This article is from the In-Depth Report Election 2012: Grading Obama and Romney on Science
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Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy

The United States faced down authoritarian governments on the left and right. Now it may be facing an even greater challenge from within

These efforts try to address the problem, but a larger question remains: What has turned so many Americans against science—the very tool that has transformed the quality and quantity of their lives?

A Call to Reason

Today's denial of inconvenient science comes from partisans on both ends of the political spectrum. Science denialism among Democrats tends to be motivated by unsupported suspicions of hidden dangers to health and the environment. Common examples include the belief that cell phones cause brain cancer (high school physics shows why this is impossible) or that vaccines cause autism (science has shown no link whatsoever). Republican science denialism tends to be motivated by antiregulatory fervor and fundamentalist concerns over control of the reproductive cycle. Examples are the conviction that global warming is a hoax (billions of measurements show it is a fact) or that we should “teach the controversy” to schoolchildren over whether life on the planet was shaped by evolution over millions of years or an intelligent designer over thousands of years (scientists agree evolution is real). Of these two forms of science denialism, the Republican version is more dangerous because the party has taken to attacking the validity of science itself as a basis for public policy when science disagrees with its ideology.

It gives me no pleasure to say this. My family founded the Minnesota Republican Party. But much of the Republican Party has adopted an authoritarian approach that demands ideological conformity, even when contradicted by scientific evidence, and ostracizes those who do not conform. It may work well for uniform messaging, but in the end it drives diverse thinkers away—and thinkers are what we need to solve today's complex problems.

This process has left a large, silent body of voters who are fiscally conservative, who believe in science and evidence-based policies, and who are socially tolerant but who have left the party. In addition, Republican attacks on settled scientific issues—such as anthropogenic climate change and evolution—have too often been met with silence or, worse, appeasement by Democrats.

Governor Romney's path to endorsement exemplifies the problem. “I don't speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world is getting warmer,” Romney told voters in June 2011 at a town hall meeting after announcing his candidacy. “I can't prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer, and number two, I believe that humans contribute to that.” Four days later radio commentator Rush Limbaugh blasted Romney on his show, saying, “Bye-bye nomination. Bye-bye nomination, another one down. We're in the midst here of discovering that this is all a hoax. The last year has established that the whole premise of man-made global warming is a hoax! And we still have presidential candidates who want to buy into it.

By October 2011 Romney had done an about-face. “My view is that we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet, and the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try and reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us,” he told an audience in Pittsburgh, then advocated for aggressive oil drilling. And on the day after the Republican National Convention, he tacked back toward his June 2011 position when he submitted his answers to

Romney is not alone in appreciating the political necessity of embracing antiscience views. House Speaker John A. Boehner, who controls the flow of much legislation through Congress, once argued for teaching creationism in science classes and asserted on national television that climate scientists are suggesting that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen. They are not. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota warned in 2011 during a Florida presidential primary debate that “innocent little 12-year-old girls” were being “forced to have a government injection” to prevent infection with human papillomavirus (HPV) and later said the vaccine caused “mental retardation.” HPV vaccine prevents the main cause of cervical cancer. Religious conservatives believe this encourages promiscuity. There is no evidence of a link to mental retardation.

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