Is the Right Wing Anti-Science?

Prominent journal Nature calls out conservative commentators and politicians

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Scientists--and sometimes even science itself--have been getting hammered by right-wing commentators recently. Now comes the counterattack. A strongly-worded editorial in the prestigious journal Nature starts by quoting Rush Limbaugh:

The four corners of deceit: government, academia, science and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That's how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper.

This can't be "laugh[ed] off," write the editors. They proceed to argue that this is part of a wider, and dangerous, anti-science trend on the American right. Here's their argument and some of the response to it--enthusiastic among liberals, but with a bit of skepticism in other quarters.

  • 'An Age-Old US Political Impulse--A Suspicion of Elites and Expertise' That's what the "American right" is tapping into, argues the editorial. But it could "have tangible societal and political impacts on many fronts--including regulation of environmental and other issues and stem-cell research." The writers are alarmed by the way Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski was attacked—and defeated in the primary—by her Tea Party-backed opponent Joe Miller, who called her "acknowledgement of the reality of global warming 'exhibit "A" for why she needs to go.'" This is why "scientists should redouble their efforts" to educate the public, they argue:
... The country's future crucially depends on education, science and technology as it faces increasing competition from China and other emerging science powers. Last month's recall of hundreds of millions of US eggs because of the risk of salmonella poisoning, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, are timely reminders of why the US government needs to serve the people better by developing and enforcing improved science-based regulations. Yet the public often buys into anti-science, anti-regulation agendas that are orchestrated by business interests and their sponsored think tanks and front groups. ... Reassuringly, polls continue to show that the overwhelming majority of the US public sees science as a force for good
  • Science: 'The Biggest Loser in the 2010 Elections'? "Nature is a highly respected journal," remarks Brendan DeMelle at The Huffington Post, "and it is encouraging to see the editors take a strong stand against the GOP's betrayal of science and reason. Science should never be confused with politics, but the recent antics of the Republican Party leave no alternative but to acknowledge that the Right's attack on science must be addressed directly by the scientific community."
  • This Is What's at Stake "The most important issues in American politics are not the fights over a few percentage points in the marginal tax rate, or the silly arguments from the right wing claiming that Barack Obama is a Muslim," concurs Ron Chusid at Liberal Values. "The most important distinction between left and right is support for science and reason or support for the anti-intellectualism of the right wing."
  • Making 'Support of Science an Ideological Litmus Test' This is, essentially, what is going on in the American right wing, argues blogger A. Siegel. "While climate denial is central to that litmus test, it is far from the only element." He notes that "there has been a growing gap between scientists and the Republican Party," with an odd poll of scientists in 2009 showing only 6 percent identified with that party. He suggests the current anti-science rhetoric might increase the divide, and proposes new criteria for concerned voters:
Few Americans put "respect for science" and basic scientific knowledge at the top of the list when they go into the poll booth. Considering the stark contrast between the parties and the serious negative consequences of having a governing elite ignorant of and disdainful for science, perhaps it should make it higher up the list.
  • Hang On: Science or Global Warming? Anthony Watts, blogger and former television meteorologist, as well as a global warming skeptic, says he doesn't "disagree" with much of the article, but that "we also need to separate science from the global warming ideology that has hijacked it. The current backlash [the Nature writers] speak of has in fact been brought about in part by allowing this to happen."He also questions the use of the word "denialism" in the Nature article regarding global warming. He thinks it shows some ideology on the part of the writers, too.
  • It's Science--and Expertise in General, argues David Roberts at environmental site Grist:
The right's project over the last 30 years has been to dismantle the post-war liberal consensus by undermining trust in society's leading institutions. Experts are made elites; their presumption of expertise becomes self-damning. They think they're better than you. They talk down to you. They don't respect people like us, real Americans. ... The decline in trust in institutions has generated fear and uncertainty, to which people generally respond by placing their trust in protective authorities. And some subset of people respond with tribalism, nationalism, and xenophobia. The right ... offer[s] a space to huddle in safety among the like-minded. The conservative movement in America has created a self-contained, hermetically sealed epistemological reality ... designed not just as a source of alternative facts but as an identity.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.