GOP is an anti-science party of nuts (sorry, Atlantic!)

Meet the newest false equivalence: The right and left are equally pro-science because ... nuclear power. Huh?

Published November 13, 2013 9:10PM (EST)

Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee                                                 (AP/Lm Otero/Stacy Bengs/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Mike Huckabee (AP/Lm Otero/Stacy Bengs/J. Scott Applewhite)

The Atlantic published an article on Tuesday by Mischa Fisher arguing that Republicans have been unfairly characterized as “anti-science.” The piece begins with the lofty assertion that, “Republicans, conservatives, and the religious are no more uniquely 'anti-science' than any other demographic or political group. It’s just that 'anti-science' has been defined using a limited set of issues that make the right wing and religious look relatively worse.”

It’s another faux-moderate piece where “everyone is to blame,” for underfunding and misunderstanding science. Fisher calls himself a “centrist,” which is hard to square with his bio: “Mischa Fisher is a former Republican science-policy staffer and legislative director in the House of Representatives.”

But let’s look at the case. Fisher starts with global warming, arguing that “the vast majority” of Republicans accept anthropogenic climate change, the problem is, “Conservatives believe many of the policies put forward to address the problem will lead to unacceptable levels of economic hardship. It's not inherently anti-scientific to oppose cap and trade or carbon taxes.” This statement is dubious on three grounds.

First, it’s not true. As ThinkProgress notes, “almost 58 percent — of congressional Republicans refuse to accept it [global warming].” Second, global warming entails vast and unequal economic consequences, meaning that if we have to sacrifice some economic growth today for more in the future, that is a reasonable decision. And third, Republicans have opposed every Democratic-led initiative to fight climate change, from Waxman-Markey, to carbon taxes to regulation through the EPA (that were based on the estimated cost per ton of carbon dioxide). If Fisher really wants to argue that Republicans understand the science of global warming, he needs to prove they’ve done something other than oppose every effort to stop global warming on the dubious grounds that it will harm economic growth.

The next argument is classic. Fisher argues that for every right-wing denial of science, there’s a hippie lefty denial:

Left-wing ideologues also frequently espouse an irrational fear of nuclear power, genetic modification, and industrial and agricultural chemistry—even though all of these scientific breakthroughs have enriched lives, lengthened lifespans, and produced substantial economic growth over the last century.

This argument rests on a false equivalence. The science of global warming is accepted by 97 percent of climatologists.  In contrast, nuclear energy is still a very alive debate within the scientific community. I would happily debate Fisher on the merits of nuclear power (I’m still undecided) but it’s misleading to compare the two. Fisher also neglects the fact that many Democratic politicians are behind nuclear power (including Obama), so the point is moot, anyhow. As for GMOs, I’m unaware of any bills ever introduced by congressional Democrats to ban their use (the bill Fisher cites is about labeling -- and it was bipartisan), and it certainly isn’t in the Democratic platform -- while the 2012 Republican platform explicitly dismisses climate science and any attempts to curtail global warming. There certainly is an anti-scientific left, but it hasn’t gained control of the Democratic Party. The practicality of organic farming, like the nuclear power issue, remains a live debate in scientific circles (again, certainly not at the threshold of universal acceptance that global warming has reached).

For good measure, Fisher throws in a Solyndra reference:

Yet at the same time, billions of stimulus dollars were being lost on failed investments in the alternative-energy sector. Just the failed loans to Solyndra and Abound Solar would have kept the Tevatron operating for a decade.

First off, this is a question of politics and economics, not science. Alternative energy is an important part of Obama’s all-of-the-above strategy (which, remember, includes the nuclear power Fisher is so excited about) and stimulus spending was justified because of the recession. Scientific research is an important part of what the Congress does, but it's not stimulative. So it would be absurd for the stimulus package to include money to keep the Tevatron open. Instead the stimulus package invested in energy efficiency ($29 billion), renewable energy ($21 billion), high-speed railway ($18 billion), research into carbon capture ($3 billion) among other investments.

Solyndra was one of many investments, and it’s expected that some of the companies that received a loan guarantee would fail, but the number of bankrupt firms has actually been rather low. As it happens, often research projects fail to produce results, but we don’t stop performing research. Fisher’s argument here appears to be that Obama should look into the future and determine which investments and research projects will reap rewards.

