Tea Party is Unfairly Labeled 'Anti-Science'

By Alex B. Berezow

Insults tend to be thrown about promiscuously during campaign seasons, and Election 2010 has been no different.  The group which has been on the receiving end of a disproportionate amount of popular wrath has been the Tea Party, an organization that has been called "bigoted," "racist," "homophobic," "Islamophobic," "dumb," and now "anti-science."  Volumes could be written refuting the puerile charges thrown at these citizens, but let's take a closer look at the last one, "anti-science."

A recent post at Southern Fried Science sums up the critics' arguments:

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The Tea Party movement is anti-science. They believe global warming to be a hoax. They believe that evolution isn't real. They are against stem cell research.

The critics then present their closing argument by trotting out and hammering away at America's easiest target, Delaware Senate Candidate Christine O'Donnell, who, among other things, is on the record opposing evolution and talking about mice with human brains.  Case closed, right?  Not exactly.

The critics' strongest argument for the Tea Party being labeled "anti-science" is that some of their members have an unreasonable opposition to evolution.  The fact of the matter is that scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports Darwin's theory, and when it comes to explaining the history of life on Earth, though imperfect, it's the best game in town.  The theory, however, does not prove or deny the existence of God, so the Tea Party's religious objections to evolution are simply misplaced.  Additionally, pushing a particular philosophical or religious agenda in biology class is not the most appropriate forum, but it hardly represents the downfall of western science, as Tea Party critics routinely exaggerate.  Overall, the critics are correct on this point, but the threat to science they perceive is wildly overblown.

Another reason critics call the Tea Party anti-science is because of their opposition to anthropogenic global warming.  However, the opposition to global warming is a much more complicated issue because along with the science comes certain policy implications.  When conservatives hear, "man-made global warming," what they really hear is, "cap and trade."  And that makes them think of taxes, President Obama, the United Nations, and all sorts of other liberal boogeymen.  Whether or not that association is fair, the political context of this issue must be taken into account.  Besides, a recent NY Times piece demonstrated that conservative Kansas citizens, who aren't big fans of man-made global warming, were eager to embrace clean energy as a way to decrease dependence on foreign oil.  So, as long as climate change is framed in a way that appeals to conservatives, then it is likely that groups such as the Tea Party will go along with it.

Furthermore, the anti-science label for those Tea Partiers who oppose embryonic stem cell (ESC) research is downright absurd.  ESC research raises substantial bioethical issues, and the field needs to have strict guidelines.  While it is inappropriate and incorrect to compare ESC research to abortion, simply having misgivings about the research are in no way tantamount to being anti-science.  On the contrary, as Jeff Goldblum's character in Jurassic Park said, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."  Intelligent people should be able to disagree on the ethics of such practices without being attacked personally.

Finally, it should be pointed out that many of those (usually on the Left) who attack the Tea Party for being anti-science fail to realize that they have political allies who could easily be labeled anti-science.  The opposition to nuclear power, genetically-modified crops, vaccines, and animal research could all reasonably be labeled anti-science.  Yet these positions, which are hostile to mainstream science, come from the Left end of the spectrum, not the Right.

It is not a good thing when complex scientific issues are over-simplified and politicized.  While some members of the Tea Party might be engaging in this behavior, it does not characterize the entire movement.  And more likely than not, the Tea Party critics are guilty of the same crime.  So let's put away the "anti-science" label for now.

Alex B. Berezow is the Editor of RealClearScience.  He holds a Ph.D. in microbiology.