Republicans’ science problem

August 30, 2011 • 12:08 pm

by Greg Mayer

Although it’s a problem that’s been around for years, the perception of the Republican party as anti-science is growing in response to presidential contender Gov. Rick Perry’s forceful embrace of climate denialism and creationism (see, e.g., pieces by Jonathan Chait, Kevin Drum, and Paul Krugman). Even a fellow Republican, presidential-contender-without-a-chance  Gov. John Huntsman, tweeted “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” Huntsman elaborated on ABC News:

The minute that the Republican Party becomes the party – the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science – Sciences has said about what is causing climate change and man’s contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position.

Republicans have tried to counter this, but Zack Beauchamp at The Dish is having none of it:

When someone like Rick Perry – an avowed anthropogenic climate change and evolution denialist – is accused of rejecting science, it’s an attack on Perry’s epistemological beliefs rather than moral values. Even though the scientific consensus is clear on both questions, Perry refuses to accept both. By rejecting well-supported scientific truths on, say, theological grounds, he is implicitly denying that the scientific method (rather than, say, theological reasoning) is the best way to determine truths about the natural world. That’s what being “anti-science” is. Given that basically everything we know about the natural world comes from natural science, we can’t tell how Perry will evaluate basic scientific truths on a whole host of important issues. That’s a big deal.

[Yuval Levin] is using obscure conceptual arguments to shield genuinely ignorant people like Perry from criticism. …flat-0ut denying the theory of evolution or anthropogenic climate change. ..involves denying the fundamental epistemological values that undergird the scientific project. Little things like “science tells us more about physical and biological truths than theology.”

Although there’s much to disagree with Huntsman about on all sorts of issues (he’s very conservative), it’s a sign of how bad the Republican party has become that their pro-science candidate has next to no chance of winning the nomination, and being pro-science is part of why his chances are so slim. As Republican strategist Nick Walters put it, “That talk won’t fly in the south.”

65 thoughts on “Republicans’ science problem

  1. The most important thing to know about Huntsman is that he’s never really been in a political fight.

    When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said…

    Know what, pal? It doesn’t matter. What matters is how you are perceived by the voters. And, right now, your voters perceive evolution as godless and climate change as a socialist conspiracy.

    If it sounds like I don’t hold conservative candidates accountable, I guess there’s some truth to that. If Republican voters were better informed, the situation wouldn’t be the way it is. I think it’s conservative intellectual voices who should be pilloried. I mean, here’s Yuval Levin, given the opportunity to clarify scientific issues; if he did, nobody would vote him out of a job. Instead, he uses the controversy to take cheap jabs at the left.

    1. “If Republican voters were better informed…”

      One of the main reasons those uninformed voters are Republican is because the Republican Party has chosen to make itself the party of the uninformed.

      1. This is an open question that I have for anyone reasonable to answer – and I’m not trying to be accusatory so pardon the inflection – but what intrinsically links the Republican party with Conservatism? Growing up, I had the impression that the GOP, because of its close knit structure, was less inclined to populism – a reactionary impulse that I associated with less critical judgement and less education. But that changed with Regan, didn’t it? He successfully brought into the fold a faction of citizens who never really felt represented in politics because their deeply inwardly focused religious and social institutions put them at odds with a moderate country learning to cope with an expanding world. Since then, the GOP has pandered to them and allowed a sort of populism to take hold that Republicans accuse the Democratic Party of harboring in its internally combative coallition of community and cultural groups. The critical difference, though, is that the Democratic Party keeps all these populist groups in check and allows it to function through messy internal conflict. The GOP , meanwhile had no radical counterpoint so as the party base evolved, the emergent formerly socially and politically insular membership found little resistance in the party structure (which desperately feared loosing their support) and mistook this as broader national support. Unused to a debate processes these populist leaders in the GOP emerged into the spotlight unable to reconcile or compromise with their stated objectives or world view – an impossible position to hold given the reality of governance. So, as a failsafe, these populists rely on a set of contract-like documents to ensure that everyone is on the same page and close off previously accessible channels of intra-party debate.

        I guess my question is – am I wrong to think of elections as a vote between competing processes for governing? Am I wrong to think that the Conservative and Liberal labels are intrisically flawed in their use? The founder of the modern American Conservative movement (Buckley) was himself a product of a liberal arts education – the kind of which fosters the kind of debate and exposure to ideas that led to the National Review, but also the modern incarnation of the New York Times. Should Republicans abandon the ‘Conservative’ label? It’s become quite meaningless as far as I can tell and in modern politics bears only the most superficial relation to its origin.

