ADVERTISEMENT

Gingrich Tops Scientific American's Geek Guide to the 2012 GOP Candidates

"Newt Skywalker" nudges out Romney and Paul based on the former congressman's engagement in issues related to energy, the Internet and military weapons



Flickr/AmericanSolutions

The contenders for the Republican nomination in the 2012 U.S. presidential election may appear to be a fairly uniform group of middle-aged white conservatives, but when it comes to issues of science, technology and overall geek cred, none of these candidates is cut from the same cloth. In fact, Newt Gingrich nudges out Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in Scientific American's overall ranking, based on the former Congressman's engagement in issues related to energy, the Internet and military weapons, combined with his mastery of top online tools such as Twitter and a healthy appetite for science nonfiction.

Paul is a geek contender based on his appeal to libertarian-leaning Silicon Valley, combined with his support of online freedoms, although he fails science when it comes to accepting evidence for anthropogenic climate change and evolution.

Romney accepts evolution, accepts at least the phenomenon of climate change, if not the science showing that it is human-caused, and has deeper ties to Silicon Valley. He also has thought extensively about energy, technology and engineering issues to the point that he explicitly favors a federal program for advanced energy research.

All candidates were ranked with up to five stars in three broad categories: "Geekiness" is an evaluation of whether or not the candidate qualifies as a geek. "Associations" encapsulates the degree to which he or she has been attached to causes and people in science and technology. And "policies" sums up the degree to which the candidate engages those subjects in his or her platforms.

Read on for a deep dive into the GOP candidates' personal histories, public statements and policy proposals, which gives a unique window into their understanding of the issues closest to geeks' hearts and of how the universe works.

# 1 - Newt Gingrich

The two things you need to know about Gingrich's geek cred is that one of his nicknames is Newt Skywalker and that he once made the cover of Wired—back in its early, weird days—in a feature written by none other than technology investor and commentator Esther Dyson. Bob Walker, a Gingrich booster and former chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science (now the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology), said that Gingrich "would probably be the most knowledgeable president on technology issues ever elected."

Calling Gingrich a science-fiction nerd is like saying that vampires have seen a modest resurgence in young adult literature. He has repeatedly expressed that Isaac Asimov's seminal Foundation trilogy (about "psychohistorians" who use mathematical models to predict the future) made a deep impression on him in his youth.

Gingrich has written so much and spoken so often that it is possible to confuse the volume of his pronouncements with their frequency, but some of his ideas appear to come straight from the science fiction he has read. He has proposed using lasers against North Korea, putting mirrors in space to increase agricultural productivity, colonizing the moon, reviving a Star Wars–style orbiting missile defense system and solving climate change through geoengineering. Whereas other candidates wring their hands over the threat of Chinese currency controls, he has warned of the threat to the U.S. of that most science-fictionesque of all weapons, the electromagnetic pulse.

Gingrich's American Solutions for Winning the Future think tank, which he left when he announced his run for president and that has since dissolved, had a Silicon Valley office. Through the organization, he once proposed that citizens could become more involved in government through wikis and "a private, 3-D Internet metaverse for elected officials to share ideas and best practices."

Gingrich has six times as many followers on Twitter as Romney, and is not afraid to throw punches via social media. He has co-authored six science fiction-esque alternative histories. And he was once a top 500 reviewer on Amazon, where he reviewed 156 books, including The Elegant Universe, by Brian Greene, QED, by Richard P. Feynman and Genome, by Matt Ridley.

Gingrich used to accept evolution but may have changed his mind on the subject. He is knowledgeable about climate change and has wrestled with how government should tackle it. Recently he reportedly backed away from including a chapter on climate change in a forthcoming book about the environment. 

When it comes to science policy, Gingrich, like Romney, contends that we need to make our immigration policies friendlier to foreign students in math, science and engineering. He thinks students who graduate early should receive the cost of the year they skipped as a scholarship and that online learning should be universally available. He also wants to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency and replace it with an Environmental Solutions Agency that would consider "the impact of federal environmental policies on job creation and the cost of energy."

