The Right Wing

Secrets of the GOP Science War: How Spin-Masters and Pundits Confuse Conservatives About Facts

Conservatives have become much less trusting of science. A cynical right-wing campaign is behind that

When scientists announced the discovery of water on Mars recently, Rush Limbaugh drew the obvious conclusion: It was all part of a conspiratorial plot:

LIMBAUGH: If there was once all that water on Mars, and there is a lot of water here on earth, what’s going to happen to our ocean? How did the water vanish?

My point is, they’re presenting all this stuff to you as fact just like they’re presenting everything involving global warming as scientific fact. It`s nothing but wild guesses. It’s nothing but based on computer models which is the result of data input that who knows if it’s legit or not.

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That’s to be expected from Limbaugh, I suppose. If you’re a huckster by trade, the truth is your enemy—and not just the truth, but the very possibility of truth. The veryexistence of science is a threat to you. So naturally, if you’ve got as much time to fill as Limbaugh does, you engage in war on science. But the real problem isn’t Rush Limbaugh, it’s the way that the entirety of the GOP adapts to him in various different ways—especially those who are deemed “sensible” in the world of bipartisan consensus, whose job it is to make plausible excuses for their sorry party.

Case in point: GOP strategist Liz Mair, who back in March was abruptly fired after just one day as a Scott Walker online strategist, in response to outrage over an earlier set of tweets critical of Iowa during a January forum. After her firing, Mair fired off a long tweet storm clarifying her views, which she did again—with a more critical edge—just after Walker left the race a few weeks ago. In short, if there’s anyone working inside the GOP likely to be honestly critical of its problems, it’s Mair. Which presumably is why MSNBC likes having her on. But Limbaugh’s anti-science conspiracism clearly illuminates the limits of such critical honesty.

Thus, when Chris Matthews played that clip of Limbaugh and opened up a discussion on “Hardball” on Sept. 29 [transcript], Mair didn’t come to Limbaugh’s defense, but she did find a way to confuse matters further, taking the heat off the science-fearing, science-hating GOP base and blame-shifting to society at large. Before she spoke up, Jonathan Chait made a sensible point:

CHAIT: So, conservatives, in general, have grown more and more distrustful in polls of science over the course of the last four decades. They used to be more trusting of science than liberals now, they’re much less. And specifically with global warming, what they have is a conspiracy theory. They don’t have an alternative scientific theory.

So it fell to Mair to obfuscate, to undo that degree of clarity. “Science has worked for mankind across the board,” Matthews said. “When did it become the enemy of the hard right?” And Mair responded:

MAIR: I don’t think it’s just the enemy of the hard right. I actually think that we’re in a period in society where there are a lot of people who are very skeptical of discovery and science in general. I mean, when we had the debate about vaccines, right, and we were looking at the resurgence of awful illnesses because people weren’t having their kids vaccinated, a lot of that was center centered in very, very liberal enclaves of California. I think unfortunate —

MATTHEWS: They were afraid to get their kids vaccinated —

MAIR: They believe it’s going to give them autism, right?

I think we’ve reached a place in society, and maybe Rush Limbaugh’s comments are manifestation of this, where a lot of people just don’t prioritize discovery or science anymore. I mean, remember in the 2012 election how much Newt Gingrich was derided for all of his talk about moon bases and space exploration, right?

So as Mair is framing things, “a lot of people just don’t prioritize discovery or science anymore,” and they’re all over the map ideologically. She says that “maybe Rush Limbaugh’s comments are manifestation of this” [my emphasis], and maybe they’re not, I guess. “Who knows?” as Rush himself would say.

But there are a two major flaws in her argument. First, there’s actual data supporting Chait’s claim that conservatives alone have become much less trusting of science, and it’s not very scientific of Mair to just ignore that data, because she doesn’t like it, and try to counter it with anecdotes.

2012 paper by Gordon Gauchat in the American Sociological Review, using data from the 1974 to 2010 General Social Survey—the gold standard for public opinion research—found that “group differences in trust in science are largely stable over the period, except for respondents identifying as conservative. Conservatives began the period with the highest trust in science, relative to liberals and moderates, and ended the period with the lowest.”

There’s also much broader evidence that liberalism is correlated with one of the “big five” personality traits, “openness to experience,” as discussed by Chris Mooney in his 2012 book, “The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality” and in my review of it. Thus, to the extent that science involves prioritizing discovery, Mair is arguing against an impressive range of data.

