Today's GOP seems increasingly anti-science, but it wasn't always so. 80 years ago, the antiscience social conservatives were Democrats.
By Shawn Lawrence Otto | Jul 07, 2011 | Comments (12)
Today's GOP seems increasingly antiscience, which may explain why fifty-five percent of scientists polled in 2009 said they were Democrats, while only six percent said they were Republicans, compared to thirty-five and twenty-three percent of the general public, respectively.
But it doesn't have to be this way, and history suggests some striking insights into how it's gotten so extreme, and what may be in store for Republicans this election.
Early in the twentieth century the party identification of scientists was almost reversed. Republican Abraham Lincoln had created the National Academy of Sciences in 1863. Republican William McKinley, who is admired by Karl Rove, won two presidential elections, in 1896 and 1900, over the firey, charismatic, anti-evolution Democrat William Jennings Bryan. McKinley supported the creation of the Bureau of Standards, which would eventually become today's National Institutes of Science and Technology. Bryan’s strident campaigns of anti-evolutionism, culminating in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, helped to drive even more scientists toward the Republican party, just as today's extreme creationist politicians like Michele Bachmann are driving them toward the Democrats.
“We have many people even here who hasten to condemn evolution without having the remotest conception of what it is that they are condemning, nor the slightest interest in an objective study of the evidence in the case which is all that ‘the teaching of evolution’ means,” wrote an exasperated Republican, the Nobel physicist and CalTech president Robert A. Millikan, in the leading journal Science in 1923, “men whose decisions have been formed, as are all decisions in the jungle, by instinct, by impulse, by inherited loves and hates, instead of by reason. Such people may be amiable and lovable, just as is any house dog, but they are a menace to democracy and to civilization because ignorance and the designing men who fatten upon it control their votes and their influence.” He could have been talking of Geroge W. Bush, who believed in governing by his "gut."
Other prominent scientists noted the political divide. The great botanist Albert Spear Hitchcock, who would soon become director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wrote the following spring in the same journal that “it is absurd for a scientist to shiver with fear if he sees a black cat cross his path or if he walks under a ladder. It is equally absurd to believe that all Germans or all democrats, or all Roman Catholics … are undesirables and a menace to society.”
Originally growing out of the anti-federalist party of Thomas Jefferson, by the early 20thCentury the Democratic Party had become dominated on the national level by Southern religious conservatives, and was divided over culture war issues including evolution, the war on alcohol, restrictive immigration laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Catholic faith of Al Smith, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1928.
Republicans, by contrast, were the party of Lincoln and Roosevelt, of progressive optimism and tolerance married with environmentalism and finance – the party of rationalism and national parks. And by the 1930s, one of the most famous men in the world was a Republican scientist named Edwin Hubble. Hubble's work established the field of cosmology; he showed there were other galaxies outside the Milky Way, and that the universe was expanding, thus leading to the idea of the Big Bang. His protege, the great astrophysicist Allan Sandage, a Democrat, told me that Hubble took great delight in scheduling Democrats for telescope time on election day to prevent them from voting.
The press was different back then, too. Instead of ignoring much of the major science discoveries, or writing he-said-she-said accounts of mainstream scientists versus etreme outliers, they trumpeted science. Here's an example from Hubble's private papers, which I was lucky enough to examine when researching a film about him some years ago:
My, how times have changed, and yet my, how they stay the same.
Tags: Antiscience, Religion, Politics, Republicans, Democrats, Belief, Evolution, Creationism