Geekiness

*****

Policies

*****

Associations

****

TOTAL: 14

#2 - Mitt Romney

Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, has a "corny sense of humor," but being socially awkward is not a sufficient qualification for ascendance to the rank of geek. Still, rare glimpses of Romney in unguarded moments suggest that beneath his image as a successful businessman beats the heart of the sort of brainy young man who excelled at Harvard University. In 2007, for example, he told an interviewer that his favorite book is the science fiction schlock classic Battlefield Earth, by L. Ron Hubbard. (He was quick to add that he had no affinity for Scientology, which was founded by Hubbard.)

Romney's ties to technology and Silicon Valley are surprisingly deep for a businessman who spent most of his career on the East Coast. Speaking in Redmond, Wash., Romney was reminded that he once tried to recruit Steve Ballmer, now head of Microsoft, for a different job. In 2010 he endorsed Rick Snyder, "one tough nerd," for his father’s old job as governor of Michigan. Meg Whitman, head of Hewlett-Packard and former head of eBay, is one of his most prominent fund-raisers, and the two are so close that some have speculated she would be a part of his cabinet should he win. Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, is also among Romney's staunchest allies.

The technology portion of Romney's platform does not appear to have changed much since his run in 2008, when he said, "It is time to invest substantially in technologies related to power generation, nanotechnology and materials science." He has added provisions to his "human capital" plank that would raise existing caps on visas given to highly skilled workers, as well as grant permanent residency to graduates with advanced degrees in math, science and engineering.

Romney is explicitly in favor of the by-all-accounts-successful Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy’s program for advanced energy research but, unsurprisingly, he is not in favor of support for alternative energy beyond the R&D phase. (See: a little scandal called Solyndra.)

When it comes to the environment, Romney hews to the party line, which ranges from tilting EPA rules heavily in favor of the industries it regulates (Romney) to transforming the entire agency into a smoldering heap of ashes and greenhouse gas emissions (Paul and Michele Bachmann). Specifically, Romney would like environmental regulations to be "treated like the very real costs they are," with "a regulatory cap of zero dollars on all federal agencies."

It is not clear whether or not Romney accepts the science on the pace and causes of climate change, but he promises to amend the Clean Air Act to specifically exclude regulation of carbon emissions. Romney has made it clear that he accepts evolution.

Geekiness

****

Policies

****

Associations

****

TOTAL: 12

#3 - Ron Paul

If being a geek were solely about an obsession with detail, then Paul would surely qualify. (His perennial outsider status does not hurt either.) Time magazine called him a "nerd" but only when it comes to the U.S. Constitution and strict constructionism, both characteristic of his libertarian background. So perhaps he is better described as a wonk?

Compared with the wider public, geeks are certainly over-represented among Paul's supporters and donors. He exhibits no particular tech savvy himself—and shows an occasionally striking disconnect from popular culture. But in terms of popularity, Paul dominated the Internet early, starting in the 2008 election, during which technology was the most represented industry among his donors. He is the only current GOP candidate to have spoken at the Googleplex, where he was warmly received.

Paul benefits from the libertarian leanings of the technology community in general, which includes such notables as SpaceX founder Elon Musk and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who wants to build a libertarian island paradise. Paul is second only to Romney in terms of Facebook fans.

When it comes to policy, Paul is notable for what he proposes to eliminate rather than for what he wants to add or remake in the federal budget. This characteristic makes it difficult to compare him with Romney and Gingrich, who have promised to support basic research despite overall cuts in discretionary spending. Whether or not Paul's policies are proinnovation depends on whether you think existing regulations and subsidies help or hinder the U.S.’s ability to bring new ideas to market.

For example, Paul is against putting a price on carbon emissions, something that climate policy experts and more than a few multinational companies are nearly unanimous in supporting. This view is at least congruent with his belief that human-caused climate change is a hoax, which puts him at odds with pretty much every climate scientist on the planet and the majority of the U.S. public. He would eliminate the EPA and encourage victims to use the courts to punish polluters instead.

For geeks with an interest in privacy, Paul is unique among his peers in his ardent support of online freedoms. He is against national ID systems and universal health records, and he favors legalization of some drugs. In other words, it is hard to imagine President Paul signing any bills that would, for example, interfere with fans of cryptographic currency Bitcoin using it to buy whatever they like, even if it is mind-altering.

