I must admit that Newt Gingrich is a bit of a conundrum. The most intellectually wonky of the Republican candidates for president, he has nevertheless been a study in ADD-like self-contradictions.
Let me give you some examples. Architect of the 1994 Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, Newt was later nearly ousted from his speakership by members of his own party. A champion of traditional marriage, he's nevertheless been married three times. Then there was how he led the charge to eliminate funding for the Office of Technology Assessment, Congress's own nonpartisan science advisory body. This gave Congress what Rush Holt calls a "congressional science lobotomy" at the very time when science came to dominate almost every major unsolved policy problem. Congress now relies on the dubious advice of lobbyists and the Internet for much of this information. It was a stupid move, but then Newt promptly turned around and supported efforts to double the research funding of the National Institutes of Health, and has continued to maintain support for robust research funding.
You see what I mean?
So Newt's latest self-contradiction shouldn't really surprise me. But it still does. In 2007 I cofounded Science Debate 2008, an effort to get the candidates for president to talk about the nation's top unresolved science questions. These were issues like climate change, energy, healthcare, research and economic competitiveness, our falling science and math scores, biodiversity loss, stem cells, and the like. Rush Holt cochaired our steering committee and when I was seeking supporters Newt Gingrich stepped up to the plate. "I am very interested in doing anything I can to help increase interest in science," he told me. "How can I help?"
I appreciated his support then and now. Increasing interest in science among students and especially among their parents, not to mention politicians, is vital to the success of the United States.
So I was surprised last week when Gingrich argued that embryonic stem cell research is "killing children in order to have research materials."
Newt, Newt, Newt, Newt. Seriously? A man who worked to double research funding at the NIH -- the principle body that funds stem cell research -- now equates microscopic, invisible, frozen specks of cells with "children." Even cultural conservatives should see that as, kindly speaking, a manipulative bit of oratorical prestidigitation.
Set aside for a moment the arguments that embryonic stem cell research could save the lives of untold real children, not to mention adults. Set aside the ethical objections raised by fundamentalists. As our knowledge grows ever finer, our morals and ethics must parse this new information. That's to be expected. But that's not what Newt is doing. He's polluting the discussion with unreason, by saying that this invisible, frozen, microscopic clump of cells left over from fertility treatment -- with the informed consent of the donors -- has the same moral status of not an implanted embryo, not a fetus, not a baby, not an infant, not a toddler, but a child.
We seem to have lost our ability to reason. All has become inarticulate emotion, there are no degrees of proportion anymore, and absurd statements are not only politically tolerable, they're a strategy to regain traction.
This seems a sad confirmation that Jon Huntsman was right when he said the Republican party has become "antithetical to science," and we can expect candidates from Newt to Mitt to continue to scramble to carve out their own their unique slices of the crazy pie. It's a national embarrassment, and a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions -- but worse that that, it's dangerous.
Up next on the 2012 campaign trail: "Every sperm is sacred." Quick, candidates -- jump on it!
Get Shawn Lawrence Otto's important new book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, "a gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis." --Starred Kirkus Review. An "incredible book" -- Starred Publishers Weekly review. Like him on Facebook.