Monday, July 11, 2011

Republican Primary Maneuvering and Hypocrisy About Science, Writ Large

I keep telling anyone who will listen that we all better get used to the phrase "President Bachmann" as the Republican candidate increasingly looks like a not-so-improbable contender for the nomination. Extreme though she may be, she doesn't come with Mitt Romney's troubling baggage of being both Mormon and the former governor of a liberal state whose signature legislation was the passage of a health care law remarkably similar to what nearly all conservatives refer to as "Obamacare"; she doesn't have to resort to a two-step to explain why she worked for President Obama's administration as John Huntsman does; she is a good deal more media savvy than former Alaska governor Sarah Palin; and she isn't Newt Gingrich. I'm no political expert, but in the age of the Tea Party dominated Republican primaries, I see her as having a legitimate shot, with her only substantive competition being former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, unless current Texas Governor Rick Perry gets into the mix. Maybe I'm misjudging Romney's chances, but I'd call Bachmann the favorite right now.

Representative Bachmann certainly has no fears about wading into controversy, and in doing so making herself a darling of the extreme right. Earlier in the week she became the first candidate to sign a pledge for the protection of marriage entitled "The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence on Marriage and Family," which as the NY Times noted in a blog post, puts her rivals--at least some of whom do not have such  distinguished marital records themselves--into a tricky position. In a fairly short time, "The Marriage Vow" has managed to generate an uproar over whether or not it explicitly endorses banning pornography (it doesn't, as noted here); its not-so-subtle racism, as discussed here; and its religious fanaticism (see, for instance, here). In short, it highlights all of the qualities most commonly associated with the rightmost wing of the Republican Party, and quite possibly the group best positioned to put a candidate over the top for the 2012 nomination. And Bachmann got there first.

So let me pile on here and point out that one of its additional hypocrisies involves science: as part of the rationale for why the "Institution of Marriage in America is in great crisis," the Vow argues that "[the debasement of marriage continues due to an] anti-scientific bias which holds, in complete absence of empirical proof, that non-heterosexual inclinations are genetically determined, irresistible, and akin to other well as an anti-scientific bias that holds, against all empirical evidence, that homosexual behavior in particular, and sexual promiscuity in general, optimizes individual or public health." [my emphasis]

There's a lot to unpack in that pile of nonsense but here's a start: whether "non-heterosexual inclinations" are indeed genetically determined is an open question, but to say that those who posit the theory are "anti-scientific" and are making such assertions "complete absence of empirical proof" is patently false. The neuroanatomist Simon LeVay (author of the fascinating tome Queer Science--it proclaims its allegiance right on the cover!) pioneered studies on differences in brain structures between heterosexual and homosexual men, and while I'm skeptical of the results or even the meaning of the findings, there's no question that LeVay's work constitutes science--the empirical testing of hypotheses about the mechanisms of the world. He's hardly the only example, and the literature of scientific publications is rife with tests, theories and arguments about the origin and nature of human sexuality. Nobody's got a definitive answer, but The Vow label of "anti-scientific" is really just tossing out a phrase to make itself seem respectable.

An additional yuck can be had from the fact that the author of The Vow, Bob Vander Plaats, is...well, typically anti-scientific in his fundamentalist Christianity! While running for the position of Lieutenant Governor of Iowa, Vander Plaats endorsed the teaching of "intelligent design" as an adjunct to evolution. As the redoubtable Tara Smith at the blog Aetiology points out, intelligent design isn't a scientific theory at all, something even some of its proponents realize. The casual disregard for critical thought appears to be part and parcel of the document, so a disregard for science shouldn't really be a surprise. Nor should it be a surprise that Bachmann immediately signed on to it.

PS--today's Times has a fascinating article on how some schools (including Billy's medical alma mater, the University of Cincinnati!) have changed their admission interview strategies in the hopes of finding future doctors who are better team players than those who may have stellar grades but are arrogant & condescending (and who in being this way may foster poor communication leading to medical errors). I ran this past a senior colleague who works on a med school admissions committee and he seemed skeptical: "what you do in your life = what you say in a mini-interview; however, grades = long term commitment" was his quick response. Count me tentatively among those hopeful for the new system.

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