Dear Wingnut, why are Republicans afraid of science?

Our undercover conservative answers two different Salon readers who want to know why the GOP seems anti-intellectual and anti-science.

Published May 11, 2009 5:30PM (EDT)

Dear Wingnut,

Why has the Republican Party (and, it seems, a large portion of the conservative movement in general) embraced such an anti-science, anti-intellectual position?  Growing up in a Republican household in the 1970s and '80s, I was exposed to the likes of William F. Buckley, Jack Kemp and others who promoted the GOP as a party that could tackle issues intelligently.  Basic sciences were supported, at least if seen as leading to improvements in business or defense.

Thirty years on, whatever intellectual elements that are left in the GOP seem to be drowned out by the likes of Limbaugh and Palin, who appear to be openly contemptuous of educated people.  Senators such as James Inhofe sneer at any science that may challenge their worldview.

Is this mind-set now integral to the GOP and the conservative movement?  Is there any path back to a party the embraces intelligence and scientific curiosity?



Dear Wingnut,

Are conservatives really anti-science? This would seem to be an odd position to hold, especially as you seem otherwise so keen on industry, commerce, business and enterprise. But this is what we conclude from attempts to restrict the teaching of evolution in public schools, denial (and outright denigration) of climate change, and the ridicule poured on anyone with any thoughts on how to minimize the damage being done to the environment. Sometimes it seems like Luddism; sometimes it seems like you haven't even noticed that you are attacking the basic laws of biology and physics in order to keep the tortuous logic for some  ideological convictions going.

Thanks for any answers.


Hello again. I continue to be encouraged by the number of responses this column receives each week. It shows that intellectual curiosity is alive and well on both sides of the political fence -- which brings me to this week's topic: Are conservatives really anti-science?

To me, the question is almost laughable on its face. Conservatives are pro-science and, as a general rule, pro-cost-benefit analysis and pro-thinking. It is conservatives who believed, as we now know to be true, that you can "shoot down a bullet with a bullet" and who believed a workable defense against ballistic missile attack was possible. And who utilized science and engineering and underwrote billions in research and development to prove it could be done and put in place a system that, while not perfect, is a significant improvement over the "throw up our hands because there is nothing we can do" approach it replaced.

As president, George W. Bush put a scientist in charge of the Energy Department and created the position of U.S. undersecretary of science; proposed an Advanced Energy Initiative that called for a quantum increase in funding available for research into and development of new, cutting-edge technologies to lead America to more abundant and stable energy supplies; and proposed the American Competitiveness Initiative to, in the words of former Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman, "fortify America's leadership in science through additional research funding in the physical sciences and by strengthening math and science education."

House Republicans, under Speaker Newt Gingrich, proposed doubling the budget for the National Institutes of Health and dramatically increased federal financial support for the fight against diabetes. And it was Bush who tried to put a risk-averse NASA back into the business of space exploration by proposing a return to the moon and manned flight to Mars.

I could go on but I think the conservative record is pretty strong on this point.

Let me say that I understand how Al's question is influenced by years of misleading rhetoric from presidential opponents who were vigorous in branding his administration "anti-science" because of the position it took on stem cell research.

To set the record straight, George W. Bush was the first president to propose federal funding for stem cell research. As Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said in August of 2004, "President Bush provided -- for the first time -- federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. The president's unprecedented decision allows for federal funding of research using existing stem cell lines that were derived before Aug. 9, 2001, with no limits on private funding of research."

Not exactly an anti-science position, is it?

To the extent that limitations were placed on federal funding, it was because of the ethics involved, not the science. Acting on the recommendation of a blue-ribbon commission that looked at the issue for some time, the president decided it would be unethical -- in the moral sense, not the legal one -- to act as those who believe embryonic stem cell research holds the cure to everything that ails us would have had him do.

I also understand how easy it is to take a single case or a lone issue and distort it in ways that give credence to the idea that science takes a back seat to politics.

Imagine this as a lead in the New York Times: "Caving in to political pressure, the Obama administration today released a budget that puts an end to research supporting the use of advanced technologies to generate hydrogen for use as a transportation fuel.

"Turning its back on years of promising research, the administration is putting a halt to what some scientists say is the potential for using carbon-emissions-free advanced nuclear technologies to generate hydrogen that could be used to fuel a new generation of emissions-free motor vehicles. The move is part of a continuing effort to downgrade the importance of research into certain technologies that may ease dependence on U.S. energy imports."

Or this: "Despite decades of study that support the idea it would be a safe repository in which to store the nation's nuclear waste, congressional Democrats today cut off funding for the proposed nuclear waste repository located in Nevada at Yucca Mountain.

"Ignoring volumes of scientific data that attest to Yucca Mountain's safety and suitability as a site for long-term storage, the Democrats instead acceded to the wishes of Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who personally opposes the project and voted to kill funding for the site.

"At the same time Democrats continue to look askance at the Global Nuclear Energy Project, first conceived by the Bush administration as a way to share the benefits of peaceful civilian nuclear technology with the developing world in a proliferation-resistant manner through the use of nuclear fuel reprocessing, a technology that could reduce the volume waste needing long term storage."

As long as enough people repeated it enough times, in the ways I have written here, you would pretty soon have people believing the Obama administration was anti-science or anti-technology.

To conclude, conservatives are not anti-science or anti-technology. If anyone is anti-science it is the global warming, excuse me, global climate change extremists who, ignoring the holes in their own theories and the inconsistencies in their own projections, are willing to cripple U.S. industrial manufacturing, energy production and the economy in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions.

I hope that helps.


By Glenallen Walken

Glenallen Walken is the pseudonym of a longtime conservative political operative who was an official in the George W. Bush administration.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Environment George W. Bush Global Warming Harry Reid Newt Gingrich Science