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Science and the GOP

Science and the GOP

In the wake of Marco Rubio’s recent interview in which he claimed that the age of the Earth was “a dispute among theologians," the Republican Party’s science problem has resurfaced as an issue.

According to Rubio, “I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that (the age of the Earth).” By that logic, only a meteorologist can tell it is raining and only a chemist can tell us that the rain is made of water.

The other fallacy propagated by Rubio in that interview is the old canard that evolution is “just a theory.” Gravity is also just a theory. Shall we start pushing politicians out of airplanes to see if it’s a valid theory? The false “just a theory” argument is borne of ignorance of the scientific process. It is easy to confuse the common use of the word “theory” with the exact, specific and verifiably valid scientific process of the same name.

When this confusion forms the premise of your argument, you’ve already lost the argument by revealing your misunderstanding. Yet this premise has persisted in Republican circles for years, along with a host of other false, anti-science “facts” that form the support for some people’s view of politics, apparently including Senator Rubio.

Growing up in small town Texas, I learned that plate tectonics was a hoax, the Earth was only 10,000 years old, there are no transitional fossils, radiocarbon dating is fake and humans were created whole cloth in God’s image.

All of this was years after the US Navy sonar-mapped the oceans, Edwin Hubble observed galaxies flying apart, Penzias &Wilson found the residue radiation from the Big Bang, paleontologists began discovering pre-human hominid fossils along with hundreds of transitional animal forms, geological measures repeatedly validated radiocarbon dating and Watson & Crick cracked the structure of DNA.

It’s especially ironic when these falsehoods are propagated on the internet, a technology based on quantum mechanics, a field of science that confirms much of the scientific understanding of the universe and its origins. It is also the foundational science behind CAT scans and many other modern technologies.

In fact, if you propose that DNA technology is wrong and humans can’t be genetically tracked back to early ape-like species with which we share 90 percent of our DNA, than you must also advocate releasing every murderer and rapist convicted with DNA technology. If one is fake, then so is the other; it’s the same technology.

I don’t write this to disparage anyone’s religious beliefs, only to highlight the fact that when those beliefs bump up against foundational science and proven technology; it is easy to make those beliefs look ridiculous to a majority of Americans.  And so it is with Marco Rubio.

Despite overwhelming belief in God (92 percent according to Gallup), only 40percent of Americans persist in accepting some pre-modern views on the origins of the universe and the human species. That’s far higher than any other developed country except Muslim-dominated Turkey.  The evangelical base of the Republican Party makes up the majority of those holding those views.

Therein lies the political problem. Reporters will continue to ask these sorts of questions for this very reason. Marco Rubio’s awkward pander to the base separates him from the 60 percent and growing portion of the population that doesn’t think Jonah literally lived in a whale or that Noah managed to get to Florida to collect a pair of swamp newts.

Moreover, this basic misunderstanding of science (Marco Rubio is actually on the Science and Space sub-committee) leads to many other misunderstandings that prove politically toxic; “legitimate rape” comes immediately to mind. If you accept a magical, meta-scientific worldview, you can fall for all kinds of quack theories that follow from it and you set yourself up for scandal and mockery when those views are revealed to a skeptical electorate.

Todd Akin didn’t lose because of the TEA party; he beat two TEA party candidates in the primary who split almost 60 percent of the vote. Akin squeaked by holding his 36 percent evangelical base. But his views didn’t sell to a general electorate.  Case after case we see the same thing, media labeled TEA partiers who lost due to their religiously-motivated anti-science views…Angle, Mourdock, Akin, O”Donnell, Buck, the list goes on and on.

For all of the Democrats faults (and they are legion), they have successfully occupied the public space for objective and rational view of the physical world (setting aside climate change “science” which is infused with so much interest group politics and secular religion as to be a wholly separate case).

That leaves the GOP in a tough position representing minority views that seem increasingly at odds with scientific fact and public understanding. It also makes our legitimate criticisms of climate change seem less credible.

Apart from the cultural sensitivities that this raises; it is a political problem for the GOP. It is a political weapon so powerful that it can re-elect written off for dead senator Claire McCaskill and send an Indiana liberal Democrat senator to Washington even as the state votes for Mitt Romney by 11 points over President Obama.

Republican candidates and spokespersons must start responding to these types of questions in a fact-based manner. For every Biblical literalist they anger, there are more voters who will breathe a sigh of relief. Marco Rubio tried to have it both ways and ended up looking clueless and spineless to both sides.

The Republican Party has tried to fence sit on this issue for years, but our constantly improving scientific understanding along with an electorate which is increasingly accepting of the “science-based” view of the world make it a losing bet.  The GOP is in desperate need of a scientific reformation.  It probably starts by putting people on the Senate Science and Space sub-committee who know that the Earth is c. 4.5 billion years old and, just as importantly, why we know that is the case.

Evangelicals are an important and welcomed part of the GOP coalition, but they can’t continue to cost us election after election. If literalist rhetoric is making us politically uncompetitive and undermining our credibility among swing voters and educated suburbanites, then it is better to market to the 60 percent who don’t hold those views.

It’s not a matter of philosophy or ideology; it’s a strategic and practical necessity if we want to govern.  We should never attack people for there views, but the only reason a political party exists is to obtain or retain political power. We must, therefore, not permit those views to dominate and define the party when they are at odds with our strategic and tactical objectives.


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