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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

When World War II broke out, science gained new luster. President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to science as an intellectual weapon to help win the war. FDR asked Vannevar Bush, who led what is now known as the Carnegie Institution for Science, to marshal the U.S. science enterprise. Bush's efforts succeeded, leading to the development of radar, artificial rubber, the mass production of penicillin and the atomic bomb. After the war, he convinced President Harry S. Truman that continued federal investment in science could make the U.S. into a world leader.

The investment paid off, but the steady flow of federal funding had an unanticipated side effect. Scientists no longer needed to reach out to the public or participate in the civic conversation to raise money for research. They consequently began to withdraw from the national public dialogue to focus more intently on their work and private lives. University tenure systems grew up that provided strong disincentives to public outreach, and scientists came to view civics and political involvement as a professional liability.

As the voice of science fell silent, the voice of religious fundamentalism was resurging. Moral disquietude over the atomic bomb caused many to predict the world would soon end, and a new wave of fundamentalist evangelists emerged. “All across Europe, people know that time is running out,” a charismatic young preacher named Billy Graham said in 1949. “Now that Russia has the atomic bomb, the world is in an armament race driving us to destruction.”

Increasing control over the reproductive process widened the split in the following years. Religious conservatives felt that humans should not interfere in God's plan, denouncing the growing popularity of the birth-control pill in the 1960s and debating in the 1970s whether “test-tube babies,” produced by in vitro fertilization, would have souls. They redefined pregnancy to begin at fertilization, rather than implantation in the uterine wall, and argued that abortion was murder.

Science's black eye grew with the broader public as well. In the 1950s children played in the fog of DDT as trucks sprayed neighborhoods, but with the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, we learned it was toxic. This pattern repeated over and over again as unforeseen health and environmental consequences of quickly commercialized science came to light. Similar scandals erupted over the effects of scores of industrial applications, ranging from sulfur dioxide and acid rain, to certain aerosols and the hole in the ozone layer, to leaded gas and cognitive impairment, to the granddaddy of them all, fossil fuels and global climate change.

Industrial mishaps led to new health and environmental regulatory science. The growing restrictions drove the older industries in the chemical, petroleum and pharmaceutical fields to protect their business interests by opposing new regulations. Proponents of this view found themselves in a natural alliance with the burgeoning religious fundamentalists who opposed the teaching of evolution. Industrial money and religious foot soldiers soon formed a new basis for the Republican Party: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem,” President Ronald Reagan argued in his 1981 inaugural address. “Government is the problem.” This antiregulatory-antiscience alliance largely defines the political parties today and helps to explain why, according to a 2009 survey, nine out of 10 scientists who identified with a major political party said they were Democrats.

This marriage of industrial money with fundamentalist values gave fundamentalism renewed power in the public debate, and efforts to oppose the teaching of evolution in public schools have returned in several states. Tennessee, South Dakota and Louisiana have all recently passed legislation that encourages unwarranted criticisms of evolution to be taught in the states' public schools. Evangelical state legislators and school board members mounted similar efforts this year in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Texas and Alabama, and the Texas Republican Party platform opposes “the teaching of … critical thinking skills and similar programs that … have the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

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