Are Republicans Unfairly Pegged as Anti-Science? (Mostly No) November 14, 2013

Are Republicans Unfairly Pegged as Anti-Science? (Mostly No)

Republican Paul “Lies from the Pit of Hell” Broun, from the House Science Committee.

Are Republicans being unfairly maligned as the anti-science party? The easy answer to that is, “don’t be ridiculous, and what right-wing industry lobby is funding that question?” But to Mischa Fisher, a former House GOP science policy staffer who described himself as “a politically centrist atheist,” the answer is yes, and the stereotype is harming science generally.

In a piece in The Atlantic, Fisher argues that Democrats are, more or less, just as prone to anti-scientific thinking as Republicans, but on different subjects, and that Republicans aren’t nearly as backward on science acceptance as their more extreme clown-characters like Paul Broun and Michele Bachmann would make them seem to be.

At the outset, let me just say I agree with where Fisher is going with his argument, but its presentation is flawed.

First, the problems. He attempts to make a wash of Republicans’ and Democrats’ beliefs on creationism,

Yes, an embarrassing half of Republicans believe the earth is only 10,000 years old — but so do more than a third of Democrats. And a slightly higher percentage of Democrats believe God was the guiding factor in evolution than Republicans.

That’s fine, but the number of Republicans who believe this, not mentioned by Fisher, is 52% — a majority. That’s a lot more than one-third. And even if the numbers were closer to each other, the fact remains that the elected representatives that Republican voters put in power are far more likely to resist science than the folks the Democrats put in power, even if many of those Democrats think the Bible is a biology textbook.

But maybe this is also an unfair presupposition on my part? Okay, I’m willing to be wrong here. But look at his own proof of pro-science Republicanism. It’s anecdote.

Of the many Republican members of Congress I know personally, the vast majority do not reject the underlying science of global warming.

Now remember, Fisher was a science policy staffer for the House GOP, so of course he’s going to be exposed to a proportionally higher number of science-accepting Republicans, probably a higher percentage than actually exist among Republicans generally. So maybe he rubs elbows with reality-based GOPers, but the Republicans that are getting elected to positions of power are folks like Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and George W. Bush; just a sampling of chief executives who reject basic premises of science, or advocate policies that directly combat science in the name of theology. Don’t even get me started on the House Science Committee.

I’m also unconvinced by Fisher’s take on which party is better at funding scientific research, but rather than get into it here, I’ll just say that it seems to me that when Democrats are lackluster on this point, it has more to do with politics in the sense of “art of the possible,” seeking to fund that which has a chance of being funded, or directing it at things that have a known (or anticipated) payoff, such as clean energy.

Now, Fisher is right that the left has its own problems with science acceptance, on subjects such as nuclear power, GMOs, and vaccinations. But the crisis levels here are not equivalent. Might it be better if Democrats got on board with nuclear power? I don’t know, but at least they’re working to support wind and solar power, which are cleaner and infinitely renewable. Republicans resist them. Are some on the left wrong to dismiss GMOs entirely? Of course, but there’s no starvation crisis related to it, and there is real malfeasance in the corporate dominance of “gene patenting.” Vaccinations are a real problem, but the false skepticism around them is bipartisan. H.R. 1757, the Vaccine Safety Study Act, was introduced by Republican Bill Posey and Democrat Carolyn Maloney.

But here’s where I see value in Fisher’s piece. Thinking big-picture, perhaps we need to think about what happens to science when it gets pinned as exclusive to one party or another in our own discourse.

My point is not to help Republicans shed the “anti-science” label and simply apply it to the Democrats. It’s more important that we collectively recognize that reason and critical thought, the joy and excitement of discovery, the connection between research and economic growth, and the beauty and awe of science are accessible to people of all religious and political stripes — just as people of all stripes are capable of rejecting them.

Supporters of federal science funding, a group of which I am a card-carrying member, can ill afford to lose Republican support for science. But if it is perceived as a partisan litmus test, it will not continue to exist in its current state as the government’s other financial obligations continue to grow.

It’s a powerful point. It’s possible that by shouting from the hilltops that Republicans hate science and they Democrats love it (or, more specifically, that secular humanist atheist liberal poindexter college professor elitists love science), it becomes more and more toxic for Republican leaders to embrace, lest they look like the aforementioned pinkos to their base.

Is there a better way to talk about these things, and avoid painting with broad brushes? It’s difficult, given the self-evident onslaught against science that is championed nearly exclusively by Republicans in terms of climate change and evolution. If there are as many pro-science Republicans as Fisher says there are, they need to suit up for a fight with their own party, and stand up for reality. Then we can talk.

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