Are Republicans really the anti-science party?

Writing at the Atlantic, Mischa Fisher calls for reframing the question.

"Republicans, conservatives, and the religious are no more uniquely 'anti-science' than any other demographic or political group," declares Mischa Fisher, identified by the Atlantic as a former Republican science policy staff member and legislative director in the US House of Representatives. "It’s just that 'anti-science' has been defined using a limited set of issues that make the right wing and religious look relatively worse."

Fisher concedes that "elected Republicans with a terrible understanding of science" can be found, but he indicts "frequent offenders" who cast the entire party as anti-science. He lists Chris Mooney at the magazine Mother Jones, television political pundit Chris Matthews, comedian and talk-show host Bill Maher, Phil Plait of Slate, and a "host" of Huffington Post contributors. He links to an angry column from Plait about egregiously science-ignorant statements by congressional Republicans. From the Huffington Post, he links to commentary that begins, "In case there was any remaining doubt that mainstream Republicans have abandoned mainstream science, look no further than the House Republicans' recent crusades against their own scientific ideas."

Fisher argues that science criticism of Republicans often focuses on evolution and global warming and that even those complaints are overblown. He emphasizes Republican opposition not to scientists' climate consensus but to climate-related US policy proposals, including measures that, even if put into place, don't seem likely to matter much planet-wide.

He also argues "that many on the political left deeply hold some serious anti-scientific beliefs." Democrats believe in astrology at a rate double that for Republicans, he says, and left-wing ideologues also frequently espouse an irrational and destructive "fear of nuclear power, genetic modification, and industrial and agricultural chemistry."

It is Democrats, Fisher charges, who have thwarted progress on nuclear waste disposal. In advocating nuclear power, he invokes Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century, by physics Nobel laureate Burton Richter. He calls the anti-GMO movement "largely a product of the political left" and charges that it "has reached levels of delusion, paranoia and anti-intellectualism worthy of [Republican Congresswoman] Michele Bachmann and young-earth creationists."

Moreover, Fisher argues, "Comparing the two parties' proposed funding levels for the major scientific research agencies doesn't lend itself well to narratives about who's 'pro' or 'anti' science," given that President Obama "has undercut American leadership in basic science by favoring loan guarantees and industrial subsidies to the alternative-energy industry at the expense of science elsewhere."

For two reasons, Fisher proposes, it's important for all sides to "recognize that reason and critical thought, the joy and excitement of discovery, the connection between research and economic growth, and the beauty and awe of science are accessible to people of all religious and political stripes."

First, "caricaturing Republicans ... gives Obama and the Democratic Party a free pass on bad decisions that undermine long-term basic research." Fisher points to reduced manned-exploration ambitions that Democrats have imposed on NASA and to meager budget increases for federally funded basic research. He notes that Fermilab's decades-old Tevatron accelerator could have been kept in operation with the money lost on Democrats' "failed [federal] loans to Solyndra and Abound Solar."

Second, the "politics of the immediate will always trump the politics of the long term"—which means that the pro-science coalition must be expanded, not made smaller. If "you count yourself a supporter of NASA, a supporter of the National Science Foundation, a supporter of the NIH, or a supporter of the Department of Energy's science facilities and particle accelerators," Fisher advises, "don’t be goaded into a false dichotomy between those who support science and who oppose it."


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.


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Scitation: Are Republicans really the anti-science party?