end.
Oh, here's a book you should be interested in. It's being published next year: "The Republican Brain -- The Science of Why They Don't Believe in Science."
Posted by: Blogger Brian | November 08, 2011 at 08:10 PM