Aug 05, 2012 6:08 PM GMT
The notion that Republicans are uniquely anti-science is an oft-repeated theme in American political discourse. Every election cycle, Democrats salivate over opportunities to indicate how scientifically illiterate they believe Republicans to be. And all too often, the news media happily play along without pausing to analyze whether it is actually true.
Recently, a child asked Texas Gov. Rick Perry about the age of the Earth, a not-so-subtle inquiry into his belief about evolution. Perry responded that both creationism and evolution were taught in Texas. The mother replied, "Ask him why he doesn't believe in science." Setting aside the tackiness of feeding political questions to a child, does she have a point? Is Perry anti-science? And, more generally, is the Republican Party anti-science?
Yes. But so are the Democrats.
Either way, science loses
Sadly, when science battles politics, science usually loses. And that is true regardless of political party.
Each campaign season, the same three hot-button science issues are tossed around like political footballs: evolution, global warming and embryonic stem cells. On these three issues, criticism of Republicans is fair.
The GOP should never cave to the conservatives within the party who deny evolution and global warming. There is simply no excuse for that. Expressing moral concerns over embryonic stem cell research is legitimate, but it is best to leave regulatory policy to stem cell biologists and bioethicists. Experts should be making those decisions, not politicians.
So Democrats might have a point if those three issues were all there was to science. Unfortunately for Democrats, their progressive political allies often hold blatantly anti-science beliefs themselves. And in some cases, progressives actively undermine technological progress.
The most extreme example is the anti-vaccination movement, which has gained new but incomplete attention in the controversy among Republican presidential candidates over the HPV vaccine. Empowered by those who believe the myth that only "natural things" are good for you, anti-vaccine activists routinely share common ground with organic food consumers. In fact, a public health official once noted that rates of vaccine non-compliance tend to be higher in places where Whole Foods is popular — and 89% of Whole Foods stores are located in counties that favored Barack Obama in 2008.
Federal health data suggest that anti-vaccine sentiment is more common in progressive areas. With the exception of Alaska, the states with the highest rates of vaccine refusal for kindergarteners are Washington, Vermont and Oregon — three of the most progressive states in the country.
Unlike denying evolution, refusing vaccinations can be deadly.
Progressives are also often against genetically modified food, despite its known benefits and widespread support among agricultural scientists and molecular biologists. Recently, eight U.S. senators — seven of whom were Democrats —wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, threatening to halt approval of a genetically modified salmon. (Interestingly, most of the opponents are from the Pacific Northwest, while the company seeking FDA approval is based in Massachusetts.)
Nukes and PETA
We can also thank progressives for blocking the construction of nuclear power plants, even though nuclear power is supported by 70% of the scientific community. Ironically, they oppose this technology despite the fact it would help reduce carbon emissions and limit the impact of global warming.
Progressive organizations such as PETA are opposed to animal research, despite the fact that an overwhelming 93% of scientists support it. These progressives believe that the rights of animals should trump our desire to cure our loved ones affected by HIV, Alzheimer's or cancer.
In short, for every anti-science Republican that exists, there is at least one anti-science Democrat. Neither party has a monopoly on scientific illiteracy. Indeed, ignorance has reached epidemic proportions inside the Beltway.
Alex B. Berezow is the editor of RealClearScience. He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.