You probably won't hear too many people admit this, but ... I'm from Delaware.
From the placid waterways of Sussex County, to the credit card companies of Wilmington, to the rolling hills that are more likely in Pennsylvania, my home state is a hotbed of scientific innovation. Or was.
When I was in third grade, my teacher asked us to raise our hands if one or both parents worked for local chemical giant DuPont. Almost every hand went up. My mother worked for nearly 20 years as a scientist at DuPont, which later became DuPont Merck, which then became DuPont Pharmaceuticals, whose campus then became a ghost town when it was bought by Bristol-Myers Squibb. You suck, Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Recently, however, I was alarmed to hear that my fellow Delawareans voted to oust Representative Mike Castle, a solid moderate who pushed for embryonic stem cell research and was handily elected as the Republican representative of a largely Democratic state for nine consecutive terms, in favor of Christine O'Donnell, who, as far as I can tell, is a houseplant.
Suddenly, Delaware became the bellwether state for the nation, presaging Tea Party upsets from New York to New Hampshire in the coming midterm elections. Television pundits asked difficult questions, such as "Can the Democrats hold on to their legislative majorities?" and "Which state is Delaware in?"
The issues receiving the most attention in this election have been the ones Tea Partiers are proud to stand behind: lowering taxes, reducing government spending, and proving that Hawaii is Kenya. But ask any Tea Partier to define "science" and you'll get an answer whose value is less certain: "Something it's important to stop doing."
I tried reaching several Tea Party candidates and officials to learn their specific views on today's major scientific issues, but no one returned my calls, so I guess I'm on my own. (It probably didn't help that I have the same name -- same spelling, too -- as the political director of MoveOn.org.)
Here, as well as I can determine, are the Tea Party's views on science. In a couple of weeks, when you tap Diebold's proprietary and easily hacked touchscreens -- that is, when you attempt to cast your ballot -- remember what might happen to your beloved science career if the Tea Partiers triumph:
The space program
The Tea Party isn't opposed to outer space per se. After all, the Scientologists in its ranks claim that their founder came from there. They just don't like us fiddling around in the heavens without a purpose prescribed by the heavens, or at least one comprehensible to a fifth-grader.
For example, one of NASA's current projects is called "Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere." Boring! Who even knows what these crazy words mean? "Aeronomy"? "Mesosphere"? "Ice"? None of these words appear in the Bible! No, the Tea Party will support the space program only if we tether our efforts to an arbitrary timeframe, a simplistic goal, and a meaningless patriotic gesture: We will put an American on Callisto by 2023, and he will plant a flag made of guns!
Remember 2008, when global warming was an actual threat? Thank goodness we all bought canvas shopping bags in time. Scientists insist that rising temperatures have put the world in peril, citing dubious things like "data" and "evidence." But the Tea Party also makes a valid point, that wasn't it pretty cold yesterday? The real reason the Tea Party wants you to ignore global warming, however, is because rising ocean levels may lead to coastal flooding, which will submerge precisely the cities where all the liberals live.
Stem cell research
Tea Partiers claim that stem cells are the moral equivalent of babies, which means there's a huge untapped market for nanopacifiers. The issue here is whether life begins at conception, and I say, why stop there? Life begins at the conception of conception, that first moment when a man and a woman look into each other's eyes and experience the beautiful feeling that they should totally do it.
Teaching evolution in public schools
Judging from the placards I've seen at Tea Party rallies -- I now live in Washington, D.C., so I encounter a lot of rallies just by walking to the grocery store -- the party opposes the teaching of both natural selection and grammar. The problem is that we scientists have enabled their objection to evolution by our use of the word "theory." "The scientists admit it's just a theory!" cry the Tea Partiers, certain they've detected weakness. "Just like the Theory of Separation of Church and State or the Theory of Health Care!" I suggest we replace the word "theory" with "Holy Crap You Have No Idea How Certain We Are of This" -- as in the Holy-Crap-You-Have-No-Idea-How-Certain-We-Are-of-This of Evolution. Because, holy crap, Tea Partiers, you have no idea how certain we are of this.
