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This article is from the In-Depth Report Election 2012: Grading Obama and Romney on Science
See Inside Scientific American Volume 307, Issue 5

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

In a separate debate, Republican candidate Jon Huntsman was asked about comments he had made that the Republican Party is becoming the antiscience party. “All I'm saying,” he replied, “is that for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science.” Republican primary voters apparently disagreed. Huntsman, the lone candidate to actively embrace science, finished last in the polls.

In fact, candidates who began to lag in the GOP presidential primaries would often make antiscience statements and would subsequently rise in the polls. Herman Cain, who is well respected in business circles, told voters that “global warming is poppycock.” Newt Gingrich, who supported doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health and who is also a supporter of ScienceDebate.org, began describing stem cell research as “killing children in order to get research material.” Candidates Rick Perry and Ron Paul both called climate change “a hoax.” In February, Rick Santorum railed that the left brands Republicans as the antiscience party. “No. No, we're not,” he announced. “We're the truth party.”

Antiscience reproductive politics surfaced again in August, this time in one of the most contested U.S. Senate races. Todd Akin, who is running in Missouri against Claire McCaskill, said that from what he understood from doctors, pregnancy from rape is extremely rare because “if it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Akin sits on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which is responsible for much of the U.S. federal science enterprise, so he should be aware of what science actually says about key policy issues. In fact, studies suggest that women are perhaps twice as likely to become pregnant from rape, and, in any event, there is no biological mechanism to stop pregnancy in the case of rape. Akin's views are by no means unusual among abortion foes, who often seek to minimize what science says to politically justify a no-exception antiabortion stance, which has since become part of the 2012 national GOP platform.

A look at down-ticket races suggests that things may get worse. The large crop of antiscience state legislators elected in 2010 are likely to bring their views into mainstream politics as they eventually run for Congress. In North Carolina this year the state legislature considered House Bill No. 819, which prohibited using estimates of future sea-level rise made by most scientists when planning to protect low-lying areas. (Increasing sea level is a predicted consequence of global warming.) The proposed law would have permitted planning only for a politically correct rise of eight inches instead of the three to four feet that scientists predict for the area by 2100.

Virginia Republicans took similar action in June, banning the use of the term “sea-level rise” from a government-commissioned study and instead requiring use of the phrase “recurrent flooding” because “sea-level rise” is considered “a left-wing term,” according to one of the legislators.

The Evolution of American Science Denialism

The American Antiscience Movement did not travel from the fringe to the center of society overnight. Its roots can be traced back a century to three-time Democratic candidate for president William Jennings Bryan, who ran fundamentalist campaigns against the theory of evolution, which he argued was causing moral decay in the nation's youth by undermining the authority of the Bible.

Bryan lost to proscience Republicans William McKinley and William Howard Taft, but he continued to campaign throughout the South, working to banish the scientific theory from American classrooms. Eventually Tennessee passed a law prohibiting the teaching of “any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.” The coverage of the resulting Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925 turned the American public against religious fundamentalism for a generation, and the persistent campaigns against evolution drove most scientists into the Republican Party.

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