New Rumblings About Republicans and Science

By Chris Mooney | September 14, 2010 8:03 am

I wrote the book on it. But it still isn’t over. Now, Nature magazine is editorializing about troubling anti-science strains in the latest incarnation of the GOP–the Tea Party:

Denialism over global warming has become a scientific cause célèbre within the movement. Limbaugh, for instance, who has told his listeners that “science has become a home for displaced socialists and communists”, has called climate-change science “the biggest scam in the history of the world”. The Tea Party’s leanings encompass religious opposition to Darwinian evolution and to stem-cell and embryo research — which Beck has equated with eugenics. The movement is also averse to science-based regulation, which it sees as an excuse for intrusive government. Under the administration of George W. Bush, science in policy had already taken knocks from both neglect and ideology. Yet President Barack Obama’s promise to “restore science to its rightful place” seems to have linked science to liberal politics, making it even more of a target of the right.

But the timing of this is, of course, awful, writes Nature:

The anti-science strain pervading the right wing in the United States is the last thing the country needs in a time of economic challenge.

Right…but is this not partly about what Nietzsche called ressentiment, and therefore partly caused by these times of economic challenge?

America is hurting, massively, due to the downturn. For parts of right wing America, also hurting massively, this requires the search for an enemy.

Well, the scientists got lots of cash from Obama’s stimulus plan, they’re favored by the government, and there has long been right wing resentment of academia anyway–the people who allegedly think they’re smarter than everyone else.

Maybe now it’s just magnified, due to the strain we’re all under.


Comments (24)

  1. “science has become a home for displaced socialists and communists”

    Sounds like a page right out of good old Joe McCarthy’s playbook

    I did read that article and it’s disturbing. While we don’t know how much such nonsense will actually affect policy, it definitely can if some loony extremist takes charge.

  2. Chris,
    Um ok, so what about democrats failures to defend science in the public square? the Obama Administration, while loaded with excellent career and political-appointee scientists has continued to make a mockery of science in the public arena. Zilch came out of the White House on “Climate-gate” and several of the scientists involved were working on federal research grants. Ditto science applied to the MC 252 oil spill – a lot of that has been done by academics on a shoe string who are hoping that NSF or NOAA puts some more money on the table at some point. And leaving all that aside, what are Democrats doing to fend off the attacks of Mr. Limbaugh and his ilk?

    Sadly, the answer is “Not Much” and I would ask, politely,that you take a few column inches to take that up as well.

  3. Anthony McCarthy

    There is a heap of evidence that proves the Republican right is entirely uninterested in the lives of embryos or the people they develop into. Just the permission they want to give polluters and those who want to insert embryo injuring and destroying substances into embryos proves that the only use they have for them is as a political tool.

    And that’s not even getting to the relevant topics of nutrition to women of childbearing age, pregnant women, infants, children, etc. All of which are programs that notably do not prosper under Republican rule.

    This is just another window into the real motives of the Republican-oligarchic interaction with that science which they find it politically useful to oppose or deny and other science which they find profitable. You will notice I haven’t mentioned the embryo damaging effects of weapons produced with the kind of science which has never been without Republican support.

  4. Dedalus1953

    I’ve been rather worried that intelligence, in and of itself, has become a “social evolutionary dead-end.” Disdain for school and those who prefer the school year to summer vacation, suspicion of the educated, “nerdification” of anyone more interested in “math club” or “science club” than in football, etc etc etc.

    As this trend grows and becomes imbedded in culture, can actual biological reduction of intelligence be far behind?

  5. Sorbit

    You will notice I haven’t mentioned the embryo damaging effects of weapons produced with the kind of science which has never been without Republican support

    In fact if you look at history, the two Presidents who did the most for arms control were Reagan and Bush Sr. (Although JFK did sign the test-ban treaty). Also worth noting that Nixon signed the ABM treaty and unilaterally banned biological weapons. In addition, Eisenhower was one of the most pro-science Presidents; he created the President’s Science Advisory Council to get advice directly from apolitical scientists. It’s mainly in the recent age of neocons that weapons-mongering and the abuse of science has again proliferated, and Bush Jr. is the biggest offender in this regard.

  6. CW

    Many of the anti-science GOP seem to have no trouble appreciating science when it’s relevant to military advancement. I wonder how they can fail to appreciate continued science and technological advancement as a necessary thing, in terms of maintaining military power?

