Jun 28 2012

Anti-Science as a Political Platform

This came to my attention through Orac at Respectful Insolence and I thought I would pig-pile on – the platform of the Texas Republican party. Mine is not a political blog and I will try to refrain from expressing any purely political opinion. Rather I do often address the science that informs politics and the intrusion of politics into science or the denial of science by political activists – all of which is evident in the platform.

Orac does his usual great job of addressing the evolution denial, anti-vaccine sentiments, and promotion of alternative medicine in the platform. Unfortunately, promoters of unscientific medicine and opponents of science-based medicine find allies on both sides of the political aisle. On the left they tend to appeal to anti-corporate and new age sentiments. On the right it’s all about freedom – health care freedom, freedom from mandates, and freedom from regulation. The platform specifically opposes regulation of vitamins and supplements, stating: “We support the rights of all adults to their choice of nutritional products, and alternative health care choices.”

I have written about the health care freedom movement before.  Essentially it is an attempt to undermine rational and reasonable measures to establish a minimum standard of care in medicine. You can’t have a standard without some criteria and some method of enforcing the criteria. The current standard is largely science-based, transparent, and fair, but proponents of unscientific methods that fall below the reasonable standard want to abolish it so they will be free to practice witchcraft as medicine. Health care freedom is presented as consumer freedom, but it is really anti-consumer and all about the freedom to sell pseudoscience and bad medicine.

The most troubling passage in the platform, however, is this:

We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

That’s right, the Texas Republican party opposes teaching our children critical thinking skills because that will encourage them to challenge authority. However, this plank in the platform does require some background. The concern here is really that liberals are using public education as a mechanism for instilling liberal values opposed by conservatives, and disguising this agenda as “outcome based education.” For example, here is a 1993 report from Texas Republican Phyllis Schlafly:

When they talk about “higher order thinking skills” or “critical thinking,” they mean a relativistic process of questioning traditional moral values.

This controversy obviously has a long history in Texas. The Schlafly report (What’s Wrong with Outcome Based Education) reflects a culture war being fought in the public school classroom. I think that both political sides have legitimate complaints about public education. OBE is supposed to be about using outcomes to measure the effectiveness of educational methods. However, under the OBE banner lots of experimental and (in my opinion) dubious teaching methods have been tried. One aspect of this the Schlafly report complains about is structuring teaching so that the pace of learning is set by the slowest student in the group, with the quicker learners being kept to the slower pace. This reflects the basic difference in world view between liberals, who tend to be egalitarian, and conservatives, who tend to value individualism and meritocracy.

Unfortunately, having an optimally effective public school educational system is being held hostage to this culture war between liberals and conservatives. The result is that very important aspects of education, like teaching critical thinking skills, becomes a pawn in the culture war and becomes a proxy for the real issues that concern liberals and conservatives.

Of course, even if you accept the conservative view that individual excellence should be encouraged and not sacrificed to egalitarianism, in practice conservative opposition to such things become tied to opposition to teaching evolution, an accurate portrayal of American history, and actual critical thinking skills. They end up taking an anti-intellectual position that throws the educational baby out with the bathwater.

This is going to be an endless fight. Everyone wants public education to reflect their personal values, and so it will continue to be a battle ground for promoting various world-views. We should all agree, however, that the number one priority of public education is to have effective education. In my opinion both sides seem willing to sacrifice that in order to embody their world view in the educational system, and then they rationalize this by convincing themselves that their world view is good education. The platform above reflects this – opposing critical thinking because (egads) children might question the traditional beliefs and authority of their parents.

Another aspect of the platform, and one not dealt with by Orac, is their stance on homosexuality:

We affirm that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society and contributes to the breakdown of the family unit. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable “alternative” lifestyle, in public policy, nor should “family” be redefined to include homosexual “couples.” We believe there should be no granting of special legal entitlements or creation of special status for homosexual behavior, regardless of state of origin. Additionally, we oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction or belief in traditional values.

They stop short of saying outright that homosexuality is a choice rather than biologically determined, but it does seem to be an implied premise of the platform. Essentially they advocate open season on homosexuals, as long as your discrimination or bigotry is faith-based. This position above represents incredible denial of basic biological facts – homosexuality is part of nature, and not just for Homo sapiens. There is no rational basis for discriminating against individuals because of their sexual orientation. There is absolutely no evidence that homosexuality “tears at the fabric of society” or undermines the family. I guess their support for individual freedom is limited only to those individuals whose lifestyle they personally approve.

At least they are open about the source of their anti-homosexual bigotry – their faith. They believe such bigotry is ordained by God. Therefore they believe that the laws of the land should reflect their personal religious beliefs.


