The Republicans’ war on science and reason
The 18th century was defined, in many ways, by the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement based on the idea that reason, rational discourse and the advancement of knowledge, were the critical pillars of modern life. The leaders of the movement inspired the thinking of Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin; its tenets can be found in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. But more than 200 years later, those basic tenets — the very notion that facts and evidence matter — are being rejected, wholesale, by the 21st-century Republican Party.
The contempt with which the party views reason is staggering. Republicans have become proudly and unquestionably anti-science. (It is their litmus test, though they would probably reject the science behind litmus paper.) With the exception of Jon Huntsman, who polls about as well as Darwin would in a Republican primary, the Republican presidential candidates have either denied the existence of climate change, denied that it has been caused — and can be reversed — by man, or apologized for once holding a different view. They have come to this conclusion not because the science is inconclusive, but because they believe, as a matter of principle, that scientific evidence is no evidence at all.
It’s on that basis that Ron Paul can say of evolution, “I think it’s a theory and I don’t accept it as a theory.” It’s on that basis that Rick Perry can call evolution “it’s a theory that’s out there, but one that’s got some gaps in it.” And it’s on that same basis, that same rejection of science, that Perry can say, “I’m not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely how old the earth is.”
Then there’s Michele Bachmann, who has embraced the idea that the HPV vaccine can cause mental retardation, although not a single piece of medical evidence backs up her claim. How, then, did she come to that conclusion? That’s simple: A woman came up to her at a debate and told her so. Scientific evidence is anathema; superstitious and anecdotal asides, on the other hand, deserve to be repeated and amplified on a national stage, the consequences, in this case to countless women and girls, be damned.
This kind of guttural rejection of reason, evidence and science trickles into just about every aspect of Republican ideology. There’s Herman Cain’s much-discussed 9-9-9 plan, for example, which has been eviscerated by independents, conservative and progressive economists alike, but which Cain continues to champion. Why? Because, he argues, the skeptics haven’t read his analysis yet — as if he is entitled not just to his own facts but to his own math. It’s that same worldview that makes Cain comfortable, when asked about the Occupy Wall Street protests, to say, “I don’t [have] facts to back this up, but I happen to believe …” Without facts, does it really matter how he finished the sentence?