The US was founded on Enlightenment values and is the most powerful scientific nation on Earth. And yet the status of science in public life has never appeared to be so low.
As campaigning for the 2012 presidential election gets into full swing, US politics, especially on the right, appears to have entered a parallel universe where ignorance, denial and unreason trump facts, evidence and rationality.
Almost all the main Republican presidential candidates subscribe to some variety of anti-scientific bunkum. Michele Bachmann thinks science classes should teach creationism; Rick Perry rejects evolutionary theory because “it’s got some gaps in it”; Newt Gingrich considers embryonic stem cell research to be nothing less than murder; Herman Cain claims that people choose to be homosexual.
Meanwhile, Republican candidates who display a modicum of scientific literacy are practically committing political suicide. Shawn Lawrence Otto writes:
Republicans diverge from anti-science politics at their peril. When leading candidate Mitt Romney said: “I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer… humans contribute to that,” conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh responded with “Bye bye, nomination”. Romney back-pedalled, saying, “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans.”
One of the contributing factors to this current science low in American political discourse is the influence of postmodernist theory. Otto explains:
Even as [anti-science] criticisms mounted, science was enjoying increased funding and prestige in universities, supplanting the humanities. The humanities pushed back. Postmodernism emerged, drawing on cultural anthropology and relativity to argue that there was no such thing as objective truth. Science was simply the cultural expression of western white men and had no greater claim to the truth than the “truths” of women and minorities. This fit well with the politics of civil rights and also conveniently placed the humanities back on top. In pop culture it became a secular religious movement that preached creating your own reality – the New Age.
Many positive things came out of postmodernism but the idea that there is no objective truth is just plain wrong. And yet a generation of Americans was taught this incorrect idea. As they became leaders in politics, industry and the media this thinking affected their regard for truth and science. Without objective truth, all arguments become rhetorical. We are either paralysed in endless debate or we must resort to brute authority. This is the abyss the US now faces.
This culture war between science and the humanities was broached by the British novelist and physicist C P Snow and further examined by the American science writer John Brockman. Brockman is optimistic that the emergence of a ‘third culture’ of scientists – who engage directly with the public through writing popular science books and giving widely disseminated lectures – will help increase scientific literacy. The re-engagement of scientists with the public, even political, realm is both welcome and necessary, since their previous retreat into their ivory towers contributed to the decline of science’s influence, as Otto writes:
Relieved of the burden of selling the value of their research to philanthropists [thanks to permanent government funding], scientists turned inward and in many ways withdrew from civic engagement. University tenure programmes were developed that rewarded research and publication but not public outreach. Scientists who did reach out to the public were often viewed poorly by their peers. Politics became something that could taint one’s objectivity.
But to view science as apolitical is a fundamental error. Science is always political because the new knowledge it creates requires refining our morals and ethics and challenges vested interests. Withdrawing from the conversation cedes these discussions to opponents, which is exactly what happened.
Another outcome of the postmodernist contempt for objective truth is ‘false balance’ journalism – in any contentious issue, both sides are given equal weight, irrespective of their veracity. Journalist and doctor Ben Goldacre has written extensively on this problem in his book Bad Science (2008). Otto argues that this penchant for ‘false balance’ is encouraged by the info-tainment style of reportage that prioritises emotionalism over rationalism.
News shows now had to compete with entertainment, and so became more emotional and opinionated. A generation of journalists with a postmodern education decided that “objective” reporting was simply getting varying views of the story, but not taking a position on which represented reality. […] This problem, called “false balance” now pits, for example, climate scientists against deniers. This gives undue exposure to extreme views – a situation that has been compounded by the elimination of most science and investigative reporters from cash-strapped newsrooms.
America is at risk of losing its scientific eminence. While the danger shouldn’t be exaggerated (Otto’s article includes data suggesting that science still carries plenty of cultural clout in the US), steps should be taken to ensure that the sort of blatant science-bashing exhibited by the Republicans remains confined to a minority with limited power to shape policy.
History contains many cautionary tales of what can happen when politicians ignore science, thinking that they are entitled not only to their own opinions, but also to their own facts. From the famines that killed millions due to both the Soviet Union’s adoption of Trofim Lysenko’s false ideas on genetics and Mao Zedong’s unscientific agricultural policies, to the deaths of thousands of HIV infected South Africans caused by former president Thabo Mbeki’s denial of the link between HIV and AIDS, history shows that when we reject the objective truths of science, they come back to bite us in the arse.