Can Obama Stop the War on Science?

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama warmed the hearts of progressives when he promised to change "the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology." And when he got into office, he took a number of steps that demonstrated his sincerity.

He abolished George W. Bush's restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research and announced that he was "directing the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making." His Department of Energy -- run by Nobel-winning physicist Steven Chu -- is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on exploring innovative new energy sources under its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), modeled on the Defense Department's DARPA. Obama also increased spending for the National Science Foundation. And he just announced a $250 million public-private partnership to improve math and science teaching.

All good stuff. But could eight years of an Obama administration undo the damage wrought by eight years of what American Prospect alum Chris Mooney termed "The Republican war on science" that characterized the Bush era? A lot of practical good can be done by the administration in encouraging scientific advancement. But chances are that the next Republican administration will start Bush's war all over again.

One of our two great parties -- and many, if not most, of the people who support it – decided some time ago that science was an enemy, and there's little reason to think it will change its stance any time soon. That doesn't mean that all Republican politicians are equally hostile to science. For instance, one suspects that a Mitt Romney administration would be somewhat less vigorous in its quashing of scientific advancement than a Sarah Palin administration. But as long as the GOP retains its current form, science will remain a political issue, with the partisan lines clearly drawn.

As in so many ways, America is just different from our friends in the industrialized democratic world when it comes to our views about science. The most important reason is that science is politicized here to a degree found in few other places. It's not a recent development -- the politicization of science in America can be traced back at least as far as the Scopes trial in 1925, where the forces of religious faith in that great media event were represented by three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan. But in the latter half of the 20th century, the ideological lines between the Republican and Democratic parties became more clearly drawn. The GOP evolved into the party that opposes secularism and its rational sidekick science, a process hastened by the emergence of the Christian right in the 1980s. Bush simply turned that antipathy into policy with particular zeal.

So few people were surprised when, at an early Republican debate for the 2008 presidential nomination, three candidates – Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, and Tom Tancredo – raised their hands when the group was asked who didn't believe in evolution. The irony of it is that among Western democracies, ours is the one with the longest and strongest tradition of separation between church and state, yet also the one where politicians must make the most ostentatious demonstrations of religious belief. In England or Germany or Sweden, a candidate for high office who proclaimed that he didn't believe in evolution would risk being laughed out of the race. Yet when Brownback was asked after that debate whether his views put him outside the mainstream, he replied, "Not in America." And he was right.

You get slightly different results depending on how you phrase it, but no matter how you ask the question, Americans just aren't buying the paradigm that underlies our entire understanding of the biological world. A Gallup poll taken last year found that only 39 percent of respondents "believe in the theory of evolution," while 24 percent said they didn't believe in it, and 36 percent didn't "have an opinion either way." When you give people some wiggle room to get God in there -- by offering them the possibility that evolution occurred, but God was guiding the process -- the number consenting to evolution approaches 50 percent (see here). Interestingly enough, the numbers on this question have been essentially unchanged since Gallup started asking the question in 1982, which, if nothing else, suggests that the "intelligent design" strategy hasn't resulted in any major shift in opinion.

Critically, there is a clear party split: Most Democrats accept evolution, while most Republicans don't. According to a 2008 Gallup poll, 60 percent of Republicans agreed that "God created humans as is within the last 10,000 years" (the number for Democrats was 38 percent). If you believe that, you have to believe the entire scientific community is engaged in a hoax that spans the globe, includes thousands of co-conspirators, and has been going on for decades.

But outside the United States, many more people accept evolution, and the issue isn't political. When a group of researchers led by Jon Miller of Michigan State University looked at opinions in 32 Western countries plus the U.S. and Japan, they found that only Turkey -- 99.8 percent Muslim -- had fewer people who accept evolution than we do. While political ideology had a significant effect on opinions about evolution in America, ideology had zero effect in Europe and Japan. In other words, European conservatives are no more likely to reject evolution than European liberals. "There is no major political party in Europe or Japan," the authors observed, "that uses opposition to evolution as part of its political platform."

Weirdly – for a country where "We're No. 1!" is such an article of faith – most Americans don't realize just how dominant their country is in scientific advancement. Japan might make better robots, and we ceded the creation of globe-destroying black holes to Europe when the Large Hadron Collider went live, but there is little question that the U.S. is the dominant scientific power in the world by any measure. We've produced 239 Nobel Prize winners in physics, chemistry, and medicine (the next-highest ranked are Germany with 85 and the U.K. with 80). People come from all over the world to study science in our universities. We invented the lightning rod, the cotton gin, the telegraph, the telephone, air conditioning, the copying machine, the cell phone, the laser, the microchip, the Internet, GPS, and Tivo. Yet when Pew asked Americans how U.S. scientific achievements rated, a paltry 17 percent said they were the best in the world, compared to the 31 percent who said they were average or below average.

Even though there weren't partisan differences on that question, it's clear that many Americans don't quite understand how critical their country's continuing investments in science and technology will be to its future success. So if you're a fan of science and rationality, enjoy the next few years. Barack Obama may have the upper hand against those who imagine that global warming is a hoax and abstinence-only education works, evidence be damned. He is keeping his promise to use the power of the federal government to serve the cause of scientific advancement, but the next Republican to sit in the Oval Office may put the same amount of effort into undermining it.

You may also like