It is not clear what Paul thinks about evolution, but past statements suggest he does not believe it is a fact.

Geekiness

***

Policies

***

Associations

*****

TOTAL: 11

#4 - Rick Perry

Perry is not a geek. Given his hardscrabble upbringing in Texas and subsequent tour of duty as an Air Force flight jock, the candidate appears to be the mold that no one realized former president George W. Bush was attempting to pour himself into. Perry dropped out of the pre-vet track in college in the face of organic chemistry. Without confusing secular humanism and geekiness, it is worth noting that he is very public about how faith has shaped his worldview.

In the debates, Perry distinguished himself by comparing the persecution of a 17th-century astronomer by a powerful religious and political body with the plight of those who doubt the science of climate change. Scientists whom he claims to speak for do not agree with his judgment that they doubt "the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change."

Confusion in Perry's assessment of the climate and energy nexus extends to his energy plan, which says that "we must continue to invest in clean coal technology through research and development tax incentives." If, as Perry has claimed, climate change is a baseless hoax, it makes no sense that he should advocate for a technology explicitly designed to capture and sequester carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants for the sole purpose of averting the warming effect of those emissions.

Perry wants to cut the size of the Department of Education in half by consolidating its functions, and his energy policy is big on states' rights and freeing oil and gas companies to access existing resources. Texas has more wind power than any other state in the nation (and therefore almost every other country on Earth), so it is worth noting that his hands-off approach—for example, Texas has a deregulated energy market—has not hurt that industry in his home state.

Perry has trumpeted his own $200-million Emerging Technology Fund, which hands out no-strings-attached grants to fledgling companies, as a major driver of science and technology jobs in Texas. News outlets of just about every political affiliation, however, have pilloried the ETF as "crony capitalism" designed to reward CEOs who have donated to Perry's political campaigns.

Perry says that evolution is a "theory" with "gaps in it" and that, in Texas, "we teach both creationism and evolution."

Geekiness

*

Policies

****

Associations

***

TOTAL: 8

#5 - Rick Santorum

Santorum once said that "science should get out of politics," by which he meant that creationism should be given equal time with evolution in schools. Also, presumably, he meant that climate change is a hoax. His public statements on the subject run directly counter to our best understanding of the science of the overall warming trend in Earth's atmosphere.

That said, Santorum did once compare the war in Iraq with the Lord of the Rings trilogy in an analogy that showed that he saw the movies, if not read the books. His platform is a near-perfect distillation of the policies at the intersection of those espoused by Gingrich and Romney, except for what is apparently a nod to his belief that Net neutrality is a bad idea—a view he shares with Paul and Bachmann.

Aside from a broad commitment to budget cuts, Santorum has argued that the R&D tax credit should be made permanent in order to create more jobs. Santorum's Web site is poorly organized and he has failed since 2003 to get it to rank higher in Google searches than a Web site launched by sex columnist Dan Savage that attempts to redefine "Santorum" as anything other than the candidate.

Geekiness

**

Policies

***

Associations

*

TOTAL: 6

#6 - Michele Bachmann

Bachmann stands out for having torpedoed her chances at the nomination by advocating for bad science. She claimed that the vaccine against HPV that Perry made mandatory during his tenure as governor of Texas leads to mental disability. Doctors were so incensed they offered a reward for proof of her claims, and scientists said her statements had set back public understanding and acceptance of the vaccine by years.

Unsurprisingly, Bachmann’s antiscience tendencies extend to evolution and climate science. She supports the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools and has called climate science "manufactured science" that will lead to a redistribution of American wealth to other countries.

Bachmann has claimed that the U.S. could lower the global price of gasoline simply by drilling its own reserves. While leaning generally in the direction of libertarian ideals such as smaller government, she voted for retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies whom were discovered to have been conducting surveillance for the U.S. government.

On Facebook, Bachmann is the third most popular candidate, but she has the fewest followers on Twitter, with 35,000 to Santorum's second-to-last place finish of around 50,000.

Geekiness

*

Policies

**

Associations

*

TOTAL: 4

Rights & Permissions
Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Back To School

Back to School Sale!

12 Digital Issues + 4 Years of Archive Access just $19.99

Order Now >

X

Email this Article

X