Pundit Wire

How the GOP Became the Anti-Science Party

Image by Mike Licht

How did it come to pass that the GOP is in danger of becoming, in the memorable words of Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, “the anti-science party”?

Huntsman, the former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China, is the lone GOP candidate who hasn’t hedged on his embrace of science. “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy,” Huntsman recently tweeted.

Ask Republicans and Huntsman may be crazy indeed. A 2010 Gallup Poll found that a majority of Republicans believe that “God created humans in present form within the last 10,000 years.” Potential presidents Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann see more evidence for creationism and intelligent design than they do for evolution.

On climate change, Perry calls it a “contrived phony mess,” Bachmann says it is “a hoax, voodoo, nonsense, hokum,” and Rep. Ron Paul, another presidential candidate, declares it “the greatest hoax I think that has been around in many, many years if not hundreds of years.”

To be sure, there are plenty of rank-and-file Republicans who accept the scientific facts behind evolution and climate change, but increasingly the party’s base seems to view anything less than a rejection of this science as a betrayal of conservatism. When Mitt Romney at one point seemed to embrace the science of global warming, Rush Limbaugh quipped “Bye bye nomination.”

It would be easy to take this Republican drift from reality and rationality as evidence that the party is comprised of know-nothings and the uninformed. “Anti-knowledge” is how New York Times columnist Paul Krugman labels the GOP.

But in truth there are as many educated, thoughtful Republicans as there are Democrats, people who in their lives and businesses apply strict standards of evidence and rationality to their daily decisions. Perry is certainly no rube, having governed the second largest state in the nation for ten years, and Bachmann is a former tax attorney. If higher education is any gauge, Republicans and Democrats typically split the vote of those with a college degree.

Consider an entrepreneur I know who has a deep reverence for science and enjoys seeing the fruits of chemistry emerge in the products he sells. Yet whenever climate change comes up, he throws up his arms, insults Al Gore, and despite knowing that there’s near-universal agreement among scientists about global warming, dismisses it as yet another fabrication of liberals trying to impose government on the rest of us.

He should know better, yet somehow he subordinates his scientific judgment to his partisan identity.

So why are so many otherwise rational Republicans so seemingly irrational when matters of science enter the political arena? Four factors might explain.

Factor one is a driving force behind so much of what the Republican Party does today, hatred of liberalism. Insofar as environmental and evolutionary sciences are associated with liberal causes, they generate a visceral distrust among Republicans.

This disdain for liberalism has an interesting genesis given that so many red states have benefited from liberal governance in the form of rural electrification, water projects, and transportation infrastructure, and indeed many white southern and Great Plains politicians were once ardent New Dealers.

That all changed, of course, with civil rights, which turned many white Americans from friends of liberalism to its most ardent foes. By enforcing civil rights, liberalism became a literal enemy of their way of life and a figurative threat to anyone who didn’t want to accept the reality of a plural, diverse, and cosmopolitan America.

Add to that the Silent Majority pedigree of today’s GOP – those who recoiled at liberalism’s association with Vietnam protests, campus upheavals, and the generation gap that tore apart the country in the 1960s.

Thus to many Republicans, liberalism ceased to be merely an alternative governing creed – it came to symbolize an alien culture, an America they no longer recognized or controlled, making anything connected with it, no matter how rational or evidence-based, sinister and suspect. “Quite frankly,” wrote Rick Perry in his 2010 book Fed Up!, “when science gets hijacked by the political Left, we should all be concerned.”

Factor two in the Republican denial of science is the anti-intellectual populism that pervades much of the GOP. Republicans routinely deride university culture, describe professors with a sneer, and toss around words like “pinheads” or “pointy heads” to describe intellectuals.

Rick Perry recently gave a speech joking about his poor academic performance in college, as if that were a badge of defiance and honor. The moment Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren announced her plans to run against Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, Republicans immediately started calling her “Professor Warren” as if that title deserved mockery and scorn.

Among intellectuals it’s an article of faith to think critically, yet this is precisely what bothers Republicans who mistake this culture of critical thinking for an assault on American life, which they then take very personally. So in this insular GOP world intellectuals become elitists, people who think they’re too good for everyone else, and therefore no one should trust what they say.

“What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals,” writes conservative columnist David Brooks about Republicans, “slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole.” Or as some Republicans say, the only climate that should worry America is the intellectual climate.

So to these anti-intellectual Republicans, every mention of science becomes yet another boast among the educated, a sign of their arrogance and sense of superiority. Thus scientific evidence becomes secondary to the perceived elitism of the educated class and the scientists who belong to it. Reject science and strike a blow for the little people.

The increasing dominance of evangelical religion in the GOP – with its attendant sense of certainty and unerring truth – is factor three in the Republican distrust of science.

Let’s be clear: science and religion are not incompatible. The Catholic Church has made its peace with evolution and has no problem with the science of climate change. The current director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis X. Collins, is a born-again Christian who accepts evolution and simply sees the hand of God in its creation.

But for many evangelical Christians it’s far more convenient to reject science than to deal with the dissonance between scientific explanations and what’s written in the Bible. To them, science is yet another tool in the secular assault on their religiosity. Unlike the good book, it is not to be trusted. The Scopes Trial remains very much alive for them.

Most remarkable is how these true believers can look at the evidence and dismiss it outright. With complete certainty, for example, they claim there is no proof that the world and its fossil layers are millions of years old — and instead they declare that dinosaurs and humans coexisted on a Young Earth that was created just thousands of years ago. The only evidence they need is in the Bible.

The final factor in the Republican denial of science is the GOP’s total embrace of corporate self-interest — and the fact that many businesses do not want to bear any of the costs required to address global warming.

So rump groups funded by corporations attack real science as “junk science” and prop up well-funded poseurs to act as scientific authorities in the media debate they create. These poseurs seize on any mistakes or oversights among climate scientists to say that the science has not been settled, and the media, always in search of controversy, give them equal time.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce even proposed holding a public trial designed to undercut the scientific consensus on climate change. Such a trial, the Chamber said in 2009, is the only way to “make a fully informed, transparent decision with scientific integrity based on the actual record of the science.”

Saying they support scientific integrity as they undercut scientific integrity is a clever tactic these Republicans use to manipulate public perceptions out of cynical self-interest.

These four factors — anti-liberalism, anti-intellectualism, religious conservatism, and corporate self-interest — create such a climate within the Republican Party that even those inclined to accept scientific evidence feel cowed or remain silent. Or like Jon Huntsman, they can run for president and garner a mere one percent in the public opinion polls.

Leonard SteinhornA former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written on American politics and culture for major newspapers and magazines, and is currently the director of the Public Communications department at American University.

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  • jspillane

    Leonard, a very interesting commentary. I'd invite you and other readers to consider this historical perspective on the Bachman/Gardasil controversy from Prof. Joseph Gabriel of the Points blog (which I co-edit): http://pointsadhsblog.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/ga

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=861480724 Justin Prazak

    I've been reading opinions on the whole anti-science Republicans issue all day, some from Republicans saying it isn't so and others from people saying it is. I have to say this is the single most insightful piece so far and I don't expect to find one that lays the case out more clearly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001026837377 Alec Sevins

    I think a lot of it comes down to many Republicans being greedy takers and generally soulless individuals. Look at those who trophy hunt, for example. They have an inherent lack of respect for nature and only care about dominating it and returning with items they've pillaged. They're just plain old mean and rotten, for lack of a more subtle description.

  • squeegologist

    Very well written. Accurate. I have a friend who I consider to be a genius. He is a true free spirited entrepreneur, and has a gifted mind. Except when it comes to anything climate change. He screams about Al Gore, and refuses to even look at anything scientific, including clear-cut photographic and temperature data gathered. When I point out that the Northwest passage has been open for regular commercial shipping since 2009, he switches directions, and starts talking about sunspots. First it's not happening at all, then it IS happening, but it would have happened even if people had never been on the planet. He gets really angry when I point out that he is letting his political opinions alter his views of the actual world around him, which he can see with his own two eyes, as we all can, in the form of weather patterns that are swinging to the extremes. There are Islands in the south pacific that have already been evacuated. There are over 500,000 refugees from one Island alone, Bhola Island in Bangladesh, which was reclaimed by the sea starting in 2005. The science is good. The evidence is clearly visible. Yet my genius friend is a complete idiot when it comes to anything crossing his political view.

  • http://wikicars.org/en/User:Ronaldredmondgqhy Sugar Land Federal

    Magnificent. I agree.

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