Second, both of Mair’s anecdotes misrepresent the actual stories of what was going. In California, elected Democrats didn’t indulge the anti-vaxxers, they pushed back, and passed a law requiring all schoolchildren to be vaccinated—over GOP opposition, by the way. As for Gingrich’s space-talk in 2012, folks weren’t laughing at the idea of space exploration, they were laughing at Gingrich’s snake oil routine and his pretense of being a serious thoughtful leader.

The real stories surrounding both anecdotes are illuminating, so let’s take a closer look at each in turn. First off, while it’s true that a lot of anti-vaccine sentiment was seen in liberal enclaves around Hollywood, as the Hollywood Reporter explained in detail last year, the reasons cited weren’t that those not vaccinating their children “just don’t prioritize discovery or science.” It was much more complicated than that:

Today, on the Westside, those who abstain from vaccinating their kids see refusal through their own socio-anthropological lens. “They’re well intended — the people that only want to do the best for their child. They want only natural products, organic foods, attachment parenting, family beds,” says Dr. Lisa Stern, a Santa Monica pediatrician. Observes Dr. Neal Baer, a trained pediatrician and veteran TV writer-producer (ER) who wrote an episode of Law & Order: SVU about the public health consequences of vaccine refusal, “It’s about not wanting to have anything that isn’t ‘natural’ in your child — this whole notion of the natural and holistic versus the scientific.”

Baer’s framing of “the natural and holistic versus the scientific” reflects a broader cultural construct, but it’s inaccurate. Using products of scientific discovery without adequate risk-assessment is more properly described as “the technocratic” approach, rather than “the scientific,” or even as “the techno-corporate.” Determining where “the scientific” leaves off and “the technocratic” or “the techno-corporate” begins may not be so easy to discern. The story continued:

According to those on both sides of the issue, this demographic is unafraid to take on the medical establishment. “They are not intimidated by the authority of the doctor,” says Brendan Nyhan, Ph.D, a political scientist at Dartmouth who has studied parents who are vaccine skeptics. “Educated, high-income people are more likely to feel confident in standing up to doctors or seeking out ones who are more favorable to alternative schedules and selective vaccination.”

So, the irony here is that some of what’s motivating anti-vaxxers is actually a personalwillingness to discover, however flawed their execution might be, which may then be taken advantage of by people with various different agendas. In short, it’s nothing like the clear-cut, simplistic picture casually tossed out by Mair.

But what was remarkably clear-cut was what happened once the issue entered the public policy realm: Democratic politicians overwhelmingly looked to the science, while Republicans ignored and fought against it. A bill that would ban personal, religious exemptions for vaccinations, co-written by a pediatrician in the state Senate, Richard Pan, was passed by the state Legislature with strong Democratic support, and was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. In the California Senate, Legiscan–which tracks legislation in all 50 states—identified the bill on the political spectrum as “Strong Partisan Bill (Democrat 27-2).” The overall vote on its third reading was 46-31, so a substantial majority of Republicans opposed it. In the California Assembly, just a handful of Democrats abstained (3) or voted no (5), while just two Republicans voted for the bill. An effort to overturn the law through the referendum process, just filed in late September, was led by former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, a Republican, and former member of the anti-immigration Minuteman organization, who placed third in California’s open primary governor’s race in 2014.

Collectively, what all this shows is how differently organized liberals and conservatives respond when questions are raised involving science. Liberal Democrats could haveplayed to the anti-vaxxer fears of parents, the same way that conservative Republicans have played to the anti-science fears of their base, but overwhelminglythey chose not to.

Mair’s second anecdotal example is even more misleading. Again, here’s what she said:

I think we’ve reached a place in society, and maybe Rush Limbaugh’s comments are manifestation of this, where a lot of people just don’t prioritize discovery or science anymore. I mean, remember in the 2012 election how much Newt Gingrich was derided for all of his talk about moon bases and space exploration, right?

But what did those with actual knowledge of space technology have to say back then, when Gingrich promised a permanent lunar base by 2020, along with “the first continuous propulsion system in space capable of getting to Mars”? Were they all gung-ho in support of Newt? Well, not exactly. The problem was a lack of realism on Newt’s part, both about what it would take technologically and financially. Not to mention what it would take legally and constitutionally: Gingrich also promised that the American colony could eventually become a state—a direct violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, as was noted at the time.

Although space exploration was anything but a new concern of Newt’s, he had never delivered much of anything in the past, so his pronouncements in advance of the Florida primary drew a lot of skepticism from industry experts, as the Daily News reported (“Newt Gingrich’s moon base plan a ‘cheap trick’ to get votes, space experts say”):

“It’s a gimmick,” said Howard Chipman, CEO of Aurora Aerospace, a facility near Tampa that offers astronaut training. “It’s a cheap trick to get some Florida voters because of all of the space jobs here.”

