Anti-science in American politics: two must-read articles

October 21, 2012 • 9:17 am

I don’t often tell readers about articles that they simply have to read, but this pair qualifies. Together they’re not terribly short (about 7000 words in toto), but I like to think that my readers have decent attention spans—and the interest in science and politics that makes this Scientific American essay, “Antiscience beliefs jeopardize U.S. democracy” by Shawn Lawrence Otto, mandatory reading. When you finish Otto’s piece, go read the related Sci. Am. piece: “Science in an election year,which summarizes and rates the Presidential candidates’ stands on 14 critical scientific and technological issues.

In fact, go read them now before you read any other posts on this website.

Otto’s piece not only summarizes the current anti-science strain in American politics, but traces its origins back to the time of the Founding Fathers, who were clearly pro-science (Jefferson and Franklin come to mind). From those early Enlightenment views, things have degraded to the current situation, where scientific facts now seem disposable, readily trumped by personal opinions and religious beliefs.

Otto faults both Democrats and Republics for the current climate, though Republicans bear the brunt of the responsibility:

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.

Postmodernism, beloved by many on the left, is also responsible, since many of its acolytes claim that all truths are subjective ones, and that science is merely one form of ideology.

The litany of Republican attacks on science is depressing:

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. . .

. . . Republican attacks on settled scientific issues—such as anthropogenic climate change and evolution—have too often been met with silence or, worse, appeasement by Democrats.

Governor Romney’s path to endorsement exemplifies the problem. “I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world is getting warmer,” Romney told voters in June 2011 at a town hall meeting after announcing his candidacy. “I can’t prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer, and number two, I believe that humans contribute to that.” Four days later radio commentator Rush Limbaugh blasted Romney on his show, saying, “Bye-bye nomination. Bye-bye nomination, another one down. We’re in the midst here of discovering that this is all a hoax. The last year has established that the whole premise of man-made global warming is a hoax! And we still have presidential candidates who want to buy into it.

By October 2011 Romney had done an about-face. “My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us,” he told an audience in Pittsburgh, then advocated for aggressive oil drilling. And on the day after the Republican National Convention, he tacked back toward his June 2011 position when he submitted his answers to

The litany never ends:

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-year-old 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.

. . . 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, 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.”

It is this distinction between “science” and “truth” (i.e., personal opinion, religious belief, and desire to placate the wealthy) that really characterizes mainstream Republicans.

And I find this the most depressing of all (I refer to the statement that I’ve put in bold type):

Tennessee, South Dakota and Louisiana have all recently passed legislation that encourages unwarranted criticisms of evolution to be taught in the states’ public schools. Evangelical state legislators and school board members mounted similar efforts this year in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Alabama, and the Texas Republican Party platform opposes “the teaching of … critical thinking skills and similar programs that … have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

“The student’s fixed beliefs.”  Think about that.

Otto sees two damaging effects of anti-science strains in American politics.  I’ve written about the first before:

1.  Science journalism won’t adjudicate issues for the public. Part of this is from the American ethos of “fair play,” which has fostered the “teach-all-sides” view of evolution, and part is because science journalists simply aren’t equipped, nor have the desire, to understand the issues. As Otto says:

Reporters who agree with this statement [the postmodern view that “there is no such thing as objectivity”] will not dig to get to the truth and will tend to simply present “both sides” of contentious issues, especially if they cannot judge the validity of scientific evidence. This kind of false balance becomes a problem when one side is based on knowledge and the other is merely an opinion, as often occurs when policy problems intersect with science. If the press corps does not strive to report objective reality, for which scientific evidence is our only reliable guide, the ship of democracy is set adrift from its moorings in the well-informed voter and becomes vulnerable once again to the tyranny that Jefferson feared.

There are exceptions, of course, but too often reporters like the now-disgraced Jonah Lehrer simply refuse to do the hard work of finding out which side of a scientific debate is best supported by facts. That holds not only for issues of public import, but also scientific controversies, like E. O. Wilson’s contention that kin selection is irrelevant to evolution.

2.  A public swayed by opinion and wish-thinking rather than evidence can’t support democracy.  Otto cites Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding on how “knowledge must be grounded in observations of the physical world” (shades of scientism!), and then argues:

By falsely equating knowledge with opinion, postmodernists and antiscience conservatives alike collapse our thinking back to a pre-Enlightenment era, leaving no common basis for public policy. Public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions, none seen as more valid than another. . .

When facts become opinions, the collective policymaking process of democracy begins to break down. Gone is the common denominator—knowledge—that can bring opposing sides together. Government becomes reactive, expensive and late at solving problems, and the national dialogue becomes mired in warring opinions.

That’s about the clearest statement of the dangers of wish-thinking I’ve seen. And of course much of that wish-thinking comes from religion. It is in fact the wedding of religious fundamentalism with untrammeled capitalism that, to Otto, is the real cause of America’s opposition to science.


I won’t excerpt the second must-read piece, “Science in an election year,in which the Sci. Am. editors collect and evaluate the candidates’ statements on 14 scientific issues, including

  • Innovation and the economy
  • Climate change
  • Research and the future
  • Pandemics and biosecurity
  • Education
  • Energy
  • Food
  • Freshwater
  • The Internet
  • Ocean Health
  • Science in Public Policy
  • Space
  • Critical Natural Resources
  • Vaccination and Public Health

You’ll find the answers enlightening and, if you’re an Obama fan, not that heartening. The editors’ verdict?

