In his first State of the Union Address in 1790, George Washington told Congress, “There is nothing which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of science and literature.” He went on to call science “essential” to our nation. Two hundred and twenty years later, in his first inaugural address, Barack Obama vowed to “restore science to its rightful place.”
The president’s insinuation plays into the common perception in the media, electorate, and research community that Republicans are “anti-science.” I encountered that sentiment routinely in nearly a decade working for Republicans on Capitol Hill, and it has become more commonplace in the broader political discussion. Frequent offenders include Slate's Phil Plait, Mother Jones' Chris Mooney, HBO's Bill Maher, a host of contributors at The Huffington Post, and MSNBC's Chris Matthews.
I'm the first to admit that there are elected Republicans with a terrible understanding of science—Representative Paul Broun of Georgia, an M.D. who claims evolution and the Big Bang are “lies straight from the pit of hell” is one rather obvious example—and many more with substantial room for improvement. But Republicans, conservatives, and the religious are no more uniquely “anti-science” than any other demographic or political group. 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. (As a politically centrist atheist, this claim is not meant to be self-serving.)
Republicans, and members of the traditionally Republican coalition like conservatives and the religious, are criticized for rejecting two main areas of science: evolution and global warming. But even those critiques are overblown. Believing in God is not the same as rejecting science, contrary to an all-too-frequent caricature propagated by the secular community. Members of all faiths have contributed to our collective scientific understanding, and Christians from Gregor Mendel to Francis Collins have been intellectual leaders in their fields. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian, wrote a New York Times bestseller reconciling his faith with his understanding of evolution and genetics.
Numerically speaking, according to Gallup, only a marginally higher percentage of Republicans reject evolution completely than do Democrats. Yes, an embarrassing half of Republicans believe the earth is only 10,000 years old—but so do more than a third of Democrats. And a slightly higher percentage of Democrats believe God was the guiding factor in evolution than Republicans.
On global warming, conservative policy positions often seem to be conflated or confused with rejection of the consensus that the planet has been warming due to human carbon emissions. The climate trend over the last several hundred years is not one anybody credible disputes—despite the impression you might get from GOP presidential primary debates. Of the many Republican members of Congress I know personally, the vast majority do not reject the underlying science of global warming (though, embarrassingly, some still do). Even Senator Jim Inhofe, perhaps the green community’s greatest antagonist in Congress, explicitly endorses environmental regulation.
The catch: Conservatives believe many of the policies put forward to address the problem will lead to unacceptable levels of economic hardship. It's not inherently anti-scientific to oppose cap and trade or carbon taxes. What most Republicans object to are policies that unilaterally make it more expensive in the United States to produce energy, grow food, and transport people and goods but are unlikely to make much long-term difference in the world’s climate, given that other major world economies emit more carbon than the United States or have much faster growth rates of carbon emissions (China, India, Russia, and Brazil all come to mind).
The more important question on climate change is not “how do we eliminate carbon immediately?” but “how best do we secure a cleaner environment and more prosperous world for future generations?”
It is on this subject that many on the political left deeply hold some serious anti-scientific beliefs. Set aside the fact that twice as many Democrats as Republicans believe in astrology, a pseudoscientific medieval farce. Left-wing ideologues also frequently espouse an irrational fear of nuclear power, genetic modification, and industrial and agricultural chemistry—even though all of these scientific breakthroughs have enriched lives, lengthened lifespans, and produced substantial economic growth over the last century.
Examining greenhouse-gas emissions in exact terms, three of our biggest sources of emissions are electricity generation, transportation, and agriculture. With widespread adoption of nuclear technology, we could conceivably cut out more than 70 percent of our total emissions by eliminating the pollution from burning petroleum for transportation and coal for electricity generation (Nobel Prize-winning physicist Burton Richter explains this in his slightly technical but readable Beyond Smoke and Mirrors).
Nuclear power is the only energy source that can actually meet base-load power requirements for a cost competitive KW/h price with almost zero carbon emissions. One of the largest hurdles to nuclear energy is storage of byproduct waste, something Obama dealt a huge blow when he halted the development of Yucca Mountain for what the Government Accountability Office called strictly political reasons. Republicans in Congress have repeatedly supported moving forward with Yucca Mountain.
As for agricultural emissions, the purpose of GMOs is to use less area, less energy, less pesticide, and less maintenance than conventional crops. They also mean we can grow food in new areas around the globe. With the tools to feed the world with viable crops closer to the poles, we can preserve the more biodiverse regions close to the equatorial zones.
Stewart Brand, the 1960s environmental activist, has bemoaned opposition to genetically modified organisms as “irrational, anti-scientific, and very harmful.” The anti-GMO movement, largely a product of the political left, has reached levels of delusion, paranoia and anti-intellectualism worthy of Michele Bachmann and young-earth creationists.
Matters are more nuanced—or just plain favorable to Republicans—when it comes to the business of actually governing. 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. For every cheap shot a Republican member of Congress like Senator Tom Coburn has taken at National Science Foundation grants (see the unfairly maligned robo-squirrel), there are areas where 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.