The Science of Irresponsibility: Why Even Republicans Shouldn't Stand for Playing Politics with Science

Jan 26, 2015 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
The Science of Irresponsibility: Why Even Republicans Shouldn't Stand for Playing Politics with Science

image by: U.S. Army RDECOM

Very few scientists are Republicans. And it's no wonder when you consider how Republican lawmakers are walking and talking when it comes to science. But while this may be politics as usual, it's no good for any of us—including Republicans themselves.

Put simply, politics is power. The point of winning elections is to have people whose philosophies—legal, moral, fiscal, practical—overlap with yours in positions to dictate how your country or community is governed. You want your people in control, period.

Unfortunately, Republicans are shooting themselves and all the rest of us in the foot with that control by playing politics with the science-related aspects of American life, instead of working to ensure that the only people exerting influence on scientific policy in the United States are people who actually know what they're talking about.

Tell your average Republican on the street that Republicans as a whole are less well informed scientifically than Democrats—or Libertarians, Green Partiers, Independents, and just about any other political affiliation you can name—and she will protest that it's not so. She won't, however, be able to offer any evidence to the contrary.

On the other hand, a telling indicator of just how Republicans and science don't walk hand in hand is one found in a 2009 Pew Research poll. In a survey of over 2,500 scientists, only 6% self-identified as Republicans, while 55% labeled themselves as Democrats and 32% as Independents.

The degree to which Republicans voters are oblivious to what a small percentage of scientists identify with Republican politics is reflected by a related survey of the general public. While 64% of the respondents believed scientists on the whole are neither particularly conservative nor particularly liberal, with only 20% believing scientists are particularly liberal, 56% of the scientists surveyed identified the scientific community as politically liberal, with only 2% identifying it as conservative.

That same poll highlights how Republican politics have interfered with sound science policies. Conducted a few months after President George W. Bush left office, in response to a question about the accuracy of "claims that government scientists were not allowed to report research findings that conflicted with the Bush administration’s point of view," 77% of responding scientists believed this to be true, with only 6%—the same percentage identifying themselves as Republican—believing it false.

The Pew findings are far from isolated. For example, by 2008 15,000 U.S. scientists had signed a statement criticizing the Bush administration for "[m]isrepresenting and suppressing scientific knowledge for political purposes," "undermin[ing] the quality and independence of the scientific advisory system and the morale of the government’s outstanding scientific personnel," and "advocating policies that are not scientifically sound, [along with] misrepresent[ing] scientific knowledge and misled[ing] the public about the implications of its policies."

More specific charges include:

  • dropping highly qualified scientists from scientific advisory committees and replacing them with "individuals associated with or working for industries subject to regulation have been appointed to these bodies";
  • censoring scientists in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, and the Interior "when scientific findings are in conflict with the administration's policies or with the views of its political supporters"; and
  • "consistently misrepresent[ing] the findings of the National Academy of Sciences, government scientists, and the expert community at large […] in support of the president’s decision to avoid regulating emissions that cause climate change."

Charges that the Bush administration attempted to skew or censor scientific research have come from the top levels of the government's own scientific community. In 2004, for example, James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Sciences, went public with his belief that (as the New York Times summarized in 2006) "government climate scientists were being muzzled" on the topic of global warming.

Despite the near unanimity of the scientific community that human activity is contributing to global warming, when in mid 2014 PolitiFact went looking for Republican lawmakers who were on record as sharing this belief, they came up with only eight out of the 273 in Congress at the time. A former member of this cohort chalked it up to Republicans playing politics.

"There used to be a lot more of us [who believe the consensus among climate scientists]," Greenwood told PolitiFact. "A lot of us were very green in our voting records. That has changed. I think it's part of the phenomenon of the polarization of the Congress."

If that's true, it means that Republican lawmakers are more interested in playing down to the ignorance of rank-and-file Republican voters—to the point of forwarding science-related policies that contravene the ones urged by scientists—than in educating them.

Climatology isn't the only scientific realm in which Republicans either pander to ignorant voters or are ignorant themselves. For example, as the New York Times noted in 2013, a dozen states have passed laws outlawing abortions of fetuses beyond 20 weeks on the logic that fetuses can feel pain this early, a Republican talking point that directly conflicts with the best medical evidence on the subject, such as a 2005 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that the available evidence "indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester."

Rather than ostracize the most scientifically ignorant of their cohort, Republicans routinely move them to the head of the class for the presidential nomination. For example, during the 2011 election season presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann suggested a link between the HPV vaccine and mental retardation. A few months later Rick Santorum, a frontrunner for the nomination, suggested a link between abortions and breast cancer. And don’t forget 2008 Republican nominee for vice-president Sarah Palin, who labeled money spent on fruit-fly research as was wasteful because it wasn't for the public good, despite the fact that fruit flies are one of the most valuable assets for studying genetics, (Not that Palin understands such matters, what with being a disbeliever in Darwinian evolution.)

That the Republican Party as a whole, and not just a few irresponsible outliers, is responsible for the anti-scientism so prevalent in what is otherwise the most scientifically advanced country in the world is evident from who the Republicans recently put in charge of three committees directly tied to science. Upon gaining control of the Senate, Republicans appointed Marco Rubio to chair the Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard; Ted Cruz to chair the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness; and James Inhofe to chair the Environment and Public Works Committee.

The apparent scientific ignorance of all three is evident from statements each has made. Rubio, for example, is on record as saying there is "significant scientific debate" about whether global warming is occurring, and that even if it is there is no evidence that it is human-related, a stance that puts him into direct conflict with the whole of the scientific community, including the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an organization Rubio will now oversee.

For his part, Cruz told CNN last year that "[during] the last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming," a patently false statement by all measures. While Cruz may have picked up his false belief from a passing familiarity with what's been labeled the "global warming hiatus," had Cruz actually educated himself about the findings—such as have been discussed extensively by NASA, an organization the now falls under Cruz's purview—he would have realized that the so-called "hiatus" actually signifies a slowdown in the increase of air temperate over this period, not a reversal of the trend. And as Norman Loeb, an atmospheric scientist at NASA's 's Langley Research Center, explained in an August 2014 lecture on the subject, even that slowdown is probably only temporary, and global warming is not confined to air temperature. (Ironically, in terms of air temperature, 2014 was the warmest year on record, with the top 10 all occurring since 1998.)

Inohofe's appointment may be worst of all. Author of The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, in March 2012 Inohofe attempted to debunk the notion that humankind is contributing to global warming by citing the Bible—specifically, Genesis 8:22. "‘As long as the Earth remains, there will be springtime harvests, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night,'" Inhofe told Crosstalk host Vic Eliason. "My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is, to me, outrageous."

Only Inohofe can say why he believes the Bible is a better source for climatological information than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose findings include endorsements by NOAA and the U.S. by the National Research Council. Were he to consult the IPCC, he would find the following in a November 2014 report:

Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems. […] Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia. The atmosphere and ocean have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, and sea level has risen.

There is nothing preventing Republicans from becoming more engaged with science. There is nothing about being socially or fiscally conservative that bars one from being scientifically informed.

Presumably there are many Republicans lawmakers who do, in fact, possess relatively proficiency in basic science. But until those Republicans outnumber their ignorant counterparts—or at least are willing to call them out for their ignorance—science in these United States will continue to be abused, perhaps to the point where we will all pay dearly, regardless of political affiliation.


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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