Candidate Bachmann puts faith in challenging mainstream scienceby Catharine Richert, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — When the Republican presidential candidates debated at the Reagan Library earlier this month, the moderator questioned the group about science.
In response, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman said that for Republicans to win the White House, they "can't run from science."
"We can't run from mainstream conservative philosophy," he said. "We've got to win voters."
It turns out that Huntsman was in the minority that night. Most of the candidates are skeptical of science, Rep. Michele Bachmann being chief among them. During the campaign, she's questioned the safety of a vaccine meant to prevent cervical cancer, the existence of climate change, and whether evolution alone should be taught in the nation's classrooms.
While Bachmann's rhetoric may seem overtly political during the battle for the Republican nomination - and certainly, her skepticism plays well among some voters - a look back at her record shows she's long doubted mainstream science on an array of issues.
Most recently, Bachmann has targeted Texas Gov. Rick Perry's decision to require girls get a vaccine meant to prevent cervical cancer caused by the human papillomavirus, a common sexually transmitted disease.
She framed his effort as an instance of government overreach (the mandate was quickly overturned by the Texas Legislature), but also as one of safety, saying that the vaccine was a "potentially dangerous drug."
But there's no evidence that the vaccine causes mental retardation, as Bachmann suggested, and it's is widely believed to be safe by medical experts, including the American Cancer Society and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Bachmann's applied the same skepticism to climate change, which she called "manufactured science" at a recent campaign event.
Among scientists, Bachmann's opinion is in the minority; according to a 2010 National Academy of Sciences survey, 97 percent of scientists believe that man-made climate change is real. Among the general public, Bachmann's perspective on the issue is more popular; a recent survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communications shows that fewer people believe climate change is happening than just three years go.
Bachmann's distrust of climate science isn't new. In 2009, she argued that carbon dioxide is good for people and for the environment.
"It is a part of Earth's life cycle," she said in a speech given on the floor of the House of Representatives. "And yet we're being told that we have to reduce this natural substance and reduce the American standard of living to create an arbitrary reduction in something that is naturally occurring in the earth."
Carbon dioxide is part of necessary biological processes, such as photosynthesis, but it's also a byproduct of combustion and that's what worries scientists: too much of it could dramatically change the Earth's ecosystems, leading to increased drought, flooding and rising sea levels. For precisely these reasons, the EPA took steps in 2009 to begin regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act.
During Bachmann's second term in the Minnesota Senate, she co-sponsored a bill that critics said would have allowed teaching intelligent design in public school classrooms.
Intelligent design holds that some features of the natural world cannot be explained by evolution. It's a controversial concept among scientists and teachers because it hasn't been proven through scientific experiment and because it shares similarities with creationism, the idea that earth was created by a higher being.
When questioned about her views on intelligent design last June, Bachmann said the federal government shouldn't meddle in a state's curriculum.
"I would prefer that students have the ability to learn all aspects of an issue," she told reporters in June. "And that's why I believe the federal government should not be involved in local education."
OLD THEME, NEW MESSENGER
As she did with intelligent design, Bachmann regularly frames her distrust of science as the extension of government overreach. It's an old theme among Republicans that emerged in the 1950s when psychology and sociology began to influence social welfare policies meant to resolve poverty and racism, explained University of Oregon political science professor Joseph Lowndes, whose recent research has focused on the tea party.
Scientific experts were no longer perceived as trustworthy people, he said. Rather they were developing policies meant to bully the little guy.
"The message was, 'these eggheads are trying to run your lives," Lowndes said. "It worked very conveniently for major corporations and for the very rich who do not want the state encroaching on their ability to do what they want."
The rise of evangelical voters has strengthened science skepticism, said Melissa Deckman, a professor at Washington College specializing in religion and politics.
"Many evangelicals, especially conservative evangelicals, often view the world as being against their religious views," she said. "Take evolution: Faith always trumps science."
The tea party movement - precisely the people Bachmann is busy wooing - is a combination of free-market capitalists and conservative Christians. And at a time when jobs are scarce and the economy is struggling, the idea that scientific discovery leads to stricter government regulation is especially resonant among such voters.
"You end up with this perfect, coherent ideology where science itself can be easily abandoned," Lowndes said.
The question is whether Bachmann's far-right views on science could work for her in the general election. In fact, political observers say the issues are unlikely to come up from either side.
Talking about a plan to slow climate change, for instance, is not going to help President Barack Obama attract undecided voters worried about the economy. And the Republican candidate, be it Bachmann or any of the other science skeptics that make up the GOP field, is likely to tone down the rhetoric in an attempt to appeal to a broader audience.
Still, the GOP candidate won't have to say much to effectively communicate his or her views on science in the general election, said Lowndes.
"All you have to say is, 'the evidence is not all in,'" he said. "Then you look like a reasonable, skeptical policy maker.'"