  2. I’ve heard it said that Huntsman is really running for 2016, assuming that Obama will beat an extreme Tea Party candidate (Perry, Bachman, or even Palin), and that the resulting fallout will make a “moderate” like him look good for the next round.

  3. I’ve read Mooney’s The Republican War On Science and his Unscientific America. A wealth of books have been published on this topic, but the people who need to read them have their noses buried in books “written” by Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, etc., et. al., ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

  4. Yes, the Republican war on science is putting the question of our “fundamental epistemological values” front and center. Given the politics of polarization, if the coastal liberal elites are pro-science, then of course Tea Partiers, evangelicals, the South and heartland have to be agin it. Good for Huntsman to buck the tide. As he suggests, when it comes to the actual election, it isn’t clear an anti-science party can win.

      1. As the Onion put it back with Dubya was first (s)elected, ‘They say we get the government we deserve. But I don’t remember ass-raping any children.’

        (Not to make light of the very serious issue of child abuse)

  5. Perry’s threat about what they would do to Obama in Texas for printing money is bringing the Christian inclination to violence to the forefront. I hope he continues to make his “foot in mouth” sayings public.

  6. One of the forums I’m on has a good selection of posters from around the world. May of them have repeatedly expressed disbelief at how a politician here in the US can make the denial of such well documented realities as evolution and anthropological climate change part of their election campaign and be taken seriously, much less actually win elections.

    1. My country embarrasses me. If I were traveling abroad, I’d wear a jacket with a Canadian flag. Maybe I should start buying lottery tickets. Winning a big one seems to be the only way I could afford to leave.

      1. I used to feel that way when traveling. But when people give me shit for being an American, I just tell them “We’re not all that ignorant. For example, I show enough interest in the world to visit your country.”

  7. One of the causes of this sad spectacle: the decline and fall of the American educational system in pursuit of “no tax increases.” The pernicious meme “gubbmint is evil” compounds the problem.

    To use a bibblical phrase, America has sold its birthright for a mess of potage. In the long run, California’s Proposition 13 (1978) may well be seen as the beginning of the end of US dominance in world affairs. The old farts behind Prop. 13 pissed away America’s future so they could buy bigger cars (or something).

    When the new America rises from the ashes of its defeat in World War III (think Weimar Germany, the Nazi takeover, WW II), one would hope that among the laws will be a ban on home schooling and parochial schooling, a requirement that teachers in subject X have at least an undergraduate degree, preferably a master’s, in that subject, and insistence on strict adherence to a high grade curriculum.

    Maybe even that spreading religious beliefs contrary to fact is forbidden.

    But, alas, as long as the doofuses of the bible belt get their way, that’s all a long way off, and the road from here to there is going to be long, hard, and very rocky.

    1. What we really need is to do is to run public education from the national level instead of the state/local level and have everything- funding, curriculum, teacher salaries, ect, handled from there instead of this huge mess we’ve got now.

      And make sure that it’s got enough people to monitor what each little school district is doing so we don’t have some podunk county in Kansas or Louisiana sticking ID into the classroom and parents can be assured that their kids will get the same quality of education whether they live in Boston or Nome.

      1. Running it from the national level may be no better if things end up on the “No Child Left Behind” standard.

        Sure, we really do need teachers who are informed and passionate about their subjects, but what we really need is a change of values. Intellectual striving needs to become cool and be rewarded.

        I’m not totally down with Freakonimics but it was interesting to note that the children in Chicago who entered the school choice lottery and lost did about as well as the children who won. The values at home made the difference, kids in the “inferior” school did just as well.

        I’m all for improving the schools, but we have to change the values at home too. At this point we may have more to gain from propaganda than competence.

    2. RFW, I was doing pretty well reading through all of the posts in objective bliss. I want you to know, I am now utterly depressed.

  8. As a Utah resident for 25 years, I have to take issue with the statement that he is VERY conservative. It may appear so if we look at a few issues, but, on the whole, he is more moderate (and more intelligent and better educated) than the rest of the Republican field. I am no Republican, and did not vote for him, but he was the best governor we have had in the state for the last 25 years. When a particularly moronic creationist bill was put forth in the Utah legislature, Huntsman said immediately that he would veto it – which had the effect of the bill not passing in the legislature. He angered many Utahns about a month ago when he hedged on the degree of his Mormonism – which I interpret to mean that he is too well educated not to see the silliness of much of Mormon doctrine. The fact that he supports evolution and is not a religious nutjob speaks in his favor.

    1. Don’t forget the fact that he was able to push through a major reform of Utah’s liquor laws (which are now being dismantled, bit by bit). That’s no mean accomplishment in this state.