Overall, we found that Romney was more specific about what he would like to do in the next four years than Obama. His responses also fared better on feasibility. Obama had the upper hand on scientific accuracy. Romney’s answers on climate change, ocean health and freshwater, in particular, revealed an unfamiliarity with the evidence that shows how urgent these issues have become. In a few cases, the candidates received identical scores for different reasons.

The only thing I was unreservedly happy to see in both pieces was this statement from Otto’s article:

This antiregulatory-antiscience alliance largely defines the political parties today and helps to explain why, according to a 2009 survey, nine out of 10 scientists who identified with a major political party said they were Democrats.

Science really is the Truth Party.

83 thoughts on “Anti-science in American politics: two must-read articles

  1. Jerry – As you probably already know, this is not “new”. Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science, laid these ideas out clearly. Prior to that, George Miller, the liberal Democrat from California, published a critique of the republicans (I use the lower case on purpose) in Congress, showing how they lie, deceive, and manipulate scientific data to fit their ideology. Otto’s book on this is also a good read: Fool Me Twice. Finally, Timothy Ferris’ book from 2010, The Science of Liberty, makes many of the same points as Otto concerning science and democracy.
    I recently used these examples, plus the many National Academy reports on the state of the STEM sciences, to argue against a proposal by our General Education Committee, here at Appalachian State University, in Boone, NC, to reduce the science requirement by one hour, and to do the same with the math requirement. Seems there is an effort among state institutions to lower such requirements simply to meet short term budget shortfalls – a perfect example of penny wise and pound foolish. Luckily, there was a solid hour of argument against doing this by all the sciences, and even the social sciences and the humanities people! We’ll see how that comes out in the next few weeks.

    I enjoy reading your blog, and my only wonder is how you find the time to write all that you do! Amazing – keep it up!
    Howie Neufeld

    1. I never read Chris Mooney’s book but I believe the one by Seth Shulman “Undermining Science” was similar. Michael Specter also had a hard hitting essay (the one with a cartoon of Dubya erasing physics equations on a blackboard). Even having read those I think the Scientific American essay was fresh – the way it discusses the arc of history and tries to unravel the root cause of anti-intellectualism. It’s just excellent and I’ve already forwarded it to a bunch of my friends.
      Some people may entertain the notion that the march of progress, albeit staggered, is inexorably forward. Well, thousands of years ago you had the Ionian Greeks toying with budding concepts of empiricism, ancient Indians embracing versions of skepticism like Charvarka, you had the library at Alexandria, and feats of engineering like the antikythera mechanism. What happened? If we are not vigilant it can and will all go to shit. If that piece upset you guys it’ll help no one just sulking. For what it’s worth sign up and soldier up with a body like the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    2. I may have posted this here before; if so, apologies.

      Mooney’s book is both excellent and scary. For me, the scariest quote is:

      In a famous October 2004 New York Times article on the Bush administration, journalist Ron Suskind described his encounter with a “senior adviser” to the president:
      The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality.”

      However, there are numerous other quotes in the book that are just as scary. Simply put, the right-wing, especially but not exclusively the religious right, actually believes that truth is what the powerful declare to be the truth. I’m surprised Bush, Romney, et. al. don’t run on the slogan “back to 1984”.

  2. The two articles again demonstrate how Democrats are profoundly flawed…and Republicans are batshit crazy.

    This situation is not sustainable, not in the slightest. I just wish I knew a way out of this mess that didn’t lead to the same sorts of chaos that followed the collapse of every other empire.

    Maybe we’ll get lucky and the American empire will deflate like the British Empire, rather than collapse like the Soviet Empire or take out the rest of civilization with it like the Roman Empire. But, however it goes, we’re stuck in a hopeless war in Afghanistan, so you know it won’t be long, now.


    1. Countries that defy international laws and conventions had better change their ways before they are no longer the most powerful.

      1. What international laws and conventions? And who’s going to enforce them? No other country or group of countries is in a position to force the United States to comply with international laws and conventions, nor is there any serious prospect in the foreseeable future of forcing the United States to comply. It’s not as if the rest of the world is united on issues of international importance (climate change, trade agreements, war crimes, etc.) anyway. Every country has its own agenda.

    2. I strongly disagree with Jerry’s sentiment regarding the Democratic Party.

      Scientists should be smart enough to realize that the American two-party system has degraded to a state beyond repair, where actual power has been transferred to big corporations and nefarious lobbying groups, rendering the purposely convoluted electoral process less and less relevant.

      They shouldn’t be happy to affiliate with the lesser of two evils but rather feel morally obliged to vote for them while pushing for political reforms.

  3. It never ceases to blow my mind that these, so called, anti-science people will ramble on and on about how AGW is a hoax. And that there is a controversy in the scientific community on whether evolution is real or not.
    But when asked about electricity or gravity or the combustible engine or the hydrogen bomb all of a sudden there is objective facts.
    As long as it doesn’t interfere with their finances or their religion science is indeed objective.

  4. Postmodernism, beloved by many on the left, is also responsible, since many of its acolytes claim that all truths are subjective ones, and that science is merely one form of ideology.