There are numerous examples in the platform of ideology trumping science and critical thinking. This phenomenon, in my opinion, is universal to ideology, and is not particular to any specific ideology. That is not to argue, however, for absolute equivalency. Not all ideologies are equal in this regard. The Republican party has certainly moved in that direction with their opposition to evolution, their embrace of climate change denial, and now their embrace of health care freedom and anti-vaccine sentiments.

24 responses so far

24 thoughts on “Anti-Science as a Political Platform”

  1. SARA says:

    A very good summary.

  2. tmac57 says:

    Additionally, we oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction or belief in traditional values.

    Uhhh…isn’t that kinda creating a “special status for homosexual behavior”?

  3. OpenSkeptic says:

    Steven, while the TRP is a joke, I can’t say I have very much respect for you. You doctors are all alike, and are generally very fundamentalist in your approach against alternative/complementary medicine. If you had it your way, you’d ban all such approaches, except what came from the mouth of a licensed doctor. Who do you think you are to decide what is good or bad medicine for me? I have the education I need to read academic and research publications, and I can decide for myself. Mind your own business and you won’t receive nasty messages like these.

  4. Quine says:

    Hello Dr. Novella. I bought your critical thinking lecture course and found it to be of the highest quality and value. My own children are past college at this point, but I recommend your course to all my high school age relatives as one of the most valuable things that they can study to help them make the important decisions that are coming up re higher education. I only wish it were offered to all high school students, everywhere. The very idea that critical thinking should not be taught is its own damning evidence, and underlines the importance of doing so. Please keep at it.

  5. Openskeptic – are you qualified to inspect your own bridges, fly your own jets, determine safe levels of toxins in the environment, etc. ?

    What I advocate is open and transparent science as a fair and reasonable standard for determining what health care products and services should be legal and with what conditions. This is, in fact, the situation we have now. I am not advocating anything different. I just think that good science should be used. Proponents of CAM use bad science and bad logic to defend and promote pseudoscience, or they try to weaken the regulations so that they can scam their customers.

    So what you are saying is that you are in favor of health fraud, of selling ineffective or unsafe treatments to sick people in order to steal their hope and their money (even mortgage their family’s money) while they are sick or dying. If you are against those things, then how are we going to stop them? Perhaps you think we should have no regulations, requirements, or licensure and just let everyone fend for themselves, a return to snake oil huxterism and let the buyer beware.

  6. MikeAtkinson says:

    Great writing as usual. I like the way you write “in my opinion” to distinguish your opinions from facts. This is a practice that I wish others would use more often.

  7. ChrisH says:

    PZ Myers has video from The Young Turks. They start out by showing that the Texas Republicans want to repeal the Voting Rights Act Of 1965. Yeah, let us just roll back half a century of civil rights.

  8. Bronze Dog says:

    …and conservatives, who tend to value individualism and meritocracy.

    I needed that laugh.

    I haven’t been to Orac’s post, yet, but I’m facepalming at the quackery stuff. It feels weird since growing up I tended to associate that sort of thing with the far left, but now it seems to be a big thing with extremist libertarians and the far right. Usually, when I get in an argument with a defender of some quackery, they often bring up some Ayn Randian-sounding arguments about how quacks should be allowed to run their business without safety regulations, let the buyer beware, let market penetration be your efficacy test, and so on.

  9. ChrisH says:

    They want to outlaw red-light cameras. Personally I love the one near me, since I am in less danger of being run over and there are fewer crashes (which I can hear from my house).

  10. OpenSkeptic says:

    Steven – speaking of health fraud, the pharmaceutical industry is quite fraudulent in itself. They hide major side effects at every chance they get, and they make billions, while people die in the process. I know what they did with older statins and COX2 inhibitors, for example. Everyone is capable of running a scam. Face it – the technology for competent medical expert systems has existed for decades, but it’ll be at least a decade if not longer before I can use one to get me a prescription for a drug. It’s suppressed. Doctors just want their monopoly on healthcare and I see right through it. I believe in freedom of choice, even if means shooting myself in the foot. The TRP attacks freedoms, and so do you. Education is harder than regulation, although if I may end on a positive note, I know you’re up for the challenge. How many psychiatrists ask their patients to get sufficient exercise, D3, EPA, DHA, myo-inositol, anti-diabetics, and numerous effective OTC nootropics before they dole out questionable rx drugs that cost 10-100x? Sorry – I am cranky – I don’t sleep, but no one is scamming me yet because I know my RRs, p-values, and CIs.

  11. Yep – the pharmaceutical industry pulls a lot of shenanigans to. They need to be tightly regulated and watched and slapped down when they distort science, etc.

