Is the GOP Anti-Science?


The GOP is dogmatically anti-science. They reject the conclusions of manmade global warming, which has been accepted by virtually all scientists. And they deny the overwhelming evidence of evolution. They are anti-science, anti-knowledge, and anti-progress. The possibility of an anti-science candidate getting elected to the White House is a terrifying prospect for it would put our economic, environmental, and political state into potential disaster. For the sake of the next generation, please don’t elect such a candidate!

If you believe this rendition, it’s likely you’ve been following the incessant portrayal of the GOP in the media. Consider a few recent headlines:  “Republicans Against Science,” “Why Republicans Deny Science: The Quest for a Scientific Explanation,” and “Rick Santorum is King of the GOP’s Anti-Science Presidential Candidates.” The list could go on. But the message is clear: the Republican Party is full of ignorant science-deniers who are a threat to the future of America (of course, exception is made for John Huntsman, who has tried to cast himself as the pro-science Republican alternative by accepting evolution and manmade global warming).

Sure, more Republicans are skeptical of evolution and man-made global warming than Democrats. But why does this make them “anti-science”? Interestingly, studies show that anti-vaccine sentiment is higher in progressive areas such as Washington, Vermont, and Oregon. Arguably, the results of rejecting vaccines can be far more disastrous than rejecting evolution. So, why doesn’t this make Democrats anti-science? Do I smell a double-standard?

Let me begin with a qualifier. My purpose in writing this is not specifically to defend the GOP. I have not ever publicly endorsed a candidate for any party and I probably never will. This is not a political blog, although it clearly has political implications. My purpose is to challenge poor thinking about science. If the GOP critiqued Democrats for being anti-science with the same arguments, I would defend the Democrats. My purpose is to challenge the assumption that rejecting a particular scientific theory is akin to being anti-science.

My real question is why doubting evolution makes one anti-science in the first place. Why can’t someone be pro-science yet skeptical of evolution? Maybe the evolution-skeptic just thinks the evidence is lacking. It’s never been clear to me why doubting evolution automatically disqualifies someone from being pro-science. The skeptic may reject the consensus, but again, why does that make one anti-science? After all, even Darwin rejected the scientific consensus of his day. Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton said it best:

“I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something, reach for your wallet, because you’re being had…The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with consensus…If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.”

Crichton makes a powerful point—consensus is often claimed to avoid debate. That’s why the claim is incessantly made that the evidence for evolution is “overwhelming.” You may be tempted to think that the debate over evolution has been settled. But that may be premature. Yes, a majority of scientists do accept evolution, but a growing number of Ph.D. scientists from leading universities such as Harvard, Princeton, UC Berkeley, and the University of Moscow have come to doubt the efficacy of Darwinian evolution to account for the variety and complexity of life on earth. Does this make them anti-science? Of course not! Only someone blindly committed to a worldview would suggest so. These scientists value science—they just understand the facts differently.

The merits of evolution are actually irrelevant to my point. Maybe Darwin was right. Maybe Darwin was wrong. But it certainly doesn’t follow that someone who doubts his theory is automatically “anti-science.” In fact, such a claim is avowedly anti-science, for scientists are supposed to challenge the status quo and follow the evidence wherever it leads!

In a New York Times column titled, “Republicans Against Science,” Paul Krugman says, “Mr. Perry, the governor of Texas, recently made headlines by dismissing evolution as ‘just a theory,’ one that has ‘got some gaps in it’ — an observation that will come as news to the vast majority of biologists.” The majority of biologists do accept evolution. But is truth determined by numbers? Suggesting so is only meant to silence critics and avoid debate. Even if the majority of scientists would be surprised that evolution has “some gaps in it,” as Krugman suggests, why would that make skeptics anti-science?

Some Republicans may be anti-science. But so may some Democrats. Alex Berezow made this point in his recent USA Today column, “GOP may be anti-science, but so are Democrats.” To label an entire party as “anti-science” is mistaken and simplistic. We need to move beyond labels and actually engage the issues. But maybe I’m too naïve. After all, it’s much easier (and effective) to label someone than actually consider their point of view.


Comments:

Bad Faith
The claim that someone is "anti-science" is not made in good faith. It is used as an accusation to discredit a target who offers scientific evidence in conflict with the accuser's beloved status quo. You are exactly right. Calling someone "anti-science" because they come to different conclusions is, itself, "anti-science".

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