4 Anti-Science Politicians In Charge of Our Science Policy


Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the head of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, is working on legislation to compel the National Science Foundation (NSF) to adopt three criteria for justifying every research grant. Specifically, according to draft language, the NSF director would be required to publish a statement on the foundation's website certifying that every new grant award is:

1. In the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2. The finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3. Not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.

In comparison, the NSF's current guidelines only ask grant applicants to outline "1) the intellectual merit and 2) the broader impacts of the proposed activity" as part of the merit review process. As Scientific American's Ashutosh Jogalekar points out, Representative Smith's so-called "High Quality Research Act" "demonstrates an almost complete ignorance of how science actually works." "Curiosity-driven research with no immediate application or goal is what has primarily led to science’s greatest discoveries as well as our high standard of living. It is what has led to the ascendancy of American science during the 20th century. If you want great discoveries to happen, the recipe is clear; get the best scientists together and leave them alone," Jogalekar elaborates.

Unfortunately, Representative Smith's attack on the scientific process is only the latest example of a member of Congress displaying an anti-science bent. Here's a look at some of the other worst offenders.

1. Representative Paul Broun (R-Ga.)

Broun, another member of the House Science Committee, may beat out even Lamar Smith for the dubious honor of being the most anti-science politician in America. In a September 2012 speech, the Georgia congressman said:

"All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don't believe that the Earth's but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them."

It is one thing to struggle to reconcile sincerely held religious beliefs with scientific evidence. It is quite another to flat-out equate evolution, embryology, and the Big Bang Theory to the work of the Devil. Similarly, Broun's declaration that "there is no scientific consensus" on climate change, which he labels a "hoax," is as misleading a representation of real-world circumstances as President Gerald Ford's famous 1976 claim that "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe."

2. Representative John Shimkus (R-Ill.)

Shimkus earns a spot on this list for his noted climate change skepticism. "If we decrease the use of carbon dioxide are we not taking away plant food from the atmosphere?" the Illinois congressman, who vied for the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship in 2010, asked at a hearing. Of course, the concern over carbon dioxide emissions stems from the fact that the rate of emissions greatly exceeds the rate at which plants are removing them. But have no fear about catastrophic climate change or the general consequences of human action. According to Shimkus, pointing to biblical verses in Genesis and Matthew, "The earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood."

3. Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas)

Although Barton may be most famous for apologizing to the CEO of BP after the company spilled almost five million barrels of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, like Shimkus, he's on this list because of his climate-change skepticism. For example, Barton characterized wind as "God's way of balancing heat" in 2009 and thus questioned whether wind turbines "slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up." Furthermore, just last month he described the biblical Great Flood as proof that climate change is not anthropomorphic: “I would point out that if you're a believer in the Bible, one would have to say the Great Flood is an example of climate change and that certainly wasn't because mankind had overdeveloped hydrocarbon energy.” As reporter Michael Ross points out, this logic does not hold up even for people of faith. Barton's line of thinking, Ross writes, "would be sort of like arguing that girls are not necessarily born from other women because, this one time, one came from a man's ribs."

Of course, Barton is also noted for claiming on Twitter to have "baffled" Energy Secretary Steven Chu with a question on the origin of oil in Alaska and the North Pole, despite the Nobel laureate patiently offering a lesson on plate tectonics in the face of Barton's own baffling theory about "a big pipeline that we’ve created in Texas and shipped it up there and put it under ground so we can now pump it up and ship it back."

4. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)

Like other members on this list, Bachmann is a noted climate-change skeptic, labeling the idea "all voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax." But she has also made statements of questionable scientific merit on many other issues. "There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel prizes, who believe in intelligent design," she remarked in 2006 without providing names. Perhaps most troubling of all, she characterized HPV vaccinations as having "dangerous consequences" in a 2011 presidential debate and insinuated that they can cause mental retardation. This sparked furious backlash from medical experts, with the American Academy of Pediatrics noting that her claims have "absolutely no scientific validity." As Bachmann herself once observed, "I just take the Bible for what it is ... and recognize that I am not a scientist, not trained to be a scientist. I'm not a deep thinker on all of this."