Mike Pence's problem with science

This is the third in a series of three op-eds tracing the long path of Vice President Mike Pence's ambit...

Posted: Sep 3, 2018 7:59 AM
Updated: Sep 3, 2018 7:59 AM

This is the third in a series of three op-eds tracing the long path of Vice President Mike Pence's ambition, from college, where he found a form of evangelicalism that weds theology to Republican politics, to the national stage -- and a job that puts him a short step away from the presidency. Part one: Mike Pence's plan to outlast Trump Part two: Mike Pence went to college and found God

Mike Pence won his first political campaign in 2000 using what became his basic strategy of guns, God, and money. He raised lots of cash by appealing to big-time conservative donors -- among them, Betsy DeVos, Charles and David Koch, and Erik Prince -- with hawkish positions on taxes and regulation. He found his voters at churches and gun clubs. He spiced his recipe with attacks on science that placed him to the right of many of his fellow Republicans.

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Like a handful of Republicans, Pence made an issue of the pending agreement to settle government lawsuits against tobacco companies for lying for decades about the dangers of their addictive products. Pence didn't just oppose the deal. He insisted it was based on a lie and the result of a pernicious government plot.

"Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media," Pence wrote in 2000, "smoking doesn't kill. In fact, 2 out of every three smokers does not die from a smoking related illness and 9 out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer."

Pence's first bit of data was simply wrong. Two-thirds of smokers actually do die of smoking-related illnesses. His second was misleading. Lung cancer is a relatively rare illness, but it is still vastly more common among smokers. In fact, it is one of the few cancers for which science has established a very well-known cause, and Pence's column was published after industry leaders had acknowledged the health risks of their product.

Why would a candidate for Congress speak so falsely and recklessly? Pence's motivation may have been connected to his family's ownership stake in a chain of convenience stