The Republican War on Science Returns

The Republican War on Science Returns
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As author of the 2005 book The Republican War on ScienceI’ve watched recent developments in the presidential race with fascination.

It is not exactly news that many candidates on the GOP side take “war on science” positions, e.g., denying that global warming is human caused, or that human evolution explains who and what we are. Climate and evolution have long been the “big two” issues in the “war,” but I would expect that many of the GOP candidates reject modern scientific knowledge on a variety of other subjects as well. (Just ask them about, say, reproductive health and contraception.)

The standard “war on science” saga has droned on—usually in the background–for years and years. But somehow, it all exploded into political consciousness last week with Texas governor Rick Perry’s attacks on the integrity of climate researchers, and his claim that his own state teaches creationism–which if true would violate a Supreme Court ruling. (Actually, this is not state policy, though I suspect much creationism is being taught in many schools in Texas, in defiance of the law of the land.)

At that point, former Utah governor and outsider GOP candidate Jon Huntsman Tweeted some simple words, which ended up nevertheless serving as a shot heard round the political world:

”To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming.  Call me crazy.”

Huntsman then followed up on ABC News:

I think there’s a serious problem.  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.

I agree, as do moderate Republicans like David Frum and Kenneth Silber. But presumably most of the GOP (or at least its most influential elements) does not, or else this problem would not exist. Which probably means that Huntsman is simultaneously destined to be a media darling, and also an unsuccessful candidate.

He’s correct, though: We do have evidence that the GOP’s anti-science behavior is pushing former followers away, like atmospheric scientist Kerry Emanuel, whose political deconversion away from the GOP ranks I described here. But the attacks on science may also be drawing in others, and certainly it appeals to the base—particularly the authoritarian Tea Party.

So what follows? Well, a lot.

It’s now six years since the “Republican War on Science” thesis was published, and while much has stayed the same during that time, much has also changed. I want to highlight three main developments, or differences, in particular:

1.      Bottom Up v. Top Down Anti-Science Attacks. Clearly, the U.S. Republican right has remained at “war” with science—at least on the most hot button issues. Were this not the case, Huntsman’s claim would not resonate, as it so obviously does.

If anything, however, I believe matters have gotten worse. Why? Largely because we’ve swapped the relatively genteel “war on science” of the George W. Bush administration (which was prosecuted in top-down fashion from the White House and administration, largely in service of what various staff believed that the president wanted, or what should or shouldn’t be on the public agenda or in the media) for a more populist and bottom-up strain associated with the rise of the Tea Party. This is partly a function of the fact that the GOP is in the opposition right now, rather than running the country; and partly a function of the right moving further to, uh, the right; and partly also, I think, a function of the increasing influence of the blogosphere.

Either way, there are lots of consequences. For instance, the attacks on science are now nastier, aimed at individual scientists and presenting direct assaults on their integrity and their work. This goes far beyond Bush vaguely mumbling that scientists don’t have a consensus on climate change, or that it might be natural; or some aide at NOAA or NASA blocking a scientist’s media interview.

2.      It’s Not Just About Science, It’s About Reality. Whatever you may have thought of Bush, I don’t think he approached the full construction of an alternate reality that we see in the Tea Party (although Bush went quite a way towards constructing an alternate reality around the Iraq war). And this leads to the second really important thing that is different now: Even as everybody revives the “war on science” meme, we now realize that the war isn’t really on science at all, but on reality. People who can say that the government banned incandescent light bulbs when it didn’t, who can claim that the U.S. can fail to raise the debt ceiling and it won’t be any problem, or who assert that the 2009 health care bill created government “death panels” are in denial about a lot more than science.

3.      We Need Psychology To Explain This. The major new development, to my mind, has been the application of psychological and neuroscientific approaches to try to understand how people can actually behave and think like this. In particular, more and more attention focuses on motivated reasoning, a subconscious and often automatic emotional process in which people rationalize pre-existing views that are important to their identities, including in the face of direct factual refutation. So we are beginning to be able to understand the Republican denial of science as part of a motivated process in which certain scientific claims are seen as so threatening to self-identity and group affiliations that they must be rejected in order to preserve a sense of self.

What does all this mean? It means that even as the war on science has gotten broader and worse, we are at least beginning to understand how this could happen. 

Unfortunately, though, we are not very far along on the road of actually figuring out–and agreeing on–a way to address this problem. Based on what we know about motivated reasoning, though, we know that if science is seen as an attack on people’s identities, it will be rejected. So any solution is going to have to make facts themselves seem a whole lot less threatening.

Tall order.

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