    News to me.

    That sound you here is another strawperson being brutally burned to death.

    1. I’ve never noticed that PoMo is leftist. It seems to be perpendicular to the left right axis.

    2. It’s dead anyway, at least in terms of science. Postmodernism failed because there is only one real world and it isn’t subjective. It’s just reality.

    1. No. Read Sokal, Sokal and Bricmant, Noretta Koertge’s `A house built on sand’, Gross+Levitt and any number of submissions to Butterflies and Wheels a few years back. Consider the origins of the Strong Program and how a product of that school defended intelligent design in Pennsylvania. Sokal who had splendid credentials defending oppressed people is eloquent on the misguidedness of elements of the left who propoted pomo against their professed ends.

    2. Left-leaners who aren’t so good at thinking love pomo. It’s the ultimate in open-minded tolerance: “maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong; maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong, heck maybe everybody’s right; we just can’t tell, it’s all just points of view, and we need to respect and tolerate them all.”

      You’d never hear something like that from a conservative.

      It’s a different approach to being anti-science, but it’s still anti-science.

    3. To elaborate on my phrase “the ultimate in open-minded tolerance” and to address your second point:

      You can find pop-philosophy articles claiming postmodernism is dead. I don’t think is. For one thing, when these sorts of articles say “movement x is dead”, what they mean is “movement x was soooo 10 years ago; movement y is what’s hot now.” These articles are not about trying to ascertain pomo’s explanatory or descriptive power and discovering that it’s a poor philosophy.

      For another thing, I think as long as we have lazy thinkers who are anxious to be so open-minded their brains fall out, we will have something like postmodernism, albeit perhaps under a different moniker.

      1. I fear that PoMo is not dead, except in the academic circles where it was formulated, but has diffused into popular thought and merged with the “my reality, your reality” of the woo-ists of a generation ago, to spread a thin layer of confusion over everything it touches.

  5. A lethal instance of Max Weber’s classic conflict between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility.

    The Religious Right sets its own beliefs and wish-thinking above reality. Irresponsibility ensues, at all levels.

    One sentence in Otto’s essay made me shudder:

    When facts become opinions, the collective policymaking process of democracy begins to break down.

    Ring any bells?
    “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
    Right at the core! I was a kid when I first heard this sentence, in John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. Even then, I found it a dire warning.

    1. “The Religious Right sets its own beliefs and wish-thinking above reality.

      They are often even more delusional than that. Many of them actually seem to believe, and have clearly stated, that they can create reality. And they don’t just mean the old adage that if you don’t try you will never achieve your goals.

  6. This is an absolutely fabulous reflection/collection on science skepticism. I have been making the argument that partisan classification is one of the major problems in our society for awhile. Our politics blind us.

    Leah Ceccarelli from the University of Washington calls anti-science propaganda “manufactroversy” (although she focuses on mediated information). She’s famous for publishing articles in journal that are so perfectly edited and researched that she often receives no editorial suggestions to her work before publishing.

    She wrote an article for the Seattle Times here:

  7. Since one is reading what politicians and their handlers have written for an audience whose composition they know, is it not important to look at what they have said and written earlier, particularly to other audiences?

    This applies to both, although I expect Obama is far closer to being consistent, given the general opinion of Romney as a liar who will say whatever the audience he has wants to hear, if he believes he can get away with it. In particular on the latter, I think you will find clear statements from Romney claiming that:
    he accepts that global warming is occurring and is largely caused by human activities (before his candidacy to become a nominee);
    then exactly the opposite (during that candidacy);
    and now perhaps somewhere in-between, but more likely back-and-forth contradicting himself from day-to-day, depending on the audience.

    Not only will readers of SciAm not be getting what the future president will actually do (because ‘the situation has changed’), but they are not even getting what these guys say to other audiences. So the evaluation is not terribly worthwhile, if based simply on the one response here to each question. They are both liars, but Romney seems to be a couple of orders of magnitude worse. But I think voting for the lesser liar is best, and trying to change U.S. politics in some more basic way later is preferable to voting for a no-hoper.

    1. SciAm seem to have marked them for consistency and clarity more than for content (almost as if they were English essays) and Romney’s people played to its audience better than Obama’s people.

      1. Just to be clear, I have questioned their consistency on these issues over their recent political careers, not just the internal consistency of only the package of answers to this particular set of questions (particular that of Romney)—and implicitly said that gross inconsistency amounts to a simple logical proof of being a patent liar.

  8. “Examples are the conviction that global warming is a hoax (billions of measurements show it is a fact)”

    This is deliberately misleading language. Very few people believe ‘global warming’ is a hoax. But very many people believe that a convincing causal link has not been drawn between increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and the alleged feedback loop which is supposed to produce runaway increases in atmospheric temperatures.

    That link is the single foundation on which the whole AGW edifice rests, and yet in thirty years it has never been empirically demonstrated to occur. Can you really blame people for being sceptical about it?

    Especially since the UK Daily Mail has now confirmed that Met Office figures show no significant ‘global warming’ since 1997.

    1. No. You are yourself stating that it is a hoax, since as the article notes we have literary billions of facts that tests this, makes a “causal link” in your parlance, and this has been public knowledge since IPCC 2007.

