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Post Leadership
Posted at 12:47 PM ET, 09/08/2011

Rick Perry and the science of leading America


Texas Gov. Rick Perry answers a question during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Reagan Library Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011, in Simi Valley, Calif. (Jae C. Hong - AP)
For many, the most worrisome thing Texas Governor Rick Perry said during Wednesday night’s GOP debate was that Social Security is a “ponzi scheme.” Some thought it amounted to calling the program a fraud. Others thought it left him unelectable, singed by the so-called third rail of politics.

It’s a controversial statement, to be sure, which for Perry seems by design. After all, there’s little question that most voters don’t want Social Security abolished—they want it fixed, as Mitt Romney pointed out. That’s why to me, the most concerning comment of the night was not about retiree payments, but Perry’s insistence that science isn’t settled on climate change. “The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just nonsense,” he said. “Just because you have a group of scientists who stood up and said here is the fact.”

What really is absurd is what Perry went on to say. “Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” he continued, invoking the 1600s, when Galileo theorized that the planets revolved around the sun, rather than the other way around. The famous astronomer was considered a heretic, put on trial and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life.

It’s unclear whether Perry was comparing himself to the famous astronomer, or comparing Galileo to the few remaining scientists who don’t believe in global warming and who, in Perry’s thinking, could one day be shown to be right. Either way, the comment is nonsensical. Even if there are some scientists toiling in obscurity to disprove a theory that 97 percent of scientists believe, Perry couldn’t name them

Moreover, this is not the 1600s, when religion and unsubstantiated theory ruled the day. This is 2011, when the forefront of our economy is driven by advances in medical science, engineering and green energy. When our greatest competitors are countries flooding the job market with PhDs in chemistry, biology and engineering. When funding for scientific research is endangered at the very moment our economy needs it most.

This is the United States, after all. A country that made science a noble mission, putting a man on the moon and a shuttle into space. A nation that has built its economy on advances in technology and engineering that, even now, remain unrivaled the world over. A place where, no matter how broken the health care system may be, is still the world’s greatest hotbed of medical innovation.

No matter where our politics may lie, what’s most worrisome to me is the idea of leadership that doesn’t believe in the very realm where this country must continue to lead: Science. The United States will not continue to dominate the world economy unless it dominates the forefront of science—educating new researchers, funding nascent but critical research, and writing legislation that creates the best environment for legislation. Leaders like Perry who object to the overwhelming majority of scientists risk making this country appear to be anti-science. And in today’s world, being anti-science is a recipe for being anti-competitive.

More from On Leadership:

Sarah Palin’s hem and haw

The ploy of political memoir

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By  |  12:47 PM ET, 09/08/2011

 
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