09/08/2011 08:04 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Science And Anti-Science At The Reagan Debate

The republican party has become increasingly corrupted at the activist level by a mix of anti-science religious zealots and anti-climate change contrarian irrationalists. This is causing problems for candidates who need to make it through the endorsing process while still appearing rational enough to win the general election. The Reagan Library Debate had this tap dancing on ready display, and highlights the problem reason-minded republicans face.

The most pro-science GOP candidate may be former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. Huntsman made news last week when he called his opponents "people on the fringes" and said "right now we have zero substance" in an interview on ABC's This Week. "I think it's a serious problem," Huntsman said. "The minute that the republican party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people that would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution; when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said - what the National Academy of Sciences has said - about what is causing climate change and man's contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science and therefore in a losing position." It's at about the 3:40 mark:

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But in the debate Huntsman refused to identify opponents who - with the exception of Gingrich and Romney - do seem to be largely anti-science. A clear example is Perry's response to a question about climate change: "The science is not settled on this," said Perry.

But the US National Academy of Sciences disagrees: "Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities."

Despite this, Perry argued that "The idea that we would put America's economy is jeopardy based on a scientific theory that's not settled yet to me is nonsense. Just because you have a group of scientist that stand up and say this... Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy... The science is not settled on whether or not the climate change is being impacted by man to the point that we're going to put America's economy in jeopardy."

It was a clear example of anti-science: elevating ideology ahead of knowledge as the basis for public policy. In a race with anti-science candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, both of whom are prominent evolution deniers, Perry has until now managed to stand out as even more anti-science. But then there was this:

Perry took hits for a pro-science stance on human papillomavirus (HPV), an STD that causes cervical cancer. He defended himself against Ron Paul's and Bachmann's criticisms of an executive order he issued requiring sixth grade girls to be vaccinated against HPV. The 2007 order contained an opt-out clause but was still overturned by Texas lawmakers. By seeking to make it the standard, Perry was working to reduce cancer rates in accordance with the advice of medical experts.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has in the past been well known as a science advocate, even though he has a mixed record on science, which he largely (wisely?) kept quiet on during the debate. Under his leadership, congress closed the Office of Technology Assessment, its impartial science advisory body, giving itself what congressman Rush Holt, D-NY, a physicist, called a "lobotomy." Now congress members largely rely on staff research on the Internet, expert testimony, and lobbyists, all dubious sources. Gingrich supported the idea of a presidential science debate in 2008, and managed to pass bills doubling the research budgets of some federal agencies such as the NIH.

Mitt Romney's position supporting climate change early on is clear in the record, and he wasn't asked to defend it at the debate. But neither did he go out of his way to attack other candidates for their anti-science positions, and he has waffled on his stance more recently, and argued for increased drilling.

GOP hopefuls are increasingly stuck between a rock and a hard place: how to satisfy the anti-science foot soldiers recruited into the base because of their passionate energy without alienating general election voters who view those positions as irrational. The battle over science - between Huntsman, Gingrich and Romney on the one hand, and Bachmann, Santorum, Perry and Paul on the other, may determine the relevance of the republican party going forward.

Shawn Lawrence Otto is the author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. "A gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis." --Starred Kirkus Review. Like him on Facebook.