The idea that we should reduce our dependence on fossil fuels offends many Tea Partiers because they believe that God both provided the oil and invented the diesel engine. One of my favorite unexplained hypocrisies of the Tea Party is its assertion that because Earth is 5000 years old, all fossils are a hoax -- but fossil fuels, man, those things are awesome.
Bioterrorism is the only subject with the prefix "bio" that the Tea Party favors investing in, and that's only because of its stem and suffix, "terror" and "ism." Even Tea Partiers, though, may have become a bit complacent because of movies like Outbreak that show how an antiserum for any new disease can be synthesized in a matter of hours with no specialized knowledge by Cuba Gooding Jr.
Tea Partiers sure like products. And jobs, too. Especially jobs that make products. But the research that allows these products to exist? There's no need to fund that. Any research whose use isn't immediately apparent must be an unnecessary earmark, a sign of wasteful spending, and something that makes socialists want to have gay sex. No, they believe, technology does not arise from research. It comes from a magic land of fully formed ideas; so rather than invest in basic science, we should embark on an expedition to find this magic land, where we'll further innovation by granting tax cuts to the wealthiest 1% of its citizens.
More important than any piece of scientific research is the collection of fearsome science-fiction scenarios that comprise its implications. "I approve of scientific research!" Tea Partiers will occasionally declare. Then they'll look around suspiciously as though J. Craig Venter and Ian Wilmut are hiding behind a potted plant. "But," they'll whisper, "I fear its implications."
Even the most innocuous research can inspire fear in Tea Partiers:
SCIENTIST: I'm studying the mating habits of dung beetles.
TEA PARTIER: But what would happen if the dung beetles RAN AMOK?!?!
O'Donnell's recent television ad closed with a slogan that sounds like the last line of a trailer for a new M. Night Shyamalan film: "I'm not a witch; ... I'm you."
She's me in the sense that we both have ties to Wilmington and therefore, presumably, both enjoy milkshakes at the Charcoal Pit on Concord Pike. She's me in that neither she nor I pay sales tax at the Rehoboth outlets and in that we both probably laughed at the joke about Delaware in Wayne's World. She is my neighbor, but she is not my representative. And she is not me.
But if she and her friends win influence in November, our world will change. What will a Tea Party victory mean for the future of science and scientists? Here are some possibilities:
- The first author on every published paper will be God.
- Personal protective equipment will include safety goggles, a lab coat, and an American flag lapel pin.
- You will save time by generating both your hypothesis and your conclusion before beginning the experiment.
- Despite all evidence to the contrary, 15% of evolutionary biologists will believe that Barack Obama is a Lamarckian.
- The requirement for statistical significance, often p < 0.05, will become "p is difficult to understand, so let's just go with our gut."
- Foxnews.com will be accepted as a peer-reviewed journal.
- All chemical equilibria will shift to the right.
- An emboldened National Rifle Association will insist on the rights of every American to own and conceal scientific equipment. Remember, if Large Hadron Colliders are outlawed, only outlaws will own Large Hadron Colliders.
- All difficulties, especially budgetary issues, will be blamed angrily on the principal investigator, even if the previous principal investigator set the lab on fire before leaving office.
- Scientists, never the most physically commanding people, will have to adopt a variation on the Tea Party's favorite "Don't Tread on Me" flag. Perhaps: "Please Don't Tread on Me, as You'll Break My Glasses."
- Randomized, double-blind clinical trials will be replaced with séances.
- Our species will be renamed Hetero sapiens.
Uh-oh. I just realized that, while writing this article, I'm drinking a cup of tea. They've gotten to me already.
Photo:(top) Le Petit Poulailleron Flickr (Creative Commons License)
Adam Ruben is a practicing scientist and the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.