      Yes, we can blame people for being skeptical about (again, as the article notes) settled matters. It would be irrational and irresponsible to do otherwise.

      Especially since the UK Daily Mail has now confirmed that Met Office figures show no significant ‘global warming’ since 1997.

      He he he he hee! I don’t know the article, and you don’t link it, but it is common knowledge that you can pick out a set of data in a sufficiently noisy series (as climate is) and ‘show’ how it is stagnant or even declining even in case of robust increase.

      Signal analysis 101 and totally irrelevant to the actual test of increase. Which we know it does, see above.

    2. According to NASA the Earth has heated exactly 0.7 degrees Celsius in the last century. About one-third of that heating has occurred since 1980. This kind of accelerated heating has never been observed in nature. According to NASA’s natural timeline of global heating, a century has historically brought between .08-.14 degrees Celsius of heating. That means the planet is heating nearly 10 times faster than it has in the past 800,000 years.

      Additionally, nearly every single scientific organization on Earth has publicly stated that global climate change is happening and at least 90% of the warming is due to human activity.

      1. Additionally, nearly every single scientific organization on Earth has publicly stated that global climate change is happening and at least 90% of the warming is due to human activity.

        Sounds implausible to me. Can you substantiate this claim? And I do mean the specific claim of yours I quote above — particularly the “at least 90% of the warming” part.

    3. First and foremost, “corio37”, you are exactly the kind of factoider-and-friends Jerry is including in this post about anti-science(not to put words in the holy piehole of JAC).
      Second, you are citing the Daily Mail about anything-science… geez! The Daily Mall can only get an out of focus royal breast right (okay, and the left breast as well).
      In this instance — right away — the Met Office (where Met is short for UK Meteorology Office, like NOAA in the US) said the UK equivalent of WTF to the Daily Mail. See this UK Guardian piece:
      Next, here’s another factoider letter-to-the-editor by a scientist-of-sorts dissected by actual climate scientists over at (sounds like deja, deja, deja vu):

      So, “corio37”, isn’t there a case of ‘legitimate rape’ or ‘immaculate conception’ out there that needs a guy, like yourself to advocate??
      Go, hurry now.
      Tom Carrolan

    4. If rejecting Evolution is akin to denying heliocentricism, then denying anthropogenic climate change is like denying that plate tectonics causes earthquakes and volcanoes.


    5. Speaking of skepticism, Corio, have you tracked the source of this supposed report by the MET Office? You do know that David Rose is a tabloid reporter and the Daily Mail is the British equivalent of the National Enquirer, right? Does that set off any warning bells? It should.
      Did you bother to read the report from the MET Office? Well, if you did, then that would be quite a feat because there was no report from the MET Office. They simply released a set of data which Rose then proceeded to “analyze” and, not surprisingly, misunderstand and then misrepresent and confabulate. Since you’re such a determined skeptic, Corio, you should have no problem going over the data released by the MET Office and finding Mr. Rose’s errors (lies?) and then reporting back to the rest of us. Or maybe you haven’t even bothered to track the source and just believed what you read on Anthony Watts’ web site? I’ll bet that’s it. So much for skepticism.

  9. It’s kind of a silly conceit that the two candidates are put up side by side on their answers to the questions posed, when, independent of how the may answer in an election year, the Obama admiministration’s record is stronger than Romney’s “more specific” answers. Journamalism!

    1. You know, your comment made me think of another problem that scientists tend to have with politics.

      And that’s that they play fair and think everybody else does, too. It’s the same problem that James Randi illustrates so well with pseudoscience scams — scientists are very easy to fool.

      And that second article is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

      They set up a very nice little experiment: send the same survey to both candidates and objectively score the answers based on certain criteria.

      But as Obama has been having so much fun the past few days demonstrating, Romney can’t even give the same answer to two different audiences, and he’s never given any answer to questions about his budget or health care plans.

      So any sort of evaluation based on the surveys they gave to the campaigns to answer — surveys that the candidates themselves may not even know exist — any conclusions you might come to aren’t even remotely based on reality.

      About the only real way to do this sort of analysis would be to look at the candidates’s legislative and executive records, but even that’s fraught with peril. If the one or the other vetoed a bill, was it because he objected to the headline topic of the bill or because of some objectionable rider?

      Scientists have the logos of rhetoric down cold, better than any other in all of history. But they’re severely lacking in ethos and basically devoid of pathos. If they wish to have even a shred of hope of influencing public discourse, they’re going to have to learn how to master the other two pillars of pisteis. And, of course, they’re going to have to lose their charming gullibility and learn how to identify and counter manipulation and deception.



      1. I should hasten to add, before somebody takes me too literally: there are a number of notable exceptions. Jerry, obviously. But, also recently notable in the news, Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, as well as other obvious exceptions such as Richard Dawkins.

        But, even of those I just named, only Neil actually has any political experience on his resume, and that only as an advisor to President Bush.

        Except for a few rounding errors, scientists are basically apolitical…and that’s probably a significant contributing factor to the ills of our society.


  10. I read the first article, because it is educational. Thanks for summarizing the last one!

    Oh, how I hate postmodernism and its “science deals in relatives”. If anything, the last century has taught us that is simply not the fact.

