Are Republicans at war—on science? The relationship between the GOP and the scientific community is in the news, and certain aspects of the coverage will be of interest to those working on the history of science in America.
Rick Perry (on the “Stump”)
Rick Perry’s recent entry into the race has raised a number of questions about his party’s (and the American people’s) relationship to science. Over the past few weeks, Perry has revealed—nay, reveled in—skepticism about both evolution and climate change.
Responding to a question from a New Hampshire child about whether or not he believed in evolution, Perry told the boy that evolution is “a theory that’s out there” that’s “got some gaps in it,” and that “In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution.”
On climate change, Perry went even further. Asked, the previous day, to defend a claim (from his book Fed Up!) that climate science is “all one contrived phony mess” propagated by “a false prophet of a secular carbon cult” (guess who?), he went on the offensive:
“I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects. And I think we are seeing almost weekly or even daily scientists are coming forward and questioning the original idea…”
These positions don’t make Perry an outlier in his party or the candidate pool—far from it. Take Michele Bachmann’s famous 2006 assertion that “hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel prizes, believe in intelligent design.”
She’s been joined, in recent weeks, by candidates previously somewhat immune to this line of questioning. Video from 2007 of Ron Paul disavowing the theory has re-emerged, and Mitt Romney now has his doubts about humanity’s role in climate change.
The only Republican candidate standing against this (real or performative) skepticism is Jon Huntsman, who took a pro-science stance in response to Perry’s remarks, via Twitter: “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”
Though it earned Huntsman some good press, it didn’t help him in the polls. He’s leagues behind the others—especially Perry, who at this point seems to be running away with the nomination, suggesting his remarks didn’t cost him too much with his base.
All these developments caught the eye of Paul Krugman, who devoted his column this week to the issue. His stance is that it’s all a part of a “deepening anti-intellectualism of the political right” that, in typical slightly-overdrawn language, “should terrify us.”
Should it? On the one hand, our ability to address large-scale problems—financial, climatic, and otherwise—would no doubt be hampered by the ascendence of a president and a party that was, as Krugman puts it, “aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge.”
On the other, something tells me that it’s the politics that underlay this summer’s debt-ceiling debacle (and the infamous AA+ downgrade) that we’ve got to worry about, not anti-scientism. For the record, the source on that is still George Packer’s New Yorker piece.
So what about science (and AmericanScience), then? Well, there’s the issue Ron Paul raises at the beginning of the video I linked to above: whether or not evolution is relevant, or if it’s appropriate “for the presidency to be decided on a scientific matter.”
In a post at The Intersection, this is parsed in a quotation from popular-science author Steven Berlin Johnson, who wrote The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (2008) and who thinks it does matter – for an interesting reason:
“[W]hen our leaders take these anti-science positions, […] – they’re not just being anti-intellectual. They’re also being un-American. The people who founded this country were serious science geeks. We should be celebrating this fact, not running away from it.”
Why is this interesting? Because it’s precisely the sort of argument that appeals to the far right, and especially the Tea Party. From Ron Paul to Rick Perry, GOPers have staked their claim on Originalism and the Founders. Remember Paul Revere, “ringin’ those bells“?
So, if Franklin was pro-science, shouldn’t Bachmann be? Well, that’s the trick. She *is* pro-science, and so are her colleagues—as they understand it. For anyone interested in the cultural authority (and rhetoric) of science, Bachmann’s justification of her views is fascinating:
“I support intelligent design,” she said in June: “What I support is putting all science on the table and then letting students decide. I don’t think it’s a good idea for government to come down on one side of scientific issue or another, when there is reasonable doubt on both sides.”
The question is what constitutes “all science,” or what counts as a “scientific issue,” or, perhaps most crucially, what distinguishes “reasonable doubt” from … something else. But check out what *isn’t* up for grabs: today, science is good—we just disagree about how to do it.
Today’s debates are largely conducted in a shared metascientific language—what’s at issue isn’t whether or not science can help determine policy (it can!), but whether we’re being scientific enough, or whether politics have polluted the assumed purity of the scientific method.
Now, this isn’t earth-shattering (or even that original) as a comment on contemporary politics. Still, for someone studying the rise of science’s cultural authority in the United States, it’s a stark sign that things people disputed a century ago are now unspoken assumptions.
Can that history of earlier debates over the authority of science tell us anything about today’s troubles? Not really. In many respects we operate within the framework set by those earlier contests, and so any analogy is muddied by their genealogical relationship.
That said—and as I’ve suggested here before—what historians can contribute is what is precisely that sort of realization: we’re trapped (or shaped) by our vocabularies, which have histories too. Taking stock of our terms can, I bet, help us see what’s really at issue.