A science believer among 21st century know-nothings

We once predicted science would rule this century, but America has become so dominated by magical thinking that it makes news when a GOP candidate speaks out on behalf of science.

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Republican presidential primary candidate, Ambassador to China, and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.

We once predicted science would rule this century, but America has become so dominated by magical thinking that it makes news when a GOP candidate speaks out on behalf of science.

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has little chance of winning the GOP presidential nomination for 2012, but he is breaking away from the pack in one way: Telling us he is the Republican candidate running who believes in science.

While most other candidates have rushed to the far right to assert their conservative-base bona fides, Huntsman has begun to worry that the anti-evolution, global-warming-denying Republican red meat is a losing proposition. 

He has recently asserted his own belief in evolution and man-made climate change. Last week he tweeted: "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

In the current political climate, it's time to bring out the straitjacket. He "trusts" scientists? You mean the guys who faked the moon landing? 

We might worry about the decline of confidence in government in recent decades. Both the right and left have taken shots at federal power and authority. Before the Tea Party there were Yippies. And who didn't emerge from Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-Contra without skepticism? Science was once utopian, then became a practical problem-solver, then part of the problem. We once dreamed of going to the stars, now many are in firm denial that there's anything wrong here on earth that a liberated free market and religious faith can't solve — science be damned.

Huntsman worries about the anti-science slant of the current GOP presidential crop. Michelle Bachmann makes up facts, Rick Perry holds mass prayer meetings, Ron Paul is the most extreme in touting a new voodoo economics, Mitt Romney is a denier of his own accomplishments, and Newt Gingrich believes he can win the presidency from a deck chair. "I think there's a serious problem," Huntsman says. "The minute that the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party — we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012."

He goes further: "I can't remember a time in our history where we actually were willing to shun science and become a party that was antithetical to science. I'm not sure that's good for our future and it's not a winning formula."

In Seattle, you can see the contrast. The Pacific Science Center was one of the main legacies of a national science fair, and Century 21 was a festival of science. Many other expo sites have also been the location of science centers: New York, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle among them. Our science center was due to the efforts of a liberal Democratic senator, Warren Magnuson, and spearheaded by a major Republican businessman, Eddie Carlson, who chaired the board as the Science Center transitioned from federal pavilion to permanent civic amenity. It was also headed by the conservative and hard-headed scientist, Dr. Dixy Lee Ray. Science was once not only bipartisan, but counted conservatives among its champions.

I wonder, though, if Huntsman is correct that the anti-science stances being enthusiastically vocalized by Perry et al are really all that unpopular, even beyond the GOP base and religious right. We thought the 21st Century would be a time of science and technology, but it has also seen the public embrace magical thinking on a mass scale — beyond the simple reading of horoscopes.

There are a plethora of Birthers, Truthers, Climate- and Default-deniers who have the means to trumpet conspiracy theories that were once the realm of the easy-to-ignore Lyndon Larouche guys. I remember as a kid sending off for info about the Flat Earth Society and receiving some mimeographed handouts by mail from a P.O. Box in the Arizona desert. Now, you'd get the same stuff nightly on Fox or from a GOP front-runner.

But the American public also consistently believes it can have all the benefits of government without personally paying for them. We can cut the budget without touching Social Security, Medicare, or defense. That we can continue destructive consumption and "grow" our way back to a vibrant economy that runs on the same rules that wrecked the old.

We have a major chunk of the electorate who believed that if they clicked their heels at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009, things would be all better. I remember hearing a woman yelling in the food stamp line weeks after Obama's election that he'd already failed to shorten them, and he wasn't even president yet. Appealing to hope unleashed magical thinking on a tsunami scale. Expectations have been almost impervious to a rational assessment of realities.

Many of the anti-science sentiments are firmly embedded in public opinion. Forty percent of Americans say they believe in the literal Biblical creation story. We are complex creatures of logic, faith, and nonsense and, in difficult times, nonsense often wins out. Especially with the invisible hand of science (or Twitter) behind it.

I went to a scholarly lecture a few years ago during which a historian discussed the propaganda war at the 1937 Paris Exposition. The new technology of television was demonstrated in Albert Speer's German pavilion. America, the scholar said, understood immediately the commercial advantages of the new technology to sell stuff. So did the Germans, but they were thinking of the government's ability to manipulate people with emotion. American got Proctor & Gamble, the Germans turned the new medium over to Joseph Gobbels and the Nazi propaganda machine. As we know, Hitler, one of the last century's most destructive magical thinkers, was not a friend of reason. In fact, it drove him crazy.

If Ronald Reagan, a former New Deal Democratic, articulated the idea that the "government is the problem," he was, in a sense, the 20th century's most powerful flower child. The questioning of authority here had been most recently a bohemian enterprise. But since so much of the science of the post-World War II period (and even much of the post-World War I era) was publicly funded with federal grants, since science and the defense build-up of the Sputnik era was national policy, since government and commercial interests bound themselves so closely together by selling science as the answer to all things, it shouldn't surprise us that the erosion of belief in authority would impact these two pillars of it.

You really do get a sense of how different things are. Rick Perry alleges that climate scientists are conspiring to sell us a false vision of climate and potential threat. In the past, America treated scientists as powerful, mostly male know-it-alls in suits and white coats to be respected — to run things. The commitment to science has now been undercut by our own disappointments: Technology produced losers, not only winners, and science hasn't been the promised panacea. Like teens in rebellion, we're dismissing what our parents told us, right and left, and we're tuned in to our own channels.

The problem with science is an American problem because it means fighting our way back to a place where theories can be debated, tested, and explored in rational ways. Yet democracy has a strong bias toward the irrational and emotional for relying on beliefs — faith, patriotism, and fear. In short, we are susceptible to manipulation. It has been always thus. American democracy's symbols once were the things that fueled the electorate: The whiskey jug and hard-cider flask. ("Tippecanoe and Tyler too!")

Education, the rise of the middle class, applied social sciences, humanism, separation of church and state, and government by rational problem-solving were supposed to put an end to all that. But instead, we've been driven into faith-based corrals, hoping magic will save our jobs, reduce our taxes, bring us enlightened leadership and life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — all without having to be fully engaged. The King County August primary turnout this year, despite all mail-in voting, was just over 30 percent.

Jon Huntsman is right and brave (or beyond caring) in criticizing his party for its anti-science slant. But it is also a bigger issue of democracy, human nature, technology, power, and faith. Science is a stand-in for reason, collegiality, technological progress, and shared reality. We're treating those like an ill-fitting suit these days.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.