Fisher argues that it is not Republicans, but rather Obama (!) who is underfunding the basic sciences (with another Solyndra reference!):

For every cheap shot a Republican member of Congress like Senator Tom Coburn has taken at National Science Foundation grants (see the unfairly maligned robo-squirrel), there are areas where Obama has undercut American leadership in basic science by favoring loan guarantees and industrial subsidies to the alternative-energy industry at the expense of science elsewhere.

We've seen this in his proposed cuts to high-energy physics, nuclear physics, planetary science, and other areas of research. Even in the much-maligned “Tea Party-dominated” House of Representatives, the GOP budget proposals provided more funding for the NSF than those of the Senate Democrats for the current 2013 fiscal year.”

Again we have the (entirely unfounded) assertion that the stimulus package investments in green jobs came at the expense of “science elsewhere.” This is a policy/economics question, not a science denial question. Many scientists support a move toward a greener economy, and alternative energy is a necessary investment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and move away from fossil fuels. But, if we are talking politics, Obama has fought to get rid of the sequestration cuts that are decimating research. His budgets regularly include far more money for science research than the Republican budgets do. In contrast, Republicans are working to cut science spending. Reuters reports that, “The Republican [2014] proposals also would cut NASA's budget by $928 million compared to last year, cut another $198 million from the Department of Commerce and $259 million from the National Science Foundation, which funds an array of scientific research projects.”

Here’s how Science magazine reported on the sequestration:

The science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives has a long history of expressing bipartisan support for research. But science lobbyists have grumbled that the panel has become highly partisan in recent years, stacked with conservative Republicans who don’t necessarily believe that research spending is a high priority.

It’s ironic that Fisher is bringing up the National Science Foundation now, since six days before his article was published, Nature reported that, “calling for the National Science Foundation (NSF) to justify every grant it awards as being in the ‘national interest’ ... scientists raised concerns that ‘national interest’ was defined much too narrowly.”

Throughout the article Fisher throws in snipes like: “Set aside the fact that twice as many Democrats as Republicans believe in astrology, a pseudoscientific medieval farce.” Great, but the argument is about policy and policymakers, and when a Democrat goes on "Meet the Press" to advocate for teaching astrology in the schools, I’ll happily concede the point. But right now, it’s Republicans spinning crazy anti-scientific theories about birth control, stem-cell research, abortion and creationism and trying to enshrine them as policy.

Toward the end of the essay, Fisher makes a surprising concession:

Supporters of federal science funding, a group of which I am a card-carrying member, can ill afford to lose Republican support for science. But if it is perceived as a partisan litmus test, it will not continue to exist in its current state as the government's other financial obligations continue to grow. This may be stupid or petty and perhaps it ought not to matter whether or not it's perceived as a partisan issue, but I've been on the Hill and this is how politics works.

Translation: If we don’t all close our eyes and pretend the Republicans are playing fair, we’ll lose it all. This is essentially the same argument Very Serious People are making on tax reform, immigration reform, gun control and deficits: pretend the Republicans are moderates, or else you don’t get anything.

The last paragraph is positively bonkers,

So if you count yourself a supporter of NASA, a supporter of the National Science Foundation, a supporter of the NIH, or a supporter of the Department of Energy's science facilities and particle accelerators, don’t be goaded into a false dichotomy between those who support science and who oppose it. As Thomas Huxley said, “Science commits suicide when it adopts a creed.”

What is the false dichotomy between those who support science and those who oppose it? Scientists should actively war with any administration or politicians who opposes science. The Bush administration, for instance, happily filled up federal bureaucracies with partisans, and 60 scientists (including 20 Nobel laureates) wrote a letter criticizing him for “distorting and suppressing findings that contradict administration policies, stacking panels with like-minded and underqualified scientists with ties to industry, and eliminating some advisory committees altogether.” In contrast, the Obama administration has poured money into mapping the brain and political capital into fighting climate change (perhaps one reason 68 Nobel Prize-winning scientists signed a letter endorsing Obama).

There is a real dichotomy between those who support science and those who don’t -- and those who don’t are generally on the Republican side. One hundred and thirty-one members of the Republican caucus deny the science behind climate change. A disturbing 17 of those Republican members are on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. As to the Huxley quote, scientists need to treat themselves like any other lobby, and support candidates and policies that promote their profession and research. That means supporting Democrats, as most of them do (only 6 percent of scientists identify as Republicans). The false equivalence that blames both parties for the cuts to science funding, the lack of research and our inadequate response to global warming will only make it harder to shame the party responsible for its intransigence.  The idea that Republicans are anti-science isn’t a caricature. It’s a sad fact.

By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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