The Republicans’ war on science and reason

October 25, 2011

Last month, Washington Post columnist Steve Pearlstein wrote that if you wanted to come up with a bumper sticker that defined the Republican Party’s platform it would be this: “Repeal the 20th century. Vote GOP.” With their unrelenting attempts to slash Social Security, end Medicare and Medicaid and destroy the social safety net, Republicans are, indeed, on a quest of reversal. But they have set their sights on an even bolder course than Pearlstein acknowledges in his column: It’s not just the 20th century they have targeted for repeal; it’s the 18th and 19th too.

The 18th century was defined, in many ways, by the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement based on the idea that reason, rational discourse and the advancement of knowledge, were the critical pillars of modern life. The leaders of the movement inspired the thinking of Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin; its tenets can be found in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. But more than 200 years later, those basic tenets — the very notion that facts and evidence matter — are being rejected, wholesale, by the 21st-century Republican Party.

The contempt with which the party views reason is staggering. Republicans have become proudly and unquestionably anti-science. (It is their litmus test, though they would probably reject the science behind litmus paper.) With the exception of Jon Huntsman, who polls about as well as Darwin would in a Republican primary, the Republican presidential candidates have either denied the existence of climate change, denied that it has been caused — and can be reversed — by man, or apologized for once holding a different view. They have come to this conclusion not because the science is inconclusive, but because they believe, as a matter of principle, that scientific evidence is no evidence at all.

It’s on that basis that Ron Paul can say of evolution, “I think it’s a theory and I don’t accept it as a theory.” It’s on that basis that Rick Perry can call evolution “it’s a theory that’s out there, but one that’s got some gaps in it.” And it’s on that same basis, that same rejection of science, that Perry can say, “I’m not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely how old the earth is.”

Then there’s Michele Bachmann, who has embraced the idea that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation, although not a single piece of medical evidence backs up her claim. How, then, did she come to that conclusion? That’s simple: A woman came up to her at a debate and told her so. Scientific evidence is anathema; superstitious and anecdotal asides, on the other hand, deserve to be repeated and amplified on a national stage, the consequences, in this case to countless women and girls, be damned.

This kind of guttural rejection of reason, evidence and science trickles into just about every aspect of Republican ideology. There’s Herman Cain’s much-discussed 9-9-9 plan, for example, which has been eviscerated by independents, conservative and progressive economists alike, but which Cain continues to champion. Why? Because, he argues, the skeptics haven’t read his analysis yet — as if he is entitled not just to his own facts but to his own math. It’s that same worldview that makes Cain comfortable, when asked about the Occupy Wall Street protests, to say, “I don’t [have] facts to back this up, but I happen to believe . . . ” Without facts, does it really matter how he finished the sentence?

Perry now fancies himself a flat-taxer, a position that might as well make him a flat-earther. A flat tax is, in his mind, a job creation proposal. In a reality based on reason and logic, it is a ticket straight back to recession. He might be giving — or getting — lessons from his fellow Republican, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who after boldly lying about Planned Parenthood on the floor of the Senate had his press flack explain that his remarks were not intended to be a factual statement. What then, one wonders, were they intended to be?

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this kind of behavior is constantly rewarded by the media. As Al Gore noted in “An Inconvenient Truth,” while fewer than 1 percent of peer-reviewed scientific journals questioned the reality of man-made global warming, about half of all journalistic accounts did. In an age where media is obsessed with balance, facts are sidelined in favor of dueling opinions and false equivalence. That one is based on reason and science, the other on neither, is treated as entirely irrelevant. It’s a system ripe for exploitation, and conservatives are happy to oblige.

It seems worth reminding the candidates that these debates have been settled, many for decades, some for centuries and that the year is 2011, not 1611. In the coming decades, science — and a respect for science — will prove crucial to confronting our greatest global challenges, whether that means reducing our carbon footprint to combat climate change, finding new treatments and new cures to the diseases that ail us, or developing new innovations that can lift hundreds of millions out of poverty. We cannot afford to ignore the power of science or the problems we will need it to solve. Nor can we afford to make decisions about our economy, and our future, without reason or sound evidence. It’s time to take back the Enlightenment.

Katrina vanden Heuvel’s new book is “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama.”

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