      I didn’t vote for him either (I don’t vote Republican ever, as long as they are anti-science), but he was a very good govenor. I really liked that he kept his religious beliefs out of his job.

      Another long-time resident of the state of Utah

    2. … but, on the whole, he is more moderate (and more intelligent and better educated) than the rest of the Republican field.

      What does that have to do with reality?

  9. Perhaps if we were to deny the fruits of science and technology (e.g. antibiotics, CT scans, modern agricultural technology, cellphones, etc) to those who prefer to seek their knowledge of the world in theology, a few weeks of living in the desert eating nuts and camel dung and dying of MRSA infections would re-orient them, epistemologically speaking, to the value of science based inquiry.

  10. “science tells us more about physical and biological truths than theology.”

    That’s because the only thing science can tell us about theology is that it’s 100% bullshit. Every single religious claim to fact has been proven bogus – not one of the numerous claims withstands the most cursory of investigations.

  11. This whole republican field is giving me that steadily depressin’, low down mind messin’, workin’ at the car wash blues.

    Logic, honesty, reason, and clear thinking are in such short supply that I truly ache for someone to come in, slap these cretins and say enough B.S. already. It is so depressing that there are so many in the U.S. who rally around a candidate for no other reason that he savages the president and tells them that he will pray to the baby jebus every morning before he makes any decisions.

    I thought that the dumming down of America had hit its low point under W, but then come the latest seven dwarfs, and its deja vue all over again.

    Oh, fiddle-dee-dee, I’ll think about it tomorrow.

  12. I’m under the impression that many on the Left are anti-science too. Most opponents of nuclear power, for example, probably couldn’t tell you the difference between a positron and a nucleon!

    1. Maybe, but they probably wouldn’t try to claim that neither one exists because they’re not mentioned in the Buybull.

  13. I honestly think there should be a scientist as a surprise moderator at a presidential debate, perhaps Neil deGrasse Tyson. There should be three questions. I will list the questions and give the answer that an informed layman should be able to give.

    1.What is dark matter?

    “Uh, not really sure. Dark matter was first hypothesized when astronomers noticed Galaxies were spinning faster than would be inferred from the visible mass they contain. Must be some extra mass we’ve been missing, probably brown dwarfs.”

    2.Whatever your views on global warming are, why is it the case that most scientists are worried about carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere?

    “The Earth receives heat and light from space. Some of the heat from this is radiated back into space. Carbon dioxide absorbs some of this radiated heat, so it has been postulated that some types of human activity which release CO2 may contribute to warming.”

    3. Do individual organisms evolve?

    “I’m not sure what you mean. Evolution is changes in populations, not individuals. Sure, it’s individuals that make or not and that’s how populations change, but I don’t really understand what you’re trying to ask here.”
    In included question three because many creationists have no idea that evolution changes

    I included question three because most creationists are completely clueless about evolution and think that individual organisms DO evolve. That’s the whole basis of Ray Comfort’s “First male has to have the luck to find the first female” argument.

    And no one should be president who can’t get two out of these three right.

    1. I wouldn’t say that those answers are something that I’d expect an informed layman to know the answers to, but I’d definitely agree that they’re answers I’d like a US Presidential hopeful to be able to give.

  14. OOPS! Put the quote tag in the wrong place and included part of the first draft closing paragraphs in the blockquote. Ignore the last two lines inside the blockquote after the quotation marks.

    Can we get a preview option here?

  15. For someone who claims to be defending science, there’s remarkably little of it in this post. It’s nearly all political name-calling. Look at your sources: Jonathan Chait, Kevin Drum, and Paul Krugman, etc. This is in sharp contrast to the science-filled posts on evolution that abound here.

    So here’s a brief look at peer-reviewed literature on climate science that suggests the science is not settled, and comparisons to evolutionary science unjustified.

    First, there’s that paper published in Nature suggesting that cosmic rays may play a role in climate — an effect bitterly denied by the CAGW crowd.

    Then there’s the unscientific use unfalsifiable climate projections made decades into the future. (However, they’re great at predicting the past).

    In addition, there’s also the matter of non-greenhouse gas sources such as black carbon, which is not a global warming agent.

    Finally, there’s still emerging science about the role of multi-decadal ocean currents, which can contribute to warming or reduce it.

    So how about a little less snark and groupthink and a little more open-mindedness about climate science here?

    1. I’m confused. I read every one of your links, and not a single one of them argues against an anthropogenic component to climate change. Nobody is denying that climate is complicated, but you seem to be implying that there is significant disagreement that human activity contributes to climate change change. If that is your point, it is unsupported by your links. If that isn’t your point, it is the point of the denialists referred to in this post.

