In an August post about the return of the “war on science”—prosecuted by the political right—I drew a key distinction between attacks on knowledge that had occurred during the George W. Bush administration, and those we’re seeing now. To wit:
1. Bottom Up v. Top Down Anti-Science Attacks. Clearly, the U.S. Republican right has remained at “war” with science—at least on the most hot button issues. Were this not the case, Huntsman’s claim would not resonate, as it so obviously does.
If anything, however, I believe matters have gotten worse. Why? Largely because we’ve swapped the relatively genteel “war on science” of the George W. Bush administration (which was prosecuted in top-down fashion from the White House and administration, largely in service of what various staff believed that the president wanted, or what should or shouldn’t be on the public agenda or in the media) for a more populist and bottom-up strain associated with the rise of the Tea Party. This is partly a function of the fact that the GOP is in the opposition right now, rather than running the country; and partly a function of the right moving further to, uh, the right; and partly also, I think, a function of the increasing influence of the blogosphere.
Either way, there are lots of consequences. For instance, the attacks on science are now nastier, aimed at individual scientists and presenting direct assaults on their integrity and their work. This goes far beyond Bush vaguely mumbling that scientists don’t have a consensus on climate change, or that it might be natural; or some aide at NOAA or NASAblocking a scientist’s media interview.
I think this distinction is fairly crucial. It’s one thing to attack science in a populist vein. You can probably get away with being nastier about it, but you’re not necessarily wielding any power over scientists. You don’t have, for instance, the ability to censor them, as you do when you’re running things.
Most of the Tea Party and GOP-debate attacks we’ve seen of late are clearly populist in nature. But let’s not forget that one of the leading GOP presidential candidates is also a governor of Texas, who therefore does hold the reins of power.