    I have two problems with the article though.

    – The minor one:

    too often reporters like the now-disgraced Jonah Lehrer simply refuse to do the hard work of finding out which side of a scientific debate is best supported by facts.

    I may be wrong, but I don’t think that was Lehrer’s problem. He refused to do the hard work, period.

    If that is so, it is unfair to both the profession of reporters and Lehrer himself to tie these things together.

    – The major one:

    Otto also described an important factor, historically and still reigning, of how science have failed itself and so the public. It is a system error, so not specifically the fault of scientists, but Otto notes:

    “After the war, he convinced President Harry S. Truman that continued federal investment in science could make the U.S. into a world leader.

    The investment paid off, but the steady flow of federal funding had an unanticipated side effect. Scientists no longer needed to reach out to the public or participate in the civic conversation to raise money for research. They consequently began to withdraw from the national public dialogue to focus more intently on their work and private lives. University tenure systems grew up that provided strong disincentives to public outreach, and scientists came to view civics and political involvement as a professional liability.

    As the voice of science fell silent, the voice of religious fundamentalism was resurging. Moral disquietude over the atomic bomb caused many to predict the world would soon end, and a new wave of fundamentalist evangelists emerged.”

    There is an imminent election where science and scientists can make a difference. But it is shirking the politics to not mention the built in political problem science has. (Not only in US, I haste to add, this is pretty universal. And of course the owner of this site has done more than most, and certainly myself, to rectify the consequences.) We need to work the problem and suggest solutions.

    And I don’t think electing either of the candidates will solve it.

    1. The validity of scientific conclusions ought not to be a partisan issue. The politics should be about how we allocate and distribute resources. It may be that left or right political views support different economic ideas that suggest different ways of supporting science, or suggest that some scientific investments may lead to greater public gains.

      But the situation in the US today is something perverse: an entire party denies scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, and has convinced a substantial fraction of the public that scientists are dishonestly perpetrating a hoax for personal gain.

      The arguments in politics should not be over the scientific facts, but given the facts, politics should debate what investments and what outcomes represent the optimal trade-offs for human benefit.

      It seems like a mistake to formulate a wedge issue based on science, as in saying “reality has a liberal bias” or “the right are anti-science”, no matter how true these things seem to have become at the moment.

      What the long term goal of science ought to be is to reestablish itself as non-political, as dedicated to natural truth in a way above or outside of politics.

      This is not to say that scientists can not be political, but it seems dangerous to science itself if science itself is to be seen as political in any way. This may seem like a naive ideal, since everything is, to some degree, political. But still, it seems wise for scientists to do everything possible to avoid the appearance that a set of scientific conclusions motivate or support one political view over another, but maintain that the science is true independent of whether partisans like it or not.

      1. While your sentiments are noble, the reality is that you’re ceding control of the government to those who are happy to fight dirty.

        You don’t have to fight dirty yourself to counter those who fight dirty, but you do have to get down there in the muck. Otherwise, you’ll never know what hit you.

        Is it fair?

        No, of course not.

        Tough shit.


  11. Romney’s position on the Internet was absolutely horrible. He got 0 points. He thought Net Neutrality is equivalent to “picking winners and losers”, when the opposite is true.

    What it tells us about Romney is that he will never stop anything that increases short term profits of any business for any reason in order to protect the rights of the general public. His ideological belief is that making money (in the short-sighted CEO conception of profit and value) always trumps every other consideration. It is his habit of thought that made him a success at Bain, and which would make him a failure in the White House.

  12. Was the idea that something needed to be done avert the impact of human population growth on the environment and the availability of resources a victim of postmodernism, religiosity, or the belief that prosperity is impossible without economic growth, which, in turn, implies population growth? I believe that this belief in the need for population growth is the biggest impediment to solving the problem of global warming. One can postulate solutions to the global warming problem until one is blue in the face, but, absent constraint of population growth, none of them is likely to do anything more than slightly delay the inevitable. Moreover, even if one believes climate change to be a myth or to be a less severe problem than the evidence suggests, isn’t it sufficiently obvious that the only way to solve the problem of diminishing resources like water, food, fossil fuels, rare-earth minerals, and so on is for the population of the earth to stabilize at or decline to a level that will be sustainable? In a country as religious as the USA, only a politician who doesn’t wish to be reelected would dare broach this subject. Such politicians are exceedingly rare.

    1. “isn’t it sufficiently obvious that the only way to solve the problem of diminishing resources like water, food, fossil fuels, rare-earth minerals, and so on is for the population of the earth to stabilize at or decline to a level that will be sustainable?”

      Most rich countries are below or near replacement rate in terms of fertility. That shows right away that there is no contradiction between economic growth and stable population. In terms of CO2 emissions, most European countries emit about half as much CO2 per capita as the U.S. and there is a huge opportunity to cut China’s emissions by encouraging them to find alternatives to building coal power plants.

      1. Economic growth with a stable population is obviously possible through increased productivity (economic output per capita).

        There are a number of reasons why Europe’s per capita emissions are lower than those of the U.S. One reason is simply that Europeans have a lower standard of living. Another is that Europe’s climate is more temperate, meaning that less energy is required for heating and cooling. A third reason is that Europe is much more geographically compact, meaning that less energy is required for transportation.

