Think the Conservative War On Science Isn't Real? Just Ask a Scientist


Apart from medical and technical advances that make headlines for their ability to improve the average person's life, science and its role in public policy probably don't register much in the mind of the average citizen. In fact, a Pew Research poll shows that while Americans hold scientists in high regard, public funding for science is not a high priority. The same poll also shows that scientists regard the state of Americans' scientific knowledge as lacking and a "major problem." Science, like everything else, is political. As the public and elected officials are asked to consider the policy implications of scientific issues such as genetically modified food, climate change, and public-health issues (to name a few), basic knowledge of, and respect for, scientific principles are often found to be lacking.

One notorious example of this was the "legitimate rape" comment made by Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.) last spring, which indicated a stunning ignorance of reproductive biology. Suffice to say most women would not want him anywhere near public health policy decisions. Also last spring, Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) drafted a bill that would do away with the fundamental scientific process of peer review at the National Science Foundation, the chief governmental body responsible for funding scientific research. Under the bill, NSF funding would depend on proving that the research would promote health, prosperity, or other requirements. This is a distortion of how science is conducted worldwide and a great example of political interference with science.  And then there are the allegations that the Bush administration suppressed scientific data for political reasons. These instances reinforce the perception of some that the GOP are engaging in a "war on science.

The public at large is also often misguided in scientific matters, and the media is not always helpful. The association of vaccines with autism, scientifically without basis, became widespread among the American public in the late 1990s. Based on junk science by a discredited British gastroenterologist, millions of people were led to believe that a fundamental childhood vaccine was causing autism, leading some to decline to vaccinate their babies. This fearmongering is therefore dangerous to public health. The media was complicit in this under the guise of being "fair" and presenting "both sides" of the issue, as discussed in Seth Mnookin's excellent book, The Panic Virus. Mnookin also highlights how the presence of fluoride in the public water is opposed by some even today, 60-plus years after its introduction, also due to citizens' confusion between fluoride and the poisonous gas fluorine, which the press promoted. Small wonder the Pew poll showed that most scientists think the media do a poor job of educating the public. It is not always in their interest to present boring facts and analysis when a splashy story based on unfounded pseudo-science will attract more viewers/readers.

Despite everything, there is some good news. For example, Republican skepticism has also begun to decrease on the issue of climate change (although it still remains high). Despite Lamar Smith’s actions, House Republicans continue to fund the NSF at reasonable levels (even though the sequester has begun to take its toll). Prominent Republicans in recent years such as Bobby Jindal and Jon Huntsman have also been trying to change the culture of the party. Having said all that, progress is still slow going. The danger is how easily the public can be mislead or fail to be convinced by legitimate scientific consensus when public policy is at stake.