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Rick Santorum Is Pro-Science: That's the Good News

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Rick Santorum has declared that,

"(w)hen it comes to the management of the Earth, they [the Democrats] are the anti-science ones. We are the ones who stand for science, and technology, and using the resources we have to be able to make sure that we have a quality of life in this country and (that we) maintain a good and stable environment."

Until recently in America, science hasn't been far down the list from motherhood and apple pie. At one time a candidate for office would have been sorely tempted to kiss Albert Einstein's balding pate along with that of an infant. So why does Rick Santorum feel compelled to assure us that he is pro-science? And why now?

As I've noted before, the idea that one would be for or against science is something new in America. In the 19th century, physics, engineering, and chemistry were regnant, and biology was still largely observational rather than experimental, so the great debates about evolution and the origins of life were yet to come. Partly for this reason, conservative religious beliefs were quite compatible with a cohesive moral vision through the late 19th century. Ministers and naturalists could agree on their beliefs about nature. Santorum would have been quite comfortable with many pastoral sermons about the importance of science in American churches in the 1880s. He surely would have wanted to greet John Glenn on his return from orbit 50 years ago.

What has changed this American sensibility? Why does a cultural conservative feel the need to announce he is pro-science?

The answer lies in the advent of experimental biology and modern genetics, which has stimulated political controversies like those over cloning and stem cells and invoked old images of Dr. Frankenstein instead of Dr. Einstein. Similarly, the modern environmental movement pits scientific "experts" against problems of unemployment and opponents of government regulation. Science has become a cultural wedge issue, so that a candidate like Rick Santorum feels compelled to recapture science from the secular elite.

Underlying this conflict, therefore, is a mistrust of scientists themselves, of their perceived hubris. When the National Academy of Sciences supports human embryonic stem cell research and 97 percent of scientists say that climate change is caused by humans, a cultural divide is opened up that is not only new for American, it is worrisome. Keep going down that list of American tropes -- mom, apple pie, and science, and very soon you reach opportunity and progress. In my book The Body Politic I argue that without a fundamental sense that the innovators can be trusted it's hard to see how a nation musters the will to lead the world in an era in which leadership in science is not optional.