          1. Yes it is. Higher economic output per capita means economic growth even with a stable population. It is a mathematical certainty.

            Nothing in your link shows, or claims to show, otherwise.

            1. I’m sorry, Gary — and Jerry.

              But that’s pure bullshit. A lie. And not even a very good one.

              Conclusion from the first link:

              Together with the last post, I have used physical analysis to argue that sustained economic growth in the long term is fantastical.

              Introduction from the second:

              Some while back, I found myself sitting next to an accomplished economics professor at a dinner event. Shortly after pleasantries, I said to him, “economic growth cannot continue indefinitely,” just to see where things would go. It was a lively and informative conversation. I was somewhat alarmed by the disconnect between economic theory and physical constraints—not for the first time, but here it was up-close and personal.

              Title of the third:

              Discovering Limits to Growth

              Why do I feel like I’m in a Monty Python sketch?




              1. You are totally confused, as usual. The posts you link to are about long term limits(very long term) to economic growth. They have nothing to do with the statement of mine you’re responding to, which is about the relationship between economic productivity (output per capita) and economic growth.

              2. More bullshit, Gary.

                The sixth word in that first link is to a post discussing the physical limit to growth that underlie the economic limits to growth. And, should we continue our historical 2% – 3% growth in energy consumption, the heat exhaust will result in “boiling skin” in just a few centuries. That’s not global warming from the greenhouse effect; that’s the waste heat from using that much energy.

                And, of course, the assumption of said post is that we rapidly transition to solar, because non-renewables run out far before that point if we keep growth at 2.3%.

                Those were also purely hypothetical models. As we all know, we’re already basically fucked as far as greenhouse gas emissions go, and there’s so little petroleum left that we’re talking about burning up tar sands.

                Again, Gary. Your mischaracterization of those articles is so grossly over-the-top that there truly only is one suitable word:



              3. Come on, Ben, tone down the aggression, please. There are too many “bullshits” and “lies” in your arguments.


              4. Jerry, I’ll stop responding to Gary if you really want me to, but first I’d like to argue that there comes a point when somebody who blatantly and transparently lies simply must be called a liar.

                To recap: Gary claimed that economic growth is sustainable.

                I replied with a series of links to a UC San Diego physics professor’s blog that utterly demolish the notion that economic growth is sustainable — including one where that was the very title of the post.

                Gary didn’t counter any of the arguments that Tom Murphy made; he didn’t even pretend to address them. If Gary had contested some of Tom’s points — his assumptions, his math, whatever — I could respect that.

                But that’s not at all what Gary did.

                Instead, Gary lied about what Tom Murphy wrote, and claimed that Tom wrote nothing at all about the relationship between economic productivity and economic growth. Gary’s own words.

                That was the entire purpose of Tom’s series! Tom spilled page after page of electrons about the consequences of growth, and all Gary can do is lie that Tom did no such thing.

                One of your points in your original post above is that “[a] public swayed by opinion and wish-thinking rather than evidence can’t support democracy.”

                How is what Gary is doing in this thread not a perfect example of exactly that?

                And how on Earth is one supposed to stop the liars from getting away with their lies other than by calling them out for lying?


              5. The sixth word in that first link is to a post discussing the physical limit to growth that underlie the economic limits to growth.

                The physical limits to growth, if any, are simply irrelevant to the point. An economy will grow if output per capita increases, even if the population is flat. It is a mathematical certainty. As Mark noted in his original comment, there are numerous real-world examples of economies that have grown despite flat or declining population, due to an increase in economic output per capita.

                This is the fourth time I have explained this very simple and entirely non-controversial economic principle to you. If you still don’t understand it, never mind.

              6. An economy will grow if output per capita increases

                See what I mean, Jerry?

                Professor Murphy has devoted his whole blogging career to the limits of growth, the consequences of those limits, and what we can do in the face of those limits, and he’s made post after post on the limits of economic growth…

                …and yet Gary is still insisting that there are no limits to growth and he’s still ignoring the vast mounds of research that Professor Murphy has done demonstrating otherwise.

                How, exactly, is what Gary is doing different from a Creationist insisting that Evolution is false because Jesus loves him for the Bible told him so?

                And how, exactly, is one supposed to engage in a constructive conversation with somebody like this when he a) lies about the principal content of a UCSD professor’s blog when he’s not simply II) ignoring it altogether?


              7. and yet Gary is still insisting that there are no limits to growth

                I never said there are no limits to growth. There are obviously all sorts of limits to growth that can apply in particular places at particular times: a shortage of materials, a shortage of labor, lack of a technology needed to exploit a resource, and so on. There is no serious reason to believe that global economic growth will come to a halt during the foreseeable future. We have enormous quantities of natural and human resources, and the technology for exploiting our resources is constantly improving.

                Whether there is an *ultimate* limit on economic growth dictated by fundamental limits of the universe, I don’t think anyone knows. Tom Murphy certainly hasn’t shown that there is.

              8. All right, that’s enough. Stop it, both of you. This discussion has run its course.

  13. As much as I was impressed by the article, I was disappointed to see this:

    “Huntsman, the lone candidate to actively embrace science, finished last in the polls.”

    This gives short shrift to Gary Johnson, who contested as a Republican before accepting the Libertarian nomination after the poltroons at CNN and Faux Snooze froze him out.