  7. Gaythia

    I think it would be highly useful to expand understanding of the concept described as ressentiment above, and also expressed as tribal fears and stress caused polarization over at Age of Engagement: And, not so useful to repeat the sentence above that starts: “Well the scientists….”. I assume that you don’t believe this anyway. What happened to effective framing?

    Scapegoating is effective, especially in tough economic times . I think it would be effective to analyze, and learn from, tipping points or near tipping points and figure out how and why societies were able to pull themselves back from the brink, or recover from having fallen off an ideological cliff. Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” and Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America” both portray an alternative history of the rise of fascism in America, and the rhetorical tools employed to promote that takeover. Wavefunction mentions Joe McCarthy’s playbook, what can we learn from that era that could help us communicate now?

  8. FUAG

    @2 Philip H
    Sorry, Phil. Chris is indoctrinated, the left can do no wrong in his eyes.

    I read this blog for comedic value only these days. I can’t listen to anyone that doesn’t see it is as a major problem when they ALWAYS agree with one party or another. It’s defies logic that a single person can agree with everything one party does, unless you factor in that they made their mind up going in…

    So, how ’bout it Chris? How about a column on something good the right is doing and something bad the left is doing… Or would you get kicked out of the club for that?

  9. Anthony McCarthy


    Significantly, the Reagan military budget was increasingly “weapons- driven,” meaning that it devoted a larger and larger share of budget authority to “investment” (weapons procurement, research and development, military construction, warhead production), as opposed to “consumption” (operations and maintenance, personnel, and other miscellaneous) functions. In real terms, Department of Defense (DOD) budget authority for “investment” would increase 95 percent over the FY 1980-85 period, while authority for operations and maintenance increased “only” 37 percent and personnel 13 percent. As a consequence, investment rose from just over a third (38%) to just under a half (48%) of the vastly expanded total.

    The investment focus of the Reagan buildup immensely increased the share of DOD’s budget that was “uncontrollable”-the area where funds are obligated to already existing contracts. Over FY 1980-85, as the government locked into a growing number of virtually uncuttable procurement contracts, uncontrollable outlays rose from 27 to 36 percent of the DOD budget. Counting in the additional 43 percent of overall defense outlays that went to salary and retirement benefits for military and civilian personnel, which are also very difficult to cut, this meant that by the end of Reagan’s first term the “uncontrollable” share of the military budget was about 80 percent, and rising.

    Of course, you can ignore parts of weapons spending, you choose to, just as you can ignore parts of history you want to. But that wouldn’t have anything to do with my point that the Republicans and, let me add, libertarians eagerness to allow polluters, the industrial poisoning of food supplies, nutritional deprivation and weapons production is incompatible with their PR that supposedly holds human embryos in some actual regard. I’d guess that there are more spontaneous abortions due to those factors than all of the intentional ones in human history.

  10. Jon

    FUAG–Chris has done stuff on anti-vaxxers and anti-GMO folks. They’re mostly dems. He’s gone after Robert Kennedy jr.

  11. Sorbit

    Except during more recent times, I don’t think Republicans have been particularly guilty of pollution in the long-term, although they have certainly been more wary of environmental laws in general. I find most administrations in this country guilty of environmental neglect, whether Reps and Dems. Similarly, most administrations have been guilty of massive defense spending on foreign conflicts started on the basis of dubious and misguided reasons. In my book they are all to blame.

  12. Can you really blame them? What has science done for a guy who had to close his car dealership? Invent a new heart medication he can’t afford? impose fines for runoff from his parking lots? Hike his energy bills?

  13. Sorbit

    Yes, Reagan was quite guilty of increased defense spending in his first term. What I find remarkable about him is that he did an about-turn during his second term, orchestrating the largest arms reduction in history until then and incurring the disapproval of neocons.

  14. klem

    Well I can see why Repubs are scrutinizing science; Recently Scientific American magazine stated that among the scientific community in the US, only 8% are Republican. This makes science a target in my view.

  15. Anthony McCarthy

    klem, I don’t know but I remember a letter to the editor in a newspaper in response to why university faculty tended to be liberal. The letter said they tended to be liberal because they read a lot.

