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Dr. Sten Odenwald Headshot

The Stupid Party? Which One?

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It seems to be a growing belief that the Republican Party has been hijacked by anti-science ideas and that somehow the Democratic Party is the party of scientific sanity, but the distinction may not be as clear cut as out might think. Or is it?

Although few serious Democratic candidates take anti-science positions as major planks of their candidacy, it's fairly common for Republican candidates to do so.

"We've got to stop being the stupid party. It's time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults," said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting in 2013. A year later Florida Sen. Marco Rubio opined on climate change, saying, "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it." Rubio also went out of his way in a GQ interview, questioning the age of Earth as though it were a matter of opinion: "I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that." And who can forget the bizarre tirade by U.S. Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia), a member of the House Science Committee, no less, who claims that evolution and the Big Bang are "lies straight from the pit of hell."

This recent hostility to science by a major political party has brought on one of the great political shifts in the past decade: the quiet move of scientists toward the Democratic Party. Only 6 percent of scientists identify themselves as Republicans, whereas 55 percent identify as Democrats.

The anti-science tilt by the Republican Party is actually of recent vintage. President Richard Nixon created the EPA in 1970 in response to scientific issues of environmental contamination. President Ronald Reagan was a huge fan of science, particularly space exploration. Though not a fan of environmentalism (he removed Jimmy Carter's solar panels from the White House), he did react quickly in 1988 to banning ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. During the George H. W. Bush presidency (1989 to 1993), Republicans acknowledged global warming and boasted of efforts to commit billions of federal dollars to finding solutions. But during the presidency of his son, a do-nothing policy on climate change was implemented. In fact, scientists were pressured by the White House to suppress discussion of global warming. The rise of anti-science Republicans seems to coincide with the rising influence and ideological intimidation of the tea party within their midst during the 2012 presidential election. Although 61 percent of non-tea-party Republicans say global warming is occurring, polls show that the tea party dramatically distrusts scientists, and 75 percent are avowed global warming deniers.

False Equivalency

Recently, reporters and other survey interpreters in the news media have tried to create a false equivalency between the political left's embrace of bans on GMOs and vaccinations and the right's repudiation of evolution, an old Earth and climate change.

The problem is that not all things are equal. Concern about GMOs and vaccinations is a plausible response to new biological interventions, while denial of entire bodies of established scientific research like evolution, the age of Earth and climate change is simply outright pandering to party extremists. In a 2011 post to NPR, Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, challenged this equivalency claim, arguing that it posits a ludicrous equivalence between the magnitudes of the left- and right-wing science abuses. "The latter does occur sometimes ... but has relatively little mainstream influence, and can hardly compare with the sweeping denial of huge bodies of knowledge (e.g., all climate science, all evolutionary science) that we see on the right."

What Do Voters Say?

By 2010 public belief that climate change was occurring declined from 65 percent to 52 percent, but it returned to its pre-2010 levels by 2012 and today sits at about 67 percent. Republicans are deeply divided on climate change; nevertheless, Democrats do hold a 2-to-1 edge. Some 35 percent of Republicans, 53 percent of independents and 75 percent of Democrats said there was solid evidence of rising temperatures on Earth. A growing partisan divide is also emerging on human evolution, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center.

What is even more disturbing is that the way to solve these disagreements about science is not to provide more education and better data. According to the 2008 Pew report, having a college degree didn't appear to make a Republican any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than were less-educated Republicans. For Democrats and independents, more education correlated with being more accepting of climate science. The "stupid" members of the Republican Party are more scientifically savvy than the "smart" members!

As Voters We Are Failures

Poll after poll says that we have very different opinions about science and the process of compromising than some of the members of Congress we keep electing. Nevertheless, when it comes to pulling that lever in the voting booth, we have a knack for electing people into office who do not reflect our commonly shared attitudes.

To make matters worse, recent Pew Research Center studies show that since 2009 the number of political moderates has shrunk from a little over 50 percent of the electorate to about 40 percent. In addition, these moderates are much less engaged or knowledgeable about politics than those on the left or right. The more you know, the less moderate you are. With "smart" people opting out of the Republican Party and disengaging from the moderate center, it is inevitable that our politics are tilting in the luddite, anti-science direction.

All we can do is wait it out, but it may take decades for political tempers to simmer down and the damage to reasoned discourse is undone.