By Shawn Lawrence Otto
16 October 2012
It is hard to know exactly when it became acceptable for U.S. politicians to be antiscience. For some two centuries science was a preeminent force in American politics, and scientific innovation has been the leading driver of U.S. economic growth since World War II. Kids in the 1960s gathered in school cafeterias to watch moon launches and landings on televisions wheeled in on carts. Breakthroughs in the 1970s and 1980s sparked the computer revolution and a new information economy.
Advances in biology, based on evolutionary theory, created the biotech industry. New research in genetics is poised to transform the understanding of disease and the practice of medicine, agriculture and other fields.
The Founding Fathers were science enthusiasts. Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer and scientist, built the primary justification for the nation's independence on the thinking of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon and John Locke—the creators of physics, inductive reasoning and empiricism. He called them his “trinity of three greatest men.” If anyone can discover the truth by using reason and science, Jefferson reasoned, then no one is naturally closer to the truth than anyone else. Consequently, those in positions of authority do not have the right to impose their beliefs on other people. The people themselves retain this inalienable right. Based on this foundation of science—of knowledge gained by systematic study and testing instead of by the assertions of ideology—the argument for a new, democratic form of government was self-evident.
Yet despite its history and today's unprecedented riches from science, the U.S. has begun to slip off of its science foundation. Indeed, in this election cycle, some 236 years after Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, several major party contenders for political office took positions that can only be described as “antiscience”: against evolution, human-induced climate change, vaccines, stem cell research, and more. A former Republican governor even warned that his own political party was in danger of becoming “the antiscience party.”
Such positions could typically be dismissed as nothing more than election-year posturing except that they reflect an anti-intellectual conformity that is gaining strength in the U.S. at precisely the moment that most of the important opportunities for economic growth, and serious threats to the well-being of the nation, require a better grasp of scientific issues. By turning public opinion away from the antiauthoritarian principles of the nation's founders, the new science denialism is creating an existential crisis like few the country has faced before.
In late 2007 growing concern over this trend led six of us to try to do something about it. Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, science writer and film director Matthew Chapman (who is Charles Darwin's great–great-grandson), science philosopher Austin Dacey, science writer Chris Mooney, marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum and I decided to push for a presidential science debate. We put up a Web site and began reaching out to scientists and engineers. Within weeks 38,000 had signed on, including the heads of several large corporations, a few members of Congress from both parties, dozens of Nobel laureates, many of the nation's leading universities and almost every major science organization. Although presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain both declined a debate on scientific issues, they provided written answers to the 14 questions we asked, which were read by millions of voters.
In 2012 we developed a similar list, called “The Top American Science Questions,” that candidates for public office should be answering [see “Science in an Election Year” for a report card by Scientific American's editors measuring how President Obama and Governor Mitt Romney did]. The presidential candidates' complete answers, as well as the responses provided by key congressional leaders to a subset of those questions, can be found at www.ScientificAmerican.com/nov2012/science-debate and at www.sciencedebate.org/debate12.
These efforts try to address the problem, but a larger question remains: What has turned so many Americans against science—the very tool that has transformed the quality and quantity of their lives? […]
It gives me no pleasure to say this. My family founded the Minnesota Republican Party. But much of the Republican Party has adopted an authoritarian approach that demands ideological conformity, even when contradicted by scientific evidence, and ostracizes those who do not conform. It may work well for uniform messaging, but in the end it drives diverse thinkers away—and thinkers are what we need to solve today's complex problems.
This process has left a large, silent body of voters who are fiscally conservative, who believe in science and evidence-based policies, and who are socially tolerant but who have left the party. In addition, Republican attacks on settled scientific issues—such as anthropogenic climate change and evolution—have too often been met with silence or, worse, appeasement by Democrats. […]