Chipman said that while the idea of a lunar colony is laudable, the project would cost billions upon billions more than American taxpayers are willing to pay.

“Bush promised for us to go to the moon. The politicians promise to make goals but they don’t back it up with funding and resources to back the task,” he added….

Frank DiBello, CEO of Space Florida, the state’s economic development agency for the aerospace industry, said Gingrich’s timeline is “a little implausible,” noting the technology to support long duration space flights to Mars does not exist.

As the Guardian’s science correspondent Alok Jha noted, the problem wasn’t science, it was money. “In 2004, President George Bush called for a return to the moon, followed by Mars expeditions. NASA duly came up with the Constellation programmme,” but neither Bush nor the Congress ever came close to funding it. Its timeline was instructive, though, for placing Gingrich’s grandiose handwaving in perspective:

Two years later [2006], the space agency unveiled plans to build a permanent moon base within 20 years [2026], which could be used as a launch site for future missions to Mars….

NASA’s plan was that, by 2020, four-person crews would make week-long trips while power supplies, rovers and living quarters were being built on the lunar surface. In the mid-2020s, when the base was fully-built, people would stay for up to six months at a time to prepare for longer journeys to Mars. By the end of the decade pressurized roving vehicles could take people on long exploratory trips across the lunar surface.

So, six years later, Gingrich was proposing to get a full-time moon colony up and running six years earlier than NASA had projected in 2006? A delivery schedule cut by 60 percent? Paid for… how, exactly? Sorry, Liz, but folks weren’t laughing at the idea of exploration. They were laughing at Newt’s P.T. Barnum-style of pandering about it.

Newt, of course, had a long history of proposing grandiose techno-schemes to make himself seem like a “visionary.” At the time, Mother Jones dredged up some examples, mostly from his first book, “Window of Opportunity,” published in 1984. These included ideas like cutting the food stamp budget to buy space shuttles (“Food stamps crowded out space shuttles”); cutting farm subsidies and sending farmers to space (“If we’d spent as much on space as we’ve spent on farm programs, we could have taken all the extra farmers and put them on space stations working for a living in orbiting factories”); and mining the moon (“The moon is an enormous natural resource, possessed of more than enough minerals and materials to provide everything a self-replicating system needs”); not to mention using mirrors to create man-made climate change…and fight crime!

The problem with Newt’s schemes is that almost all of them were harebrained. So, when he became speaker of the House, one of his top agenda items was getting rid of folks knowledgeable enough to see through his BS. I’ve told this story several times before (here and here, for example), so I’ll cut to the chase. When Gingrich was riding high in late 2011, Bruce Bartlett, a top economic adviser to presidents Reagan and Bush I, wrote a piece titled “Gingrich and the Destruction of Congressional Expertise,” where he explained:

Because Mr Gingrich does know more than most politicians, the main obstacles to his grandiose schemes have always been Congress’ professional staff members, many among the leading authorities anywhere in their areas of expertise.

To remove this obstacle, Mr Gingrich did everything in his power to dismantle Congressional institutions that employed people with the knowledge, training and experience to know a harebrained idea when they saw it.

On becoming speaker, Gingrich slashed the professional staffs of the House committees, and completely abolished two congressional agencies, the Office of Technology Assessment and the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. The OTA is what concerns us here, because it was the worldwide model agency for in-depth evaluation of scientific and technological questions: the best BS-detecting government agency on the planet. Naturally Gingrich wanted it dead, because invention alone is only one part of science. It’s not nearly enough to just brainstorm ideas, you’ve got to winnow out the ones with the best chance of standing the test of time.

That’s the thing about science. It really does depend on imagination. As Einstein said,it is more important than knowledge. Yet, at the same time, imagination has to pass the test of nature: It has to prove itself in the real world. The very rigor of this test helps to invigorate the scientific imagination. And so, the truly imaginative, truly daring thinkers welcome the testing of their ideas.

That is what liberals have done. They created the OTA in the first place, in 1972, after 40 years of almost uninterrupted control of the House. Conservatives destroyed it in 1995, within a year of taking it over for the first time since 1954. And our country has been much poorer for it ever since—much poorer, and more filled with foolishness. There’s the massive, flamboyant foolishness of figures like Limbaugh and Gingrich (and more recently, Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina), which shapes the grand outlines of one mass delusion after another. And then there’s the infill foolishness of operatives like Liz Mair, working overtime to obfuscate the most basic of fundamental facts.

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Paul H. Rosenberg is senior editor at Random Lengths News, a biweekly serving the Los Angeles harbor area.