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Rick Santorum's war on science will cost the GOP votes with millennial voters

According to a new study in the American Sociological Review, Republicans’ confidence and faith in science and its associated institutions has precipitously declined since the late 1970s. This is an alarming trend for a number of reasons, but from a political perspective, this stat should concern the Republican Party. Republicans will find themselves at a major political disadvantage if they continue to bury their heads in the sand and fail to acknowledge the validity of science as a factor in policy formation.

I’m not going to speculate on why Republicans are so mistrustful of science, though I suspect that scientific findings have a tendency to inconvenience conservative narratives and policies – consider the environmental regulatory implications that arose once global warming was introduced into American political discourse. But the consequences of this mindset will devastate the GOP in the near future. While the United States education system is far from perfect, it has succeeded in cultivating a broad climate of acceptance towards science. According to a 2010 “Science and Engineering Indicators” survey, a clear majority of Americans possess an interest and faith in science. Moreover, newer mediums of information distribution – specifically the internet – have been instrumental in disseminating scientific knowledge and appreciation. Given the tendency of younger people to utilize the internet more so than the average American, it is fair to say that the younger generation may be more exposed and receptive to science than the current generation.

This is bad news for the Republican Party. What happens when the internet generation grows up and sees the political discourse utilized by Republicans? Are they just going to ignore the fact that it’s absurd to suggest that carbon-dating is an unreliable method of determining the age of the Earth, that global warming isn’t real despite an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary, or that being gay is a sinful choice despite the fact that it is an acceptable product of biology? Of course not; they’re going to perceive the politicians who utilize such discourse as unintelligent and unfit to govern, and they’re not going to vote for them. This faith in science isn’t just limited to liberals. According to the ASA’s review, the number of political moderates who put trust in scientific arguments has grown since 1980. Previously, moderates ranked below Republicans in scientific trust; recently, they surpassed them. As more moderates become advocates of scientific doctrines, the less they will find Republican talking points appealing.

It’s not as if all Republicans are stupid, either. There are many intelligent conservative positions on a number of political and economic issues. But this adherence to an anti-science and anti-intellectual image is a self-defeating strategy. It might help Rick Santorum to say President Obama is an elitist for suggesting all Americans should aspire to go to college, or global warming is a hoax when he’s campaigning in the Republican primaries, but it makes him and his party look like a joke when it comes to the general populace. It diminishes other legitimate Republican arguments. And it alienates a number of potential voters, a trend which will increase in the coming decades. If Republicans don’t wake up and accept that they need to leave behind some of their archaic social and environmental views in order to appeal to the growing population of scientifically minded voters, than the idyllic nostalgia they so often appeal to will soon refer to a time when people actually took what Republicans said seriously.

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