November 25, 2011 6:57 pm

Why doesn’t America like science?

Just three Republican candidates have declared that they believe in the scientific basis for evolution

Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York, does not often hide his views. When he recently addressed an international economic forum at Columbia University, on the seemingly “dull” topic of science and politicians, however, his words were incendiary, even by his standards.

“We have presidential candidates who don’t believe in science!” he lamented, referring to the current field of people jostling to become Republican candidate for the 2012 elections. “I mean, just think about it, can you imagine a company of any size in the world where the CEO said, ‘oh I don’t believe in science’ and that person surviving to the end of that day? Are you kidding me? It’s mind-boggling!”

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It is a comment that many observers might echo, particularly among the ranks of American scientists. For while Bloomberg did not specify whom he considers to be “mind-boggling”, the list of targets is long. Thus far, just three of the eight potential Republican candidates have positively declared that they believe in the scientific basis for evolution. The rest have either hedged, or – like Rick Perry – claimed that evolution is just “a theory that is out there... [but] it’s got some gaps in it”. Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann, another contender, has actively called for creationism to be taught too, since she has similar doubts about the evolutionary science.

Newt Gingrich has cast doubt on the virtues of stem cell research, Herman Cain has questioned whether there is any scientific evidence behind homosexuality, and most of the candidates have queried climate change. Indeed, whenever any candidate has defended evidence-based science, they have suffered a backlash: witness the travails of Mitt Romney.

In some senses, this is not surprising. A recent survey by the National Science Foundation found that 45 per cent of Americans support evolution (barely more than those who actively reject it). There is similar scepticism about climate change.

The views that Bloomberg considers “mind-boggling” are not outliers, or not outside the coastal areas such as New York, where he resides.

But common or not, the spread of this sentiment is leaving many American scientists alarmed. Last month, New Scientist magazine warned in an editorial that science is now under unprecedented intellectual attack in America. “When candidates for the highest office in the land appear to spurn reason, embrace anecdote over scientific evidence, and even portray scientists as the perpetrators of a massive hoax, there is reason to worry,” it thundered. Some 40,000 scientists have now joined a lobby group called Science Debate, which was founded four years ago with the aim of getting more scientific voices into the political arena. “There is an entire generation of students today who have been taught that there is no objective truth – who think that science is just another opinion,” says Shawn Lawrence Otto, co-founder of Science Debate, who told me that the “situation today is much worse than in 2008”.

This is paradoxical. Historically, science has commanded respect in America. It was Abraham Lincoln, after all, who founded the National Academy of Sciences, and during the cold war, there was heavy investment in science, as America reeled from its “Sputnik moment” (or fears that it was being outflanked by the USSR). Innovation continues to be worshipped, particularly when it produces entrepreneurial companies and clever gadgets (think Apple’s iPad).

Nothing causes more fear among American politicians than the idea that America is “falling behind” countries such as China in science. And another recent survey by the National Science Foundation shows that more than half of Americans consider scientists to have a “prestigious” profession, a higher rating than bankers, doctors, politicians and priests. Only firefighters command more respect.

Why? Some observers might be tempted to blame this paradox on the rise of the religious right: while the craft of science might be respected, its conclusions are not. Others point to powerful commercial concerns (such as oil companies), who have a vested interest in twisting debate, and attacking science they dislike. Another line of thinking blames the polarisation of the media and political class: when there is an emphasis on partisan shrieking, there is less room for reasoned debate.

But Otto of Science Debate likes to blame another factor: the impact of social sciences. Since the 1960s, he argues, society has been marked by a growing sense of cultural relativism, epitomised by anthropology. And as post-modernist ideas spread, this has undermined the demand for scientific evidence. Today, any idea can be promoted as worthy, irrespective of facts – and tolerated in the name of “fairness”.

I suspect that this overstates anthropology: the discipline has been somewhat introverted and has little political power. But leaving aside that quibble, it is hard to disagree with Otto’s basic point – that in today’s political climate there is far too little evidence-based, reasoned debate. In that spirit it is worth noting that Otto himself is now urging scientists not to shun the Republican Party. On the contrary, “I am encouraging them to join”, to influence the debate, he says. It would be nice to think – or hope – it could make a difference. Maybe Bloomberg could donate some cash.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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