    Sorbet, you have to to be kidding, James Watt, Ann Gorsuch, Rita Lavelle, Gale Norton, Spenser Abraham…. and those are only the ones I can recall off of the top of my head. Republicans’ record on environmental issues is, literally, criminal and …. well, criminal is what it is.

  16. Sean McCorkle

    Lab Lemming@13

    What has science done for a guy who had to close his car dealership?

    I’ll take a shot at it. For starters:
    1. miniaturized electronics used in cell phones, computers, digital watches, microwaves, hearing aids, etc.
    2. satellites which constantly monitor the weather and allow him to know whether or not a hurricane or severe weather is imminent
    3. microwave ovens
    4. plastics and polymers used as protective food wrapping, electric insulation, tires, etc.
    5. anesthetics (try going to the dentist or undergo surgery without it)
    6. cheap lasers, used in bar-code scanners, DVDs and inexpensive and high quality printing technology
    7. affordable GPS navigation, accurate to meters
    8. medical telemetry that allows a cardiologist miles away from the ambulance to read his EKG and advise EMTs if he were to have a heart attack.

    and I don’t know if you wanted to qualify that question with a “lately”, but if not, then
    9. smallpox, TB, and a host of other pathogens that caused major epidemics as recently as a century ago have either been all but wiped out or beaten down
    10. air conditioning and refrigeration (thermodynamics)
    11. electric lighting

    I hope you don’t blame the loss of his dealership on science.

  17. Sorbit

    Reagan was one of the biggest offenders on the environment, but Dems have not been saints. All the big agriculture, chemical and pharma companies for example have been allowed to pollute and pay large fines under Dems too (a fact well explained in the film and book “The Corporation”). Nobody is innocent. The problem is with politicians, not just with Dems and Reps. All politicians are primarily controlled by special-interest lobbies in this country. It’s naive to pretend that the environment would be saved because Dems are in power.

  18. Anthony McCarthy

    Well politicians who are most like saints tend to get wiped out by dirty campaigns by the right, financed by oligarchs who profit from despoiling the environment and corrupting the government. George McGovern was a good example of one who was massively lied about and lost, Jimmy Carter, a saint among presidents, another. Republicans have been notably worse than Democrats, as seen in, among other things, how many indictments and convictions they rack up for corruption. In the trumped up “scandal” plagued Clinton administration, I believe there is still a grand total of two, neither of which were environmental, one for things that happened before they took public office. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure, here at 2:30 in the morning, if there was ever a conviction for the other one. Considering the massive and expensive series of phony investigations of the Clinton administration by Republicans it must have been one of the cleanest in recent history or they would have definitely found something to prosecute.

  19. How about a column on something good the right is doing and something bad the left is doing

    Ah yes, the moral equivalency standard.

    How about you start the ball rolling? Give us an example of an area of science where the right is doing something good.

  20. Anthony McCarthy

    I’ll tell you one thing really bad that the left does, the left give in to the right way, way too often. Another thing it does is tries to be fair to the right when that’s not the game the right plays. With what’s at stake, fairness shouldn’t come into it, what the facts say should.

  21. Brian Too

    I can never decide. Do the right wing talking heads actually believe this garbage? Or do they merely need a windmill to tilt at?

    Often I get the feeling that the alleged issues of the day are entirely invented, straw men put up to score points against. When I feel that way my takeaway point is that the right are P.O.’d that they aren’t in power. They aren’t running the show. And that’s what they can’t stand; that’s the real burr under their proverbial saddle.

    The left is far from immune to this dynamic. However I seem to see less of the left wing talking heads, asserting things that are factually untrue and easily verifiable. Instead the left wing chattering class seems more prone to adopting lost causes or claiming that some issue is more important than it really is.

  22. MutantJedi

    13. Lab Lemming Says:
    Can you really blame them? What has science done for a guy who had to close his car dealership? Invent a new heart medication he can’t afford? impose fines for runoff from his parking lots? Hike his energy bills?

    What has science done for a guy who had to close his car dealership? See #17 above

    Science enabled the development of new heart medication and other drugs. The affordability of these drugs has little to do with science.

    The fact that he is dumping environmentally hazardous materials into the environment doesn’t bother you?

    I’m a bit lost on how science determines energy prices. It would seem to me that that would have more to do with politics and market forces than with science.

    When I read stuff like what LL wrote, it seems very much like someone looking to pin the troubles of the day on a public enemy of the day.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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