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Election 2012: Why Science Was Tuesday's Big Winner






What do weather and women’s bodies have in common?

Both figured dramatically this election season, forcing debate on issues candidates would have preferred to skitter right past. And both had a decisive influence on the vote when it became clear that certain candidates, mired in superstition and ignorance, were using theology to make decisions on matters best left to science. And, as it turned out, weather and women both had ways of shutting that whole thing down.

If Election Day 2012 was a referendum on anything, it was science, and not just the wizard-like math skills of Nate Silver, author of the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog and statistician extraordinaire. It is not incidental that the same people asserting that women’s bodies refuse to fertilize rapist sperm are the same ones denying that carbon emissions from our burning of fossil fuels have caused the climate to warm, as every reputable scientist insists. It’s no secret that the same legislators passing laws claiming a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks — an assertion not supported by the evidence — are the same who would gut longstanding environmental regulations that protect human health. They also advocate slicing into both health care for the poor and help for people with disabilities: Lives that began at conception are not worth protecting beyond birth.

In fact, one of the hallmarks of modern conservative thought is a profound and arrogant disrespect for scientific fact and method. Republicans such as Senator James Inhofe in Oklahoma and Alabama’s Jeff Sessions characterize scientists as a scheming cabal, inventing theories about sea-level rise and Midwestern drought to bring down the corporate superstructure by interfering with fossil-fuel consumption.

On women and their reproductive systems, Congressspeople like Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan, the Republican nominee for Vice President, dismiss real doctors as know-it-alls who think they’re smarter than god — The God, that is, of the flip-flopping Old Testament, patched together from various stories written to serve the warring tribes of the ancient Near East. That this God is often inhumane, racist and makes no sense is immaterial. What matters are the biblical nuggets of red meat with which the Party of Lincoln now suckers the faithful.

Republicans weren’t always like this. It was Richard M. Nixon, after all, who signed into law our nation’s most fundamental laws protecting the environment. He also had a doctor, Jerome Jaffe, overseeing his drug enforcement program; both men regarded addiction less as a crime than a disease. Ronald Reagan united the world in Montreal, where in 1987 dozens of nations signed a treaty banning the release of chlorofluorocarbons to protect stratospheric ozone.

Only in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Republicans found succor for their ailing brand in the evangelical movement, did they begin to slough off science in favor of theology, which taught them not only where life begins but that homosexuals are evil and, miraculously, the free market is guided by the hand of God.

This will still go on, of course; November 6 was a clear win for science but not a sweep. Bachmann held on to her Congressional seat in Minnesota’s newly drawn Sixth District, albeit just by a hair. Some other hardcore science deniers held onto their seats in intractably Red States. Senator John Barrasso will continue to represent Wyoming by trying to disarm the Clean Water Act, in league with his friend in Nevada, Senator Dean Heller, who will speak up for the state’s mining interests before he looks out for the people sickened by its pollution. Mitt Romney held on to states like West Virginia largely because of his appeal to the coal counties of Appalachia, where opposition to environmental regulation runs deep and personal.

But in less predictable races, where anti-science theology is not in service to coal or oil, the forces of superstition did not prevail. Voters in Missouri rejected Republican candidate Todd Akin’s notion that the ovum knows rapist sperm from the other kind; Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock went down in Indiana for daring to suggest that a pregnancy resulting from rape is God’s intention, which he insisted didn’t mean God intended the rape — in which case he was endorsing conception via rape but not the rape itself. Tricky, that.

And then there was the Republican brand itself, whose proponents made it clear at their convention in August that this is the party for whom “heal the planet” is a punch line. I suspect that after Hurricane Sandy wiped out neighborhoods whose residents never thought they had to fear the threat of rising seas, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasn’t the only one who voted for Obama specifically because the president might do something about this climate problem. The science of this planet and the bodies who inhabit it are not so funny anymore.

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