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Does Conservatism Have to Be Synonymous With Ignorance?

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The Republican flavor of the past month has been Rick Santorum, who has just won two more Southern primaries, after every other conservative alternative to Mitt Romney was examined and tossed by the Tea Party base of the new Republican Party.

The timing of Santorum's original rise occurred as the Roman Catholic Church created a cause célèbre by objecting to President Obama's proposal that Catholic-run institutions, including hospitals and medical facilities, be required to offer health insurance that provides contraception for women who request it.

The Catholic Church has long been an enemy of emerging technology, especially when it comes to reproductive health, opposing any technology that alters the 'natural' scheme of sex and reproduction. Quixotically, the focus on sex is unique and is, needless to say, inconsistent with the running of hospitals, which by their very nature do daily battle against otherwise naturally occurring disease and death.

That Rick Santorum rigorously followed the Vatican's hard line stance is not surprising. It is a little more surprising, perhaps, that Newt Gingrich was similarly opposed, as in other areas he has never met a futuristic technology he didn't like.

One might have been tempted to ask Newt Gingrich, weeks ago when he still appeared to be a viable candidate, whether he and his Catholic wife practiced contraception during their eight-year affair in order to hide any obvious evidence of their indiscretion.

But it is Mr. Santorum whose vehement opposition involves not only emerging reproductive technology but also almost any form of medical intervention in reproduction, positive or negative. It would be tempting to chalk up Mr. Santorum's medieval views to a devout Catholic fundamentalism, but that is unfair to Catholicism. Mr. Santorum instead represents the very epitome of many among the modern breed of conservative Republicans: Ignorant and proud of it.

Mr. Santorum has steadfastly maintained throughout his career an almost perfect record of opposing the well-known evidence of empirical reality. When he was a political footnote this fact was at best amusing. Now that he has managed to win so many primaries, the more general question of why Republicans are so willing to take a giant step backward in the face of modern science to support such ignorance is of more concern.

Santorum has argued that evolution, the basis of modern biology, has no firm basis in fact. He has argued that climate change is a conspiracy among scientists who want to either ensure that government quashes free enterprise, or else who elevate, in his words "the Earth above Man." It is hard to know how to interpret this language in any way but to suggest that we do not need to develop new technologies to deal with emerging global challenges, and that somehow things are 'destined' to turn out OK.

Even these remarkably ignorant statements about the natural world pale when compared to his utterances regarding women's reproductive health, however. In 2005 he demonstrated confusion regarding the stages of human fetal development, describing the 50-ish cell microscopic blastocysts from which embryonic stem cells can be extracted for therapeutic purposes as a "person."

More recently, however, his divergence from reality has expanded to include the claim that all forms of contraception are unhealthy. In doing so, he made no comment on either the strain on women's bodies of repeated childbirth, much less the effects on the mental health of both mother and child. Perhaps most important, in the context of global considerations of the future, he ignored the deleterious effects of our ever-increasing world population on the health of the planet.

If that were not enough, he next spoke out against pre-natal medical care, one of the most important recent modern medical advances to help ensure the birth of healthy and fully functioning infants, as promoting abortion rather than the health of mother and child. He managed to follow that up with the remarkable oxymoronic claim that birth control actually produces more abortions.

Santorum's proud ignorance is unfortunately not unique. Over the past decade, since the success of George W. Bush's candidacy for President, conservatism in this country has become synonymous with such ignorance. It wasn't always that way. In kindler, gentler times, conservatives like Dwight Eisenhower, who was a huge supporter of science education, shared with their more extreme cousins Richard Nixon (who signed the Endangered Species Act into law in 1973) and Barry Goldwater (in whose name Congress created a scholarship to support education in science, mathematics and engineering), a healthy respect for scientific knowledge that was palpable.

Now, almost any science taught in school that might undermine conservative presupposition is suspect. And the method of dealing with that is to attempt to undo education, as recent documents leaked from the libertarian Heartland Institute recently demonstrated, via a well-financed effort to cast doubt on mainstream climate science in public education, much as the conservative Discovery Institute has attempted to cast doubt on mainstream biology in public schools.

Choosing to censor or distort knowledge rather than risk the possibility that such knowledge, or the technologies that result from it, might challenge faith or confront preexisting ideological biases is a something that should better characterize the Taliban or al Qaeda rather than the Republican Party.

As we head into the home stretch of a too-long presidential primary season, it is not too late for the public to turn their back on candidates that turn their back on empirical reality and scientific progress.

Lawrence M. Krauss is Director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University and author, most recently of A Universe from Nothing (Free Press 2012).

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