By Tom Chivers | 10 January 2012
Over in the US, the Republican party is choosing its presidential nominee to face Barack Obama in November. But whoever wins, science may lose.
The Grand Ol’ Party (GOP), as the Republicans are known, has an uncomfortable relationship with scientific fact. Rick Santorum, a frontrunner in the nomination race, has said of a fellow candidate: “If he wants to believe he is the descendant of a monkey then he has the right to believe that, but I disagree with him on this liberal belief.” Yes: acknowledging biology’s central premise is “liberal”. His opponents Ron Paul, Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, Michelle Bachman and Newt Gingrich have all made noises doubting either climate change, evolution or both; only Jon Huntsman, a forlorn no-hoper, acknowledges the reality of both.
It’s not just the candidates. Fifty-two per cent of Republican voters reject the theory of evolution, saying mankind was created in present form within the last 10,000 years; just 31 per cent think man-made climate change is happening. In Congress, Republicans fought stem cell research and the HPV vaccine. Sarah Palin, ignoramus-in-chief, mocked “fruit-fly research” as a “pet project [with] little or nothing to do with the public good,” rejecting at a stroke most advances in genetics since Gregor Mendel.
“Is the GOP anti-science?” asks Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America. “It depends on your definition. If you mean ‘Takes many positions that are contrary to scientific understanding’, then yes; if it’s ‘Has an animus towards scientists’, then data suggests it’s true; if it’s ‘Wants to de-fund scientific research’, it’s less clear, but to some extent true.”
To some extent, the cause is obvious. Religious conservatives have difficulties with science, notably evolution and a lot of medical research. Fiscal conservatives are leery of the idea of global warming, because the proposed responses are seen as constricting of business.
But it hasn’t always been like this in the party of Eisenhower and Lincoln. A move towards anti-intellectualism began in the 1960s: “The Republican political elites decided to energise their base around culture-war issues, like women’s rights, gay rights, separation of church and state, and abortion,” says Mooney. “It was called ‘Nixon’s Southern Strategy’, and it worked: the Republicans became the party of people who have very, very traditionalist views on cultural issues.”
This Nixonian strategy actually changed conservative psychology, according to Mooney. “It’s been argued convincingly that when you energise people around these sort of issues you get an authoritarian streak coming out, characterised by rigidity and inflexibility, thinking that you’re absolutely right and the other side is absolutely wrong; a need for certainty, a need for order.” This black-and-white thinking does not sit well with science’s error bars and uncertainties.
Worse, it’s become a vicious circle. The Republican party is trapped by its own anti-science tactics. Part of the culture war strategy included attacking intellectuals: describing them as weak and spineless and effete. Academics, always liberal-inclined, responded by becoming more so: “They’re so overwhelmingly liberal now it’s kind of ridiculous, and so is the scientific community. The Democratic party is drawing the votes of people with advanced degrees, and the Republican party is not,” says Mooney. So, in turn, the Republican party reacted by becoming ever more distrustful of intellectualism, and pushing wave after wave of scientists and academics from the Right to the Left. “The more the Republican party rejects nuance and attacks knowledge, the more the people who have knowledge go the other way. It shows in statistics about liberalism among professors and scientists, and distribution of PhDs across the parties: there’s a giant knowledge and expertise gap.”
And to appeal to this anti-intellectual base, the Republican elite now have to pretend to be stupider than they are. Gingrich, who in earlier years repeatedly acknowledged the dangers of climate change, suddenly dropped a chapter written by a climate scientist from an upcoming book after getting challenged on air by Rush Limbaugh, the hugely influential Right-wing talk radio host; Mitt Romney moved from “I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that” to “We don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet” in the space of three months.
Do they mean it, or is it pandering to their anti-intellectual base? “Santorum, Bachmann and Perry are completely out of touch with reality. With Romney and Gingrich, many people get the impression that they know what’s right and what’s wrong, but can’t say it,” says Mooney.
Perhaps. But nowadays, to get far in the Republican party, you can’t be part of what George Bush might call the reality-based community. It’s a worrying state of affairs: America is becoming an intellectual two-speed nation, with a technocratic, informed elite and a scientifically illiterate rump who are falling behind economically in their increasingly knowledge-based economy. The GOP is increasingly the party of the uneducated: it’s bad enough for them, but if it means voting stupid people, or people who are pretending to be stupid, into the most powerful office in the world, it’s bad for the rest of us too.
Tom Chivers is the Telegraph’s assistant comment editor. He writes on science, culture and anything that crosses his mind. Read older posts by Tom here.
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