News & Politics

GOP Assault on Truth: Why Do Conservatives Pretend They Know More About Science Than Scientists?

Who needs the careful application of the scientific method when congressmen with absolutely no scientific training are making decisions?

Earlier this year, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced legislation “repealing the...[EPA’s] scientific finding that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are endangering human health and the environment.” That’s right, politicians voted to repeal a scientific finding. It failed in the Senate. But if Republicans were to take control of the White House and Senate, the bill would undoubtedly become law.

“Politicians overruling scientists on a scientific question,” cautioned EPA Secretary Lisa Jackson on February 8, “would become part of this Committee's legacy.”

It’s too late now, Secretary Jackson. Two months after the global warming hearing, Congress for the first time ever voted to delist a species from the Endangered Species Act. Politicians have determined that the grey wolfis not, contrary to all scientific evidence, an endangered species in need of protection.

“It’s a political move,” says Joanne Padrón Carney, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Congress is not a scientific body. They’re not a peer-reviewed body.”

Who needs the careful application of the scientific method when you have congressmen with absolutely no scientific training making these decisions? Scientists and environmentalists are worried that the wolf’s delisting could set a bad precedent, encouraging Congress to do more science by decree amidst ongoing legislative wrangling. It appears that science has joined health care for the elderly and poor on the list of things Republicans and business-friendly Democrats can hold hostage to the budget and revenue crises.

The conservative attack on science is old and driven by many factors: religious opposition to reason, Barry Goldwater-style anti-intellectualism, corporate muscle, and straight-up Nixonian lies. Nixon liked to play the role of philosopher king, privately conceding that the Vietnam War was unwinnable but declaring the American people unworthy of knowing so. There are some who resist science because of sincere if misguided religious belief, and others who consciously manipulate facts for economic gain. The result, however, is always the same: a stupider America less well-prepared to make good decisions.

“Once you allow the majority to define what science is, all kinds of possibilities open up,” says Arthur McCalla, professor of religious studies at Mount Saint Vincent University. “When religiously inspired populism meets corporate power, things can get really bad."

In the United States, a campaign against the teaching of evolutionary biology has been the fulcrum of anti-science conservatism. What began as "creationism" -- the simple and unadorned assertion that the Biblical description of the history of the earth and the creation of species as understood by fundamentalist Christians was historically factual -- has come to mimic scientific language, posturing as “creation science” and now “intelligent design.” Science, in this case, is something we all have the right to make up on our own.

“It goes right back to those basic fundamentalist points. We say what science is. It doesn’t matter what scientists say science is. We know what science is,” says McCalla. “To what extent are today’s Republicans doing the same thing, except instead of defending the Bible, they are also defending industry?”

Everyone has their own truth. Whichever rendition has the most powerful patron wins. “Facts” get made up about everything: science, abortion, the budget, and Iraq.

Arizona Republican Jon Kyl took to the Senate floor and claimed that abortion was “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does,” when the number was actually just 3 percent.

Caught in a lie, Kyl released a statement matter-of-factly explaining that his comment was “not intended to be a factual statement.” Kyl, notes Stephen Colbert, simply “rounded up to the nearest 90.”

And why not? Kyl’s dissembling is more than idiotic or crassly misleading. It represents a purely instrumental and self-interested relationship to the very notion of truth or fact. This is the political equivalent of parents telling adolescents that masturbation will make hair grow on their hands. We are a nation infantilized.

Conservatives tell women that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer and infertility -- statements that don’t, to be sure, have the virtue of being true.

The Bush administration was notoriously hostile to science and wholeheartedly embraced what Colbert dubbed “truthiness” in decision-making, from the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the scientific evidence on global warming.

In 2005, the New York Times discovered that the Bush White House “removed or adjusted descriptions of climate research that government scientists and their supervisors, including some senior Bush administration officials, had already approved.” The Times obtained the incriminating documents from whistleblowers, so one can at least give the Bush administration credit for trying to hide its misbehavior. Exiled from the executive branch, conservatives must now practice science by decree in broad daylight. And they don’t seem very embarrassed.

Some on the Right are sincere in believing the Bible over science. Others, one suspects, know all too well that they are lying. Business-friendly Republicans -- and, to be sure, Democrats -- trade in an opportunistic relativism that holds “facts” to be no more than objects of political convenience.

“I think it’s far more cynical at the corporate level,” says McCalla. “I think they know what the science is. Many fundamentalists don’t understand it. But at the corporate level, they’ve found a populist strategy they can capitalize on.”

The entire Republican platform is currently based on ill-intentioned lies: if they repeatedly pin the blame for the economic crisis on teachers and Medicare, maybe the public will forget that unregulated bankers brought the economy to its knees and robbed the rest of us blind.

“We are divided,” intoned Colbert, “between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart.”

The scientific elite is so proud of their facts, scorning the proudly ignorant everyman and Sarah Palin, their surprisingly lithe mama bear and champion of aerial wolf hunting.

The anti-science attitude, particularly strong in the United States, is rooted in a conflation of "elites" and the specialized knowledge of experts that -- and I'm sure Tea Party readers will appreciate this -- goes back to the very early days of the Republic.

