By Zach Worthen
On Monday, September 12th at a Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, FL a disturbing trend was on display, as candidates for our nation’s highest office proudly stood behind dangerous scientific canards. The concern here is not that the man or woman who may be the next leader of the free world is scientifically illiterate, though that is a dire concern. Rather, we must be wary of politicians who lack an understanding of empirical thought and research, and question how we can trust a policy maker who doesn’t believe in the evidence of the world around them.
This evening’s latest bout of anti-scientific rhetoric came from Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Representative and Founder of the House Tea Party Caucus, who claimed that the HPV vaccine, designed to prevent cervical cancers caused by the Human Papilloma Virus, may cause mental retardation. Bachmann challenged Rick Perry, who as Texas Governor, became the first executive to mandate the vaccine for schoolgirls.
In a GOP that is increasingly anti-scientific, Perry’s stance actually seems rather progressive. This image loses its luster when Perry couldn’t backtrack fast enough to keep pace with Bachmann’s Tea Party bona fides. By Tuesday morning, the Perry campaign had stated that the HPV mandate was “a mistake”. The GOP front-runner made it clear just how little scientific expertise matters to the New Republican Party. The same day as Perry’s retraction, the American Academy of Pediatrics released this statement:
“The American Academy of Pediatrics would like to correct false statements made in the Republican presidential campaign that HPV vaccine is dangerous and can cause mental retardation. There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. This is a life-saving vaccine that can protect girls from cervical cancer.”
While these incidents, when taken in isolation, are frightening, they betray an even larger problem. America’s chief executive is first and foremost our chief policymaker. This relates to issues beyond scientific policy, to enduring matters of economic policy and national security, as well as hot-button specifics such as job-creation, health care, and economic stimulus.
That the standard bearers for the Tea Party would ignore the AAP, especially in the contentious issue of reproductive health, is no great surprise. It is simply a microcosmic example of a party that has lost the ability to rationally and empirically examine policy.
The Tea Party has consistently, nearly exclusively, come down on the wrong side of policy debates and not just wrong from a moral standpoint, but factually and definitively incorrect and utterly ignorant of the reality of operating a policy making organization.
The House Tea Party caucus’ hijacking of the Debt ceiling debate, despite the pleas of the Congressional Budget Office, as well as its factually incorrect assessment of the effectiveness of the Stimulus (passed, incidentally under George W. Bush), both demonstrate how little they care for empirically-backed economic policy.
The refusal of Tea Party Candidates to support the Repeal of Don’t-Ask Don’t-Tell, despite assurances by Joint-Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and Defense Secretary Panetta that it would, in no way damage unit-cohesion, shows their inherent disregard for informed military policy.
We have seen how little credit Perry and Bachmann give the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Congressional Budget Office, and the leadership of the US Military. The unfortunate truth is this list could go on much longer. However, to understand the Tea Party’s obsession with ignoring the experts, we hardly need to. In perhaps the three biggest policy fields in American Politics, the Tea Party has spoken with top advisers, and in no uncertain terms, told them that their policy research is meaningless.
The job of the American President is one of delegation. We can hardly expect our president to be a capable expert in economics, pediatric science, and military strategy simultaneously- which is why we trust advisers to inform eventual policy. We place those advisors to the President in charge as much as the man or woman in the Oval Office. Those advisors are (or should be) the top scholars and experts in their fields, and have devoted lifetimes to the study and understanding of the monumental task of American Governance.
Whether the Tea Party’s stubbornness and distrust is a cynical political stance or a reflection of a genuine inability to understand empirical research and policy, we must, in no uncertain terms say no to politics that believes ignorance is a virtue.