    So – are you for pharmaceutical company freedom too? Or do you just want to regulate them but not the supplement industry? But wait – Big Pharma and Big Supp are largely the same companies.

    Imagine a completely unregulated pharmaceutical industry. Who would pay for research? If you think the pharmaceutical industry should be regulated, then why not other health products?

    Should professional be licensed? Should any charlatan who hangs up a shingle be allowed to practice whatever they want with whatever claims they want and zero accountability?

    If you allow for any regulation then the big question becomes – what standard.

  12. DOYLE says:

    What ever happened to the resignation that the grind of ones life is the most important life process.Why would you not want adults to be fashioned through critical thinking,errors and dogma that has been jettisoned because it proves to be intellectually crude.If you want to understant this world we live in god has to be off the table

  13. OpenSkeptic says:

    +1 for DOYLE.

    A nanny state discourages the mental evolution its people by disbanding corrective feedback mechanisms and relegating protection mechanisms to the elite few. It thereby serves to create a chronic natural distrust in the elite, even if they’re right, but especially when they’re not. As a case in point, the elite were wrong about healthy fats and high-glycemic carbs, and at least partially for these reasons, no one trusts the official food pyramid anymore, and why would they? The agricultural lobbyist influences are obvious.

    When people naturally pay for their poor actions, such as with smoking and cancer, or heavy narcotic use and disease, they ones who avoid it are wiser and stronger. I want to see how the Republican states think they’ll survive once they ban all abortions, evolution teachers, gays, blacks, immigrants, criminals, poor people, and atheists. They’ll be left with zombies. Any self-respecting persons will abandon them immediately, and I expect the property values there will drop. They’ll get owned. I’m not actually advocating this approach – I’m only playing devil’s advocate. This is a philosophically different approach from that of the control freak authority that is easy to become. It is human to want to rise up against oppressive authority – it doesn’t matter who’s right. Personally I think it’s high-time we replaced politicians with artificially intelligent expert systems, supercomputer simulations for optimal outcomes, and collective electronic decision making by the people. The idea being for the people to owe up to themselves the hard way, with a little voluntary help from smarties and puters.

  14. lukecummings says:

    OpenSkeptic – “It is human to want to rise up against oppressive authority – it doesn’t matter who’s right.”

    In my opinion therein that statement lies the crux of the problem. Science has over the last few hundred years become the de facto authority on any subject relegated to the natural realm, all thanks to it being based on the facts. This strength that science draws on however is also its greatest weakness; the fact that it is based on reality. Sometimes reality can be a very complicated thing. Over time we have developed some very complex science to explain some of these extremely complex topics. This however can create seemingly juxtaposed view of the nature of science.

    It would seem science is simple, its just making observations of the natural world, creating a hypothesis for a mechanism to explain an observation and then testing the predictions. However this simplicity can be misleading. The truth is that science cannot always be summed up for the lay man. In most cases it can take man step to distill useful information from for instance a medical study. First you have the researchers making the primary observations, and possibly providing a preliminary evaluation of their own data. Next the findings need to be peer reviewed for flaws and further comment. Then come the science bloggers, if not an expert in the same field but usually well educated in a science related field. Finally one more round of distilling by the main stream media to be interpreted by the public at large.

    Obviously once we get down to the main stream media most of the complexity and too often importance or even factual information is missing. This process creates again this false sense of the simplicity of science. In the end because most of the public is completely unaware of how science is executed, they see “scientists” as just another view point, another political party. It this sentiment that the republicans jump on, the idea that science is just another authority not to be trusted.

    The reality is that science is not about authority, science is about consensus, the complete opposite of authority.

  15. BillyJoe7 says:


    You are all over the place.
    If you are not prepared to stay on topic, you are a waste of everyone’s time.
    Likewise if you keep ignoring responses to your posts.

  16. eiskrystal says:

    Uhhh…isn’t that kinda creating a “special status for homosexual behavior”?

    With free pink triangle for every member.

    When people naturally pay for their poor actions, such as with smoking and cancer

    Unfortunately linking smoking and cancer is difficult because there is a delay on effects and not everyone will get cancer. That’s the problem with feedback systems. They take time, and the foolish are rarely punished.

    I want to see how the Republican states think they’ll survive once they ban all abortions, evolution teachers, gays, blacks, immigrants, criminals, poor people, and atheists. They’ll be left with zombies

    The middle ages lasted a long time. Also, when your job is to move a handle up and down at a production line and thinking gets in the way of that job then zombies will make excellent workers.