    Dan Farber said this, at

    “But at least Johnson is clear on the science, unlike any of the major contenders for the Republican nomination.”

    1. Since when was Johnson a major contender for the Republican nomination?

      I don’t like the fact that third party candidates are ignored. But it is a group effort by all of the media and the major parties. And if Huntsman didn’t have a chance, I’m not sure why Johnson would.

      In any case, I’m not exactly sure how being a Libertarian candidate would be highly compatible with supporting science in practice. There’s a reason that those candidates generally run in Republican primaries.

      1. MV, I don’t understand your question. Johnson WASN’T a major contender; I think that the quote from Farber makes that clear. Nor was Huntsman, who after Johnson would have been my second choice–clearly more qualified to hold the office than either the White Robamaney Clone or the Black Robamaney Clone.

        And there is a reason why libertarian-leaning candidates tend to appear in the Repugnant Party; it is because when the current crop were making their bones, members of the Democratic Freedom Caucus were having to swim upstream even more than members of the Republican Liberty Caucus (of which I was once, nominally, the NGC). Of course, by the time of the Rove-Cheney Interregnum, this was much less so.

  14. I found the “Science in an Election Year” article difficult to swallow; whoever the authors were (“The Editors” is all that’s on the page), they’re obviously biased and not well enough informed. For example, `the shibboleth of “clean coal”‘ – why is the so-called “clean coal” a shibboleth? Do the authors even know what a shibboleth is? As for how pit mining of coal destroys freshwater sources such as streams, yes it does but so what – how many of those streams are actually used by humans as a water source? Mine tailings in general destroy streams thanks to bringing up all sorts of salts and heavy metals – perhaps we should simply ban all mining in the country? We can leave other people to screw up their land and send us the products. The other thing is the matter of scale – if you see one of these operations they’re quite impressive in size, and yet on a national scale they’re miniscule.

    I’m not happy with the scoring either. It’s unfortunate that although Obama gives answers, he really doesn’t explain the significance of his short answers and his scores suffer because of this (not the fault of the authors). Romney however seems to be awarded points for meaningless management-babble; as the fictional Sir Humphrey Appleby said upon being commended by the minister for always answering his questions in parliament, “I’m glad you think so, minister.”

    1. As for how pit mining of coal destroys freshwater sources such as streams, yes it does but so what – how many of those streams are actually used by humans as a water source?

      fuck me, but this is ignorant twaddle.

      where do you think the water in streams goes to?

      do you you think humans are the only things water is important to directly?

      do you think those things that aren’t humans that water is also important to do not affect humans directly themselves, or even indirectly?

      fail. big, sloppy, fail.

      try harder damnit.

  15. I see the alliance of the political right and religious fundamentalists as depressingly successful with religious bias and polemic seemingly endemic on the US political scene.

    Can the nascent atheist, secular, humanist movement change anything? Is there enough support for such a change. Will such a movement be able to succeed or is it likely to fragment and evaporate?

    1. My view is that the religious conservative movement bears the seeds of its own destruction, in that it sprang out of the Southern Strategy to pull in support of southern Democrats abandoning the party for its support of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. A major core of its support is southern traditionalists suffering racial anxiety at the prospect of whites rapidly becoming a minority. A large portion of this voting block is over 50, and will literally die off slowly but surely. The GOP holds on to this group using religious fundamentalism. The recent Gallup poll, putting Romney ahead by 4% nationally, showed an extraordinary regional breakdown: Obama up by 4 in the East and Midwest, Obama by 6 in the West, and Romney leading in the South by an astonishing 22 percentage points. This makes it look like Romney might do better in the popular vote than in the electoral college. But it also says a lot about the demographics of religious fundamentalism and the GOP.

      I think atheists would do well in the short term to identify politically as pro-religious freedom secularists, and to ally politically with liberal religious believers who see secularism as their guarantee of religious freedom. This is the best way to fight the fundamentalists as their numbers diminish and ours increase over time.

      1. I hope you’re right. I fear you are wrong, though. I personally thought they had been defeated for good by the time I was growing up in the 1960’s-70’s, and yet here we are and they seem more invigorated and influential than at any point in my memory. And, while it is heartening to hear that the “nones” are a growing group, given the authoritarian mind frame and moral absolutism of religious fundamentalists, I worry about how quietly they’ll go into defeat if it ever comes at the polls. Reason and rationality are inherently moderate, but irrationality has no such breaks. And even demographics may not be on our side. See, for example [1]:

        “During the twentieth century, conservative Protestants increased from little more than a third of the white Protestant total (among those born in 1900) to almost two-thirds (for those born after 1975). Only a quarter of this effect was down to changes in switching patterns, the rest accruing to demography.”

        I have done scant reading on this topic, so for all I know this is a very skewed accounting, but it accords with my anecdotal experience.


        1. Thanks for responses guys.

          So would my impression that organisations like American Atheists, the American Humanist Association don’t yet have any real clout in US politics a reasonable conclusion? Can we expect an effective political force based on atheism to emerge soon? Is Professor Coyne up for a job in the organisation?

          1. Yes, no, and I’d wager not.

            The first sentence made me chuckle. I think we’re still in the position where most candidates would feel the need to return the American Atheists campaign donations.

