Why do many Republicans distrust scientists?

As Todd Akin stirs up a storm over his ‘legitimate rape’ remark we ask why many Republicans’ have issues with science.

Todd Akin, a Republican who is running for the senate in Missouri claimed this week that women could biologically avoid becoming pregnant in cases of “legitimate rape”.

Barack Obama, the US president, could not resist quipping that Akin, who is a member of the House of Representatives Science committee, must have missed science class.

[The Christian conservatives] would rather believe something absurd than face the consequences of their political positions… Akin wants a woman to carry the product of rape to full term and not to have access to abortion…he doesn’t want to believe that he believes in such a hideous thing.”

– Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post

Akin has since apologised and Republicans from all sides of the party have condemned him.

But it does seem that many in the party have a problem accepting scientific orthodoxy. All the main contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, excluding Jon Huntsman, rejected the notion that climate change is a result of human activity.

And Charles Darwin is not a popular figure among some sections of the party, with many rejecting evolution and arguing that intelligent design or creationism should be taught in schools.

There has also been wide-scale opposition to stem cell research among Republican legislators with prominent American scientists having to move abroad to continue their research.

It has not always been this way, though.

Even Richard Nixon, during his presidency, pushed through significant legislation regarding female reproductive health, the environment and methadone treatment for drug addicts, based on the scientific research of the day.

During a Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library last year, John Huntsman, a former presidential candidate, expressed his minority view which garnered criticism from conservatives on the campaign trail.

What percentage of Americans actually understand climate science well enough to make informed decisions about how credible it is or not…in this sort of situation I don’t think people are making decisions based on science [but] based on something else.

– Barry Bickmore, a geochemist

He said: “When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said; when you call into question the science of evolution…all I’m saying is that, in order for the Republican party to win, we can’t run from science.”

Rick Perry, another former Republican presidential candidate, said: “The science is not settled on this. The idea that we would put America’s economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is just nonsense… The fact is, to put America’s economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on our country, is not good economics, and I would suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.”

So, why do many Republicans distrust scientists?

Guests joining the discussion with presenter Shihab Rattansi are: Ronald Numbers, a professor of the history of science at the University of Wisconsin; Barry Bickmore, a professor of geological sciences at Brigham Young University and a Republican supporter who has tried to convince party politicians that climate change is man-made; and Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for The Huffington Post.

“Since Richard Nixon’s southern strategy a lot of the Republicans are conservative Christians, and Todd Akin is a member of an ultra-conservative Presbyterian church, not part of the mainstream Presbyterian church…so that’s (Akin’s remarks] not really surprising.”

Ronald Numbers, a history of science professor


A researcher at the University of North Carolina who analysed responses between 1974 and 2010 of the annual survey that is carried out in the US found the following:

  • the trust in science remained stable among those who self-identified as moderates and liberals
  • there were changes for those who self-identified themselves as conservatives and frequent church-goers
  • the period of study began with the highest trust in science and ended with the lowest between 1974-2010, when belief in science among conservatives dropped by more than 25 per cent
  • the changes could not be attributed to falling levels of education – distrust of science rose particularly among the better-educated