“A key element of the Revolution for later American history", says McCalla, "was its rejection of elites of all kinds. For a period after the Revolution, anyone could practice as a doctor or a lawyer, for example. The governing ethos was the populist credo that no one has the right to tell me how to understand the world. While certain professional groups have been able to reassert their professional status, in many areas of American life -- including science -- the questions of elitism and expertise seem to be hopelessly muddled. There is a great suspicion of experts."

Senator Inhofe, who humbly calls himself “the most outspoken critic of man-made global warming alarmism in the United States Senate,” places the entirety of science squarely within the realm of the culture war -- “the likes of Al Gore, the United Nations, and the Hollywood elite.” Science is another calculated immorality that liberals embrace, like homosexuality, yoga and Mexicans.

Though anti-intellectualism may thrive here, it is far from uniquely American. And at the risk of running afoul of Jon Stewart’s prohibition on noting historical parallels between authoritarian regimes of the past and the 21st-century United States, I would suggest that the Soviet Union’s treatment of science offers an illuminating parallel.

In 1948, a Soviet state Agricultural Sciences summit declared that genetics was scientifically false. For ideological reasons, they decided that instead of Mendel, a 19th-century French scientist named Lamarck and his theretofore unknown Russian popularizer Trofim Denisovich Lysenko were correct: characteristics acquired by organisms during their lifetime are heritable, meaning that they can be passed on to the next generation. The admixture was christened “creative Soviet Darwinism.”

Under Stalin, science was reduced to just another ideological plaything: reactionary “bourgeois science” versus revolutionary “proletarian science.”

One scientist was forced to secretly carry out his research under the guise of breeding foxes for their fur. Soviet state campaigns against quantum mechanics, the theory of relativity and cybernetics followed, justified as a critique of “bourgeois” and “idealist” science. Stalin’s Soviet Union was also hostile to basic research, mandating that everything be justified by clear practical aims.

Stalin was so interested in deciding the big questions of the universe that he took it upon himself to personally edit the speeches of major Soviet scientists. For Stalin, the communist state could make not only new men and women, but also an entirely new reality. As historian of Soviet science Kirill O. Rossianov put it, Stalin recreated scientific fact in the image of his own ideological needs, “a new picture of the world as it purportedly was, articulated by the political leadership.” He even wrote “definitive” articles on linguistics under his own name.

The personal touch is striking.

“It is hard to imagine similar behavior on the part of the political leaders of democratic countries (such as Roosevelt or Churchill) or even of other dictators (such as Hitler or Mussolini),” writes Rossianov. “Even in George Orwell's famous classic, 1984, the top political leaders who stood behind the mythical ‘Big Brother’ did not do this themselves: the work of rewriting history was done by small clerks in the Ministry of Truth.”

The conservative attack on science is sometimes this explicit, but often far more subtle. There is now apparently “Democrat [sic] science” and “Republican science.”

The Right, like the rest of us, is confused by the complex and fast-changing world we live in. What to make of the ever more rapid creation of wealth and poverty, the widespread migration of peoples, the waging of war through remote controlled aerial drones? What sets the Right apart, however, is the degree of hypocrisy at play:

“Conservatives still don’t know what to make of the modern world. They embrace the internal combustion engine and nuclear power while rejecting the theory of evolution and the science of global warming; puzzling over the depravity of ‘Jersey Shore;’ they daydream about small-town geniality from the confines of the sprawling rec room of an exurban McMansion.”

Science is only appreciated when it delivers results that can be consumed in the home or blown up abroad. Science is a political buffet, where politicians legislate research at the meeting point of scriptural delusion and economic self-interest.

In 2008, Sarah Palin infamously maligned federal funding for “fruit fly research in Paris, France,” thoroughly oblivious to the important role drosophila play in science.

People on the Right prefer the more instrumental sciences that reinforce the status quo of war, capitalism and ecological destruction. The building blocks of matter and the history of the universe are to be mocked as the idle curiosity of pointy-headed and effete nerds.

“Many of them,” says McCalla, referring to conservatives, “have technical degrees in communications and high-tech. Technology they love. Science they define in such a way that it allows them to pick and choose what’s good science and bad science.”

Studies have found that in the United States, results-oriented engineers are far more likely to identify as conservative than professionals in any other discipline. 

In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for a renewed commitment to science education. Many Americans know little about science because they did not learn much about it in school.

“The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations,” he said. “We need to teach our kids that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.”

Obama even held a science fair at the White House. But the education “reform” policies the president supports (his “Race to the Top” is much like Bush’s “No Child Left Behind”) -- more and higher stakes testing on narrowly conceived reading and math skills -- makes it increasingly hard for educators to find the time and money to teach science (let alone music, English, civics, history...).

The ever-narrowing test regime is hostile to the spirit of creative inquiry that undergirds science. The worship of test scores as ends in and of themselves has hollowed out the knowledge they are supposed to reflect. In a desperate attempt to make the grade, teachers and principals are increasingly caught cheating on their students’ tests. This is what happens when society is run like a business instead of a laboratory for good ideas.

“The fact that congress can get away with repealing scientific findings and not outrage people just shows that people don’t understand or don’t care what science is,” says McCalla. “That’s the really outrageous thing about it.”

Policymaking can only run further adrift without a scientific compass. Though perhaps wishful thinking will keep our consciences calm: monkeys will not be my uncle, the water will not rise, and the grey wolf will live happily ever after.

Daniel Denvir is a journalist in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @danieldenvir.