  16. Heartening to see 9 out 10 scientists are Democrat -and if more knew about and believed in the viability of the Green Party, most would abjure both main political parties. I suspect even fewer scientists would actually cast votes for a Republican. There still maybe scientists with Eisenhower/Nelson Rockefeller type political persuasions who find modern Republicans odious.
    On a related note 68 Nobel laureates have endorsed a presidential candidate. So the highest distillation of abstract&hypothetical thinking/ of critical thinking/ of iconoclasts who make a livelihood of tearing down arguments on the merits of reason, stump for one side by a spread of 68 to zero. What does it say of the losing side?

    1. Heartening to see 9 out 10 scientists are Democrat

      That’s not actually what it says. It says that 9 out of 10 scientists “who identified with a major political party” said they were Democrats. It doesn’t say how large a share identified with other parties or as independents or did not express a political identification.

      The 68 Nobel laureates is also less significant than you seem to think. They include prizewinners in three fields (physics, chemistry and medicine) going back to 1960. There have been a total of 156 Nobel prizes in those fields since 1960. No word on which candidate the other 88 prizewinners endorse (or would endorse, in the case of deceased laureates).

      Moreover, the letter is almost entirely about the issue of public support for science and science education. Most or all of the signatories probably have a strong professional and/or personal financial interest (grants, etc.) in maintaining or increasing government funding for science. So it’s not as if the endorsement is free of conflict of interest. I wonder how endorsements by, say, Nobel laureates in economics break down.

  17. One significant quibble I have is tracing the anti-science movement only back as far as William Jennings Bryan. I’m pretty sure there were roots all the way back to colonial times and earlier, and that it did not spring forth full grown like Minerva from the brow of Jove.

    Other than that, a relatively good piece.

  18. I found this to be a great read. I am not going to make much of a comment, I am not American, it isn’t my politics. As an Australian, I found this to be an amazing insight. This is not an issue in Australian politics. If an Australian political leader attempted such a stance … they would no longer be leader. Thanks for sharing.

      1. Haven’t you heard … he is a mysogonist … not god squad. We aren’t near the pointy edge of the wedge like the US.
        Wouldn’t it have been great to have Costello and Abbott at the wheel … just for a week … so we could live in a country run by Abbott and Costello!! Just for a week mind you.
        AND Abbott didn’t get elected … and I don’t think he will get elected in the country. IF the Opposition had anyone leading their party with an ounce of charm or likeability … they would be ahead by a mile! Abbott is the reason Labor is in power.

  19. Kudos to Science, Sci Am, and all the other contributing organizations for getting both campaigns to answer all the questions. AFAIK this is the first time both candidates did that, and hopefully this effort will just keep picking up steam in future election cycles.

    IMO the questions could’ve been a little more pointed, but that’s a minor nitpick. Even asking the very best question would not necessarily lead to higher quality answers.

    If anyone wants to grade the candidates answers themselves, here’s the link to the actual answers. I think Sci Am got the analysis qualitatively right: Romney repeatedly pounds on deregulation as his solution to pretty much every problem. This is more specific than Obama’s answers, though I’m not sure I’d rate it higher.

  20. Why are so many people downplaying Obama’s anti-science politics? One of the world’s most respected polar bear scientists was treated like crap (notebooks confiscated, kicked out of his office, suspended and questioned by criminal investigators) after he found dead bears where Shell wanted to drill. This was on Obama’s watch and with his seal of approval.

    After the Gulf oil spill, he didn’t talk about ecology. Instead, he asked the American people to pray. Why are we being so timid about this? At least write to the guy and tell him how disgusting this is.

    1. “This was with (Obama’s) seal of approval.”
      I could find nothing in this report, nor its attached ones, to back this up. Could you point to where that may be found? Are any of the people mentioned even appointees of his regime?

    1. I agree that the trial is a terrible case of scapegoating scientists, instead of corrupt building inspectors and the like. Hopefully it will be thrown out on appeal.

      But quite apart from the facts

      (1) that the pope does not in fact live in Italy, and

      (2)that the institution he heads is in my opinion a dreadful thing which the world could well do without, the sooner the better,

      does this kind of silly connection not just bring serious efforts to promote atheism into disrepute?

  21. In Italy six scientists were condamned two days ago because they were unable to foresee an hearthquake

  22. As others have pointed out, the anti-science, anti-intellectual tendency in American culture and politics did not begin with William Jennings Bryan.

    A classic book that really has stood the test of time is Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.” Hofstadter traces anti-intellectualism and hostility toward science and learning to evangelical Protestantism in the early 19th century, which was deeply suspicious of educated clergy. Hofstadter repeatedly quotes the 19th century evangelical Dwight Moody and many of those quotes — with hostility toward evolutionary biology, liberal reformers and people with advanced degrees — could just as easily have come from the mouths of Falwell or Robertson.

    Hofstadter makes clear that the union of this sort of evangelical mentality and elements of the Republican Party goes back at least to anti-New Deal agitation and was gaining momentum by the time of McCarthy’s tenure in the Senate.

    The best thing about the book is that Hoftstadter wrote in 1964 and yet it describes phenomena like the Republican anti-evolution nonsense, Glenn Beck and the Tea Party with remarkable clarity.

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