  17. I will add that OpenSkeptics dystopian vision is also a massive false dichotomy. There is a wide gulf between the nannystate and the Ayn Rand wild west. You can have modest but effective regulation – balance the needs of freedom and protection. Of course then you have to be thoughtful and evidence-based, but that takes a lot of work.

  18. uncle_steve says:

    Dr Novella, I applaud your efforts at educating the public. The Republicans have become an insane asylum masquerading as a political party. This should make things more challenging for skeptics in the U.S. Luckily, you are up to the challenge.

    That said, I never see you or other prominent skeptics spell out what exactly you would like to see happen to the quacks promoting their latest snake oil. You talk about stronger regulations for the supplement industry(which I agree with), and keeping all quackery/CAM out of medicine(agreed), but what kind of punishments would there be for those who cross the line?

    What would become of Gary Null?

    Or Dr Young, who promotes his “PH miracle diet” to cure cancer?

    Dr Mercola?

    Dr Weil?

  19. SARA says:

    “When people naturally pay for their poor actions, such as with smoking and cancer”

    Here’s a thought. If the government did not publish and promote the reality that smoking causes cancer and leads to numerous other health issues, would the majority of people even know it? And if they didn’t know – how would they be able to make a distinction between poor actions and good actions?

    I don’t advocate that we eliminate choices like CAM. But why is it bad that people are
    a. Fully aware of the scientific merit (or lack thereof) of their choice.
    b. skilled in researching and evaluating their various choices.
    c. That the information necessary to research and evaluate those choices is open and available.

    In my opinion, when A, B and C happen, then someone can recognize that it’s a bad choice.

    None of those things will happen in non-regulated world. Because human nature is what it is.

    People are not rational by nature. It is an exercise of will be rational. For example, we buy things because of what the represent to us. If a person is sick, they will buy from the snake oil salesman because he is selling hope. It doesn’t matter what is in the snake oil, people are buying hope. If it kills people, they will rationalize it and still buy the hope.

    There is no elimination of snake oil salesmen in a fully unregulated environment. There is only a proliferation of them.

    You have a rather idealistic view, without considering that every step taken by the human race toward more evolved civilization came because governments regulated it.

  20. ccbowers says:

    “This controversy obviously has a long history in Texas.”

    I get that you want this blog to be as apolitical as possible, but I can’t help but notice the false balance created with the wording of this post. I agree that “both sides” have their problems when science meets ideology, or when a group has motivated values and perspectives separate from facts, but it seems pretty clear that (at least in this country) the conservative states have the most problems with education itself. If a political group has a problem with “challenging the student’s fixed beliefs”… then that group has a problem with education itself. Challenging fixed beliefs is required for learning to take place, and that is education.

    I just don’t understand what the alternative would be… determine which beliefs are fixed, then make those off-limits? ‘Education’ then turns into telling people what they don’t know, unless they don’t want to know

  21. In terms of remedies – someone practicing fraud should be liable for fraud. They should not be protected by legislation specifically designed to protect fraud under the guise of “freedom”

    But mostly I just advocate for the applications of reasonable scientific standards within the existing regulatory framework:
    – don’t force insurance companies to pay for pseudoscience
    – don’t fund worthless research into fashionable nonsense
    – don’t allow fraudulent claims to be made on health products
    – allow the normal mechanisms to enforce the standard of care without carving out exceptions for well-connected charlatans
    – tie health care professional licensure to real science-based standards. Don’t license quacks under the delusion that this will regulate them.

  22. CC – I specifically wrote “That is not to argue, however, for absolute equivalency. Not all ideologies are equal in this regard.” to address that concern about false equivalency.

    But I also want to avoid a false dichotomy. Just because the Repubilcans are nutty, and are taking ridiculous positions like being against critical thinking and challenging authority, that does not mean they have zero legitimate points on their side. I think a good way forward is to try to disconnect their legitimate points from their insane remedies, and try to find a reasonable common ground in the middle.

  23. ccbowers says:

    “That is not to argue, however, for absolute equivalency. Not all ideologies are equal in this regard.”

    Must have skipped over that line.

    “…that does not mean they have zero legitimate points on their side. I think a good way forward is to try to disconnect their legitimate points from their insane remedies, and try to find a reasonable common ground in the middle.”

    I agree, but perhaps not with “in the middle.” We should take the legitimate points made regardless of their origins, but that may or may not take us to the middle, but it will usually be somewhere in between.

  24. Will@VCU says:

    I feel that communicating effectively with people who are opposed to critical thinking is not only a daunting proposition, but borderline impossible (if said people are not willing to employ logic in their arguments and separate science from opinion). If planting the seed of logic is most likely the best way to spread critical thinking, then we need to plant these seeds EVERYWHERE. Thanks for the refreshing discussion!

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