The GOP’s Science Problem

Some good reading from around the web:

At Cocktail Party Physics, physicist James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes and The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics and show-stealer at the Minneapolis W00tstock, addresses Rick Perry’s evasive comments about knowing the exact age of the Earth:

Texas Governor Rick Perry, a candidate for the Republican nomination for President, was recently asked on the campaign trail how old he thought the Earth was.  He responded “I’m not sure anyone knows really completely know how old it is.”  While technically true – scientific measurements are continually being refined, allowing for more accurate determinations of the Earth’s age – it was an evasive response.

I suppose one cannot fault Gov. Perry for trying to weasel out of a direct answer – he is a politician after all.  As a scientist, in order to get a more productive response, I would have phrased the question slightly differently.

I would have asked Gov. Perry: “Which do you think is closer to the true age of the Earth – 4.5 billion years or six thousand years?”  And I have a follow up.

Daniel Fincke has a piece up at Camels With Hammers about the race at last night’s debate to characterize the HPV virus as a form of demonic rape. Anti-vaccination is often painted as a lefty problem, but this sounds no different than the most zealous of the anti-vaxxers.

My jaw dropped when Paul used the words “forcibly” and “sexually transmitted disease” and “12 year old girls” in the same sentence when describing something as basic to public health as inoculation against a virus that currently a full 50% of all sexually active men and women will get. If you did not know what the word inoculate meant, you would have thought from the context of those words strung together that the government was not actually enforcing public health in a non-invasive way as it is its full prerogative to do, but rather encouraging the raping and infection of pre-adolescent children. This appeal to the almighty wisdom of parents (and in this case religious parents who apparently are less afraid of their children getting cancer than getting condoms) is not a rational commitment to liberty, it is not a rational fear of statism, it is not what should be called “libertarianism”, it is anarchism. It is the view not that the state needs to be kept within the limits of its abilities to successfully do good but the view that the state is inherently evil, that even its actions which are ostensibly only aimed at advancing public health are authoritarian impositions on people’s rights to die of preventable illnesses. And, in this particular case, it is anarchism on behalf of private religious power.

Shawn Lawrence Otto, who pushed for a presidential science debate in 2008, explains at Neorenaissance how the nomination process for Republicans is almost guaranteed to weed out those candidates who are willing to follow science over belief.

The most pro-science candidate in the GOP field may be former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.  Huntsman made news last week when he called his opponents “people on the fringes” and said “right now we have zero substance” in an interview on ABC’s This Week.  “I think it’s a serious problem,” Huntsman said.  “The  minute that the republican party becomes the antiscience party, we have a huge problem.  We lose a whole lot of people that 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 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.” 

[...] But in the debate Huntsman refused to identify opponents who – with the exception of Gingrich and Romney – do seem to be largely antiscience. 

Josh Rosenau connects the dots at Thoughts from Kansas on why we need to care about the phenomenon even if a particular scientific issue doesn’t get us individually riled up.

But why should we even care what politicians think about evolution, given that none of these candidates would, should they manage to win the presidency, be able to influence how evolution is taught?

In part, the issue is the President’s bully pulpit. Anti-evolution comments by Reagan and George W. Bush both inspired creationist activism at the local level, making life harder for students and teachers.

Far more important is that evolution is a shibboleth for a candidate’s general attitude towards evidence and ideology. The only basis for rejecting evolution is religious (and political) ideology, and it’s worth knowing whether a candidate is willing to toss out science and scientific testing for the sake of ideology. No question that it’s important to consider a candidate’s values, but people who don’t value evidence or expertise should not be in charge of important decisions. I have no trouble drawing a line between George W. Bush’s off-handed rejection of the evidence supporting evolution – and the expertise of scientists who tried to explain that evidence to him – and his dismissal of expert testimony and extensive evidence that Iraq did not, in 2003, possess WMDs or active WMD programs. Indeed, name any other policy failure of the Bush years, and a similar prioritizing of ideology over evidence becomes clear.

It should continue to be an entertaining campaign for those who find the cringe-worthy very funny. It’s going to be no fun at all for the rest of us.

Comments

  1. says

    Stephanie:

    It should continue to be an entertaining campaign for those who find the cringe-worthy very funny. It’s going to be no fun at all for the rest of us.

    If your sense of the word “funny” is “funny uh oh” instead of “funny ha ha”, you win. Otherwise…

    Has anybody who’s a mainstream news/talking head type shown a single bit of wariness concerning a GOP field in which exactly one candidate out of eight doesn’t seem either petrified of or hostile to science and scientific research? Granted, there’s been tons of liberal, atheist and scientific/skeptical blogs that are horrified at the prospect of any of these people making science policy decisions as President, but that’s to be expected. I want to know why everybody else who should know better is playing the usual game of accepting false equivalence whenever Perry, Bachmann or Santorum belches out the usual “it’s only a theory” canard we’ve been hearing since Scopes.

  2. The Lorax says

    It will indeed be funny…
    … for everyone outside of the United States.

    Oh well. We’ve still got a year before the gloves really come off. Maybe something… well I can’t say ‘good’ because that’s all but impossible, so lets go with ‘somewhat decent’… will happen.

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