      1. Observer,
        As I said in my original post, I am arguing against the notion that the science on climate change is settled. We don’t know all the natural and anthropogenic causes, and how they interact. There is indeed a scientific debate on this point.

        While theoretically CO2 is a factor in raising temperature, in reality we don’t know how big of a role it plays. And until we identify all the other major factors, we can’t begin to make accurate models of how they work together in real life.

        If cosmic rays are a major factor in climate change, then attempts to project climate trends on CO2 levels are invalid. The same is true if non-greenhouse anthropogenic factors such as black carbon and land-use changes are major players. The scientific way to deal with this uncertainty is more research.

        1. There is indeed a scientific debate on this point.

          No, there isn’t, not to any more degree than there is on evolution or relativity or the efficacy and safety of vaccinations. Sure, you can find a few folks arguing against the facts, but you can find cranks anywhere. The overwhelming consensus of the climate science community is that anthropogenic climate change is a real and significant phenomenon.

          1. The overwhelming consensus of the climate science community is that anthropogenic climate change is a real and significant phenomenon.

            If that’s the consensus, then I agree with it. (BTW, so do many “deniers”). But that’s not the same as concluding that we must cut CO2 emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe.

            1. Even back-of-the-envelope math is plenty adequate to know that things will get catastrophically hot if we don’t cut CO2 emissions. UCSD physics professor Tom Murphy has done the math for you if you don’t know what to jot on the envelope.

              The good news is that there’s only so much hydrocarbon reserves in the ground. If we burned them all up, it’d be curtains for civilization as we know it, but there’s not enough carbon in the ground to turn Earth into Venus.

              The better news is that it’s somewhat of a race for civilization-as-we-know-it between whether we’ll cook ourselves first or run out of cheap hydrocarbon-based energy. Either way, the only option for a prosperous future is to kick the hydrocarbon habit.

              And, yes. Everything but hydrocarbons is damned expensive. Too bad. Hydrocarbons are going to get even more expensive whether we like it or not. The wise choice is to bootstrap our society into a post-hydrocarbon one while we can still afford to do so.

              Depending on your age, you may or may not live to see things get bad if we don’t start fixing things now. But your children certainly will.



              1. “Even back-of-the-envelope math is plenty adequate to know that things will get catastrophically hot if we don’t cut CO2 emissions.”

                Math can deceive you if your assumptions are wrong, as Kelvin’s attempt to calculate the age of the Earth demonstrated. That’s why empirical validation is necessary.

                AGW theory predicts more heat than observed, so scientists are trying to find out what happened. Is the missing heat somewhere in the ocean, or did it radiate into space?

                In the face of this uncertainty, predictions about what will happen in the face of rising CO2 levels are not scientifically valid.

            2. Even if it turned out that anthropological CO2 emissions weren’t linked to climate change (which seems very unlikely at this point), reducing our consumption of fossil fuels is still something that’s vitally needed due to how dependent we are on oil for the production of many essential products. We’re going to run out sooner or later, and the effects that will have on society will be catastrophic.

              1. I’m all for research on alternative fuels such as algae biofuels. But for the foreseeable future they are far more expensive than conventional fossil fuels. And we’re not in imminent danger of running out of those fuels. Indeed, new technology has expanded the amount of domestically recoverable fossil fuels from tar sands as well as natural gas.

                Using domestic (and Canadian) fossil fuels reduces the amount of money the United States will spend buying Middle Eastern oil. I’d rather that money be spent here than in Saudi Arabia. Wouldn’t you?

              2. Bradley, do you have any clue how prohibitively expensive it is to get crude out of tar sands? How bad the EROEI is?

                You can’t bitch about how expensive the clean sources are while simultaneously crowing about how wonderful the even more expensive alternative petrochemical sources are. At least not if you want anybody to take you seriously.

                The tar sands will never get used for fuel. Even photovoltaics today — the costliest of the popular alternatives — are cheaper, and the cost per watt of photovoltaics is dropping far faster than the cost per watt of sweet crude is rising. The only way we’ll ever touch them is for plastics, and then only after we’ve burned up all the petroleum and switched to something else for energy. By that time, it’s even conceivable it’ll be cheaper to make plastics from atmospheric CO2 and leave the tar sands as they are.

                Much more likely still, of course, is that “conservative” ideologues like you will hamper efforts to invest in our future, causing us to destroy any hope we have of transitioning to a prosperous society in an age when there’s no more oil to be pumped from the ground.

