Yesterday, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote that Scott Walker’s recent refusal to say if he accepts the science behind evolution isn’t anything to get worked up over.
As he argued, evolution has very little bearing on public policy, save perhaps for the state-level issue of the science curriculum itself. After all, knowing how an individual feels about evolution doesn’t necessarily tell you where they’ll come down on other issues lying at the intersection of science and politics.
Especially if that person happens to be in a Democratic demographic: As Bouie points out, citing a recent Pew survey, 42 percent of African-Americans are creationists, but 56 percent say that humans are causing climate change. 73 percent of young people accept evolution, but only 39 percent think it’s safe to eat genetically modified food. And, as we’ve all learned recently, the same liberals who reject vaccine science overwhelmingly accept evolutionary science.
So why does it matter what a given presidential candidate thinks about evolution? If we want answers on the scientific issues of the day, shouldn’t we ask about them directly?
Sure, if all you care about is specific policy positions then ask about those policy positions. But, as Bouie himself points out, that isn’t why anyone’s asking: Journalists bring up evolution around Scott Walker because Republican primary voters want to hear him say that it’s bunk. In other words, evolutions has become a wedge issue, an ideological proxy for establishing appropriate liberal or conservative bona fides. Just another battle line in the culture wars.
While positions on evolution may not perfectly correlate with positions on climate change, genetically modified foods or vaccines in particular, that only matters if you only consider important issues those that have direct, tangible effects on the public policy flavors of the week.
But I’m not listening for Scott Walker’s answer on evolution to derive his position on vaccines. Bouie’s right in saying that if we really cared about that, we could ask Walker directly. Instead, long after vaccines have left the news cycle, we should still care about whether candidates understand, or at least don’t actively push back against, evolutionary science because it serves as a proxy issue for all of the non-partisan attributes we want in a president.
None of the issues that fall under the umbrella of “science” should be partisan issues at all. Analytical thinking may correlate with liberal ideology, but that doesn’t mean that facts themselves are biased. A presidential candidate’s position on evolution is as important as their position on vaccines because both speak to that person’s respect for and ability to understand evidence. So evolution doesn’t need to serve as a proxy for the current scientific issues of the day; on the policy side alone, it serves as a proxy for the next issues of the day.
But it goes beyond that, since Bouie closes his article by dismissing evolution as yet another battle line in the culture wars — almost as if culture doesn’t matter. To this point, I think Bill Nye provides a fitting response:
Like it or not, those messy culture wars matter, especially when science is dragged into them. The President of the United States doesn’t just weigh in on policy, they are a major player in our national culture. Every time the president rejects or even waffles on basic scientific principles, our country becomes slightly less intellectually curious. And as I’m sure we’ll hear candidate Walker say, along with every presidential candidate for the next century and beyond, our country’s hopes rest on our ability to think, innovate and create. Any candidate who talks about technology and innovation while undermining the basic science behind that technology and innovation simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and the voters should know how clueless they are.
Furthermore, facts and evidence shouldn’t be wedge issues, and for thoroughly smart, on-point journalists like Jamelle Bouie to dismiss them as such is a problem that our entire political culture needs to deal with. Just because a certain percentage of our citizens choose to reject overwhelming scientific evidence doesn’t mean that such a rejection needs to be met with respect. As John Oliver put it, “You don’t need people’s opinions on a fact.”
So no, I don’t care what Scott Walker thinks about evolution because I’m just curious about his position on vaccines. I care about what Scott Walker thinks about evolution because I care about what Scott Walker thinks about evolution. Candidates who cannot accept scientific consensus on a given issue deserve to be called out accordingly. They don’t deserve a free pass just because that consensus isn’t up for a vote in 2016.