4 Ways the Insane GOP Primary Has Made America's Discourse Dumber Than Ever
The conservative war on reality is getting real juice from the Republican primary. Over a dozen major candidates are jockeying for attention from primary voters, which means you’re going to see stranger and stranger pandering to right-wing elements that prefer their fantasy world to empirical reality.
Unsurprisingly, science itself is a major target, with various candidates launching flatly false statements contradicting facts established long ago by scientific research. It’s an all-out rhetorical war on science itself. Here are some of the worst examples:
1. Ben Carson denies that astrophysicists understand physics. In a 2012 speech to his fellow Seventh-Day Adventists, Ben Carson sneered at the Big Bang theory, describing it as “highfalutin scientists and they’re saying it was this gigantic explosion and everything came into perfect order.”
“Well, I mean, it’s even more ridiculous than that ‘cause our solar system, not to mention the universe outside of that, is extraordinarily well organized, to the point where we can predict 70 years away when a comet is coming,” he added, using the fact that astrophysicists are good at their job as evidence that their research and theories cannot be trusted.
He then went on to blame magic for scientists who believe in “fairy tales” like evolution and the Big Bang theory, saying “the adversary” (i.e., Satan) implants these ideas in their minds.
As astronomer Phil Plait noted, it’s not even about belief, because the Big Bang theory is “a scientific model, supported by a truly vast amount of evidence.” Certainly more evidence that there is to support the claim that supernatural beings are sending signals into the brains of scientists.
2. Vaccination. False claims that vaccines cause autism were originally associated with liberals, but in recent years, that belief has been drifting more toward its natural home on the anti-science right. During the CNN Republican debate, Donald Trump dug in with, “Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control.” He then went on to suggest vaccines caused the increase. (Which is 100% false.)
That was troubling, but just as troubling was the fact that the two doctors on stage, Rand Paul and Ben Carson, were clearly afraid to issue a full-throated denunciation of Trump’s falsehood. Even though Carson clearly stated that vaccines do not cause autism, he then said that he that “there should be some discretion” when it comes to giving kids vaccines that don’t “prevent death or crippling” and that broadly supporting mandatory vaccination is “pushed by big government.”
Rand Paul also chimed in. “I'm all for vaccines, but I'm also for freedom," he said. "I'm also concerned with how they're bunched up.” There is no evidence, however, that the vaccination schedule is any threat to children—though there is evidence that “spacing” them leaves children vulnerable to disease. This is just pure pandering to a dangerous anti-science belief.
3. Climate change. Some Republican candidates for president avoid denying outright that climate change is happening, but every single one of them downplays it or lies about the policy solutions that have been proposed. Other candidates stake ground on the argument that climate change is a hoax being perpetuated by scientists for reasons unknown. That group includes Donald Trump, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking the rest of them are moderates on the issue or somehow being honest. They just lie more creatively. One strategy is to cast doubt on the degree to which it's human-caused, implying it’s just a thing that happens and there’s nothing to be done. “I don't think the science is clear on what percentage is man-made,” Jeb Bush said in a typical comment, adding that “for the people to say the science is decided on this is just really arrogant.” But waving away the evidence determined by experts because it’s inconvenient is hardly a sign of humility. Bobby Jindal and Rand Paul take similar stances.
Then there are the people who accept the science on this but issue B.S. about the policy. In this camp you have Chris Christie calling for a “global solution” and Carly Fiorina griping that “a single nation acting alone can make no difference at all.” The lie here is implicit: They want you to believe that liberals are only interested in reducing carbon emissions in the U.S.
In reality, no one has actually suggested a U.S.-only approach to climate change. Nearly all efforts have been international, such as the Kyoto Protocol, in which industrialized countries across the planet committed to reducing carbon emissions, a treaty that President Clinton signed but that was not ratified by the Senate. Recent efforts have also included global partners, with China and the U.S. trapped in tense negotiations that would require both countries to reduce emissions. No one thinks we can do this alone, and it’s sleazy of Republicans to imply otherwise.
4. Architecture. A centerpiece of Donald Trump’s campaign is a proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, which he claims would be “easy” and “not even a difficult project if you know what you’re doing.” His proposal is offensive simply on the basis of racism and pointlessness (since many immigrants cross over legally and overstay visas), but there’s also a scientific question here: Is a wall along the Mexican-American border, particularly an inexpensive one, really possible?
The Washington Post asked building experts, and the answer was a resounding “hell, no.” The federal government has already spent $7 billion on border fencing, which falls very, very short of the Great Wall of China-style edifice that Trump clearly imagines. “The hurdles include environmental and engineering problems; fights with ranchers and others who don’t want to give up their land; and the huge topographical challenges of the border,” Jerry Markon of the Washington Post writes, “which runs through remote desert in Arizona to rugged mountains in New Mexico and, for two-thirds of its length, along rivers.” The fence that exists cost $5 million a mile in some spots. Imagine what trying to build an actual wall would cost.
Trump’s vision of a giant wall on the Mexican-American border is, in many ways, a perfect symbol of the Republican approach to science: Simply declare that your fantasies are reality and reject out of hand anyone who has concrete evidence about how the world actually works.