                The next thing you’re going to do is quite “at current rates” figures, which is bullshit. Our economy relies on exponential growth, not current rates. Take any annual growth percentage you like — say, 3.5% — and divide 70 by it; that’s how long it takes to double. 20 years, in this example. We’ve already used up about half the world’s petroleum. You do the math: at current growth rates, how long before demand outstrips supply, causing price shocks to reverberate throughout the economy?



              3. Ben, you failed at predicting my political views — I am not a conservative — or the course my argument will take.

                I’m quite content to let the market decide what happens to tar sands and other North American fossil fuels. James Hansen appears to think the Canadian tar sands are viable, and so constitute an enormous environmental threat. But if the tar sands are as impractical as you imply, why the mass demonstrations against something that will never happen?

                As for the price of PV vs tar sands, that’s apples and oranges. PV energy is only generated during the day, and then there is the problem of energy storage. Fossil fuels have neither of these issues. You know this.

              4. Ben, you failed at predicting my political views — I am not a conservative — or the course my argument will take.

                Aack, a libertarian!

        2. You are downplaying the nature of climate science denial on the right. The political line isn’t merry that climate change is complicated, it’s that it’s totally unaffected by human activity.

    2. Just this morning, as I was sitting in a hotel lobby, the 700 Club came on TV. Pat Robertson’s first story was about the cosmic ray study published in Nature. He asserted that it proved greenhouse gasses had nothing to do with warming. Of course the study proves nothing of the sort, nor is that a claim it’s authors make. But Pat Robertson’s claim is a great example of denialism. It’s part of the standard right wing trope that global warming is a hoax concocted to advance the cause of socialism and one world government.

  16. do I need to mention that every means of the political campaign; data collection, statistical analysis, communication protocols, means of transportation, hell even Perry’s fake tan and Viagra prescription, are all very much products of science?

  17. Ha. The electorate doesn’t give a damn about science, so neither do the R’s; therefore it’s hardly “their problem.” This subject is better thought of as “Science’s Republican Problem.”

    1. hi Diane!
      It is depressing. I am pretty sure that the USA produces more palaeontologists than most other countries & her scientists have won many many Nobel prizes, also US based scientists publish more – yet, for all that, because of the ridiculous strength of conservative religion, they reject fact in favour of fantasy.

  18. Didn’t the US decide to emphasis science education after the USSR got the drop on us with Sputnik? I wonder what it would take to produce another Sputnik moment.

      1. I have long entertained the hypothesis that the existence of the Communist bloc not only kept the U.S. on its academic and scientific toes (as absurd as the claims of Marxism-Leninism to be scientific were), but also kept capitalists from oppressing the working class as much as they would otherwise have done. Now that the reds are gone, America is seeing the natural tendency of capitalism for wealth to accumulate at the top, with concomitant decreasing income and increasing insecurity for the bottom 90+ percent. One hopes that this trend can be reversed through peaceful, democratic means. (Europe seems to have better assimilated the lesson that a healthy dose of socialism keeps revolutions away.)

  19. I’ve just come in from a lin on The American Conservative website, and this line stands out, “Although there’s much to disagree with Huntsman about on all sorts of issues (he’s very conservative)…”

    The fact that someone can write something like this on a blog with a name like “why evolution is true”, shows that some people only care about science as a political tool, to make conservatives look stupid (and are only Conservatives anti-science if it suits them? Were the religious right to blame for the sociobiology wars, for example? Or was it people like Gould and Lewontin?).

    Supposing I was a scientific researcher in America but it wasn’t something politicised there, when my budgets get cut. Would the left care as much about me and my research (and my job) as they do about those boring debates where both sides often repeat crap, like stem cell research, or climate change? Do you blame me for being cynical…?

    Instead of separating church and state, can’t people separate science from both religious and secular politics?

    1. “Instead of separating church and state, can’t people separate science from both religious and secular politics?”

      Great. We can start with having conservative lawmakers drop the blatant anti-science agendas they’ve been pursuing because science so often contradicts their religious dogma.

  20. Ok, it would be great if we kept science and politics separate, but the fact is that science isint running around trying to dismantle politics. However there are politicians that undeniably intended dismantle or dedund science. Last month my favorite podcast, NPRs On Science, went away. Then shortly after thier Technology podcast went on hiatus. These were pulled because of the recent pressure exerted by republicans claiming that scientists were just trying to line thier pockets by scaring people to believe in climate change. These politicians are suing thier best to dumb it down. I am very upset about it and if I have to get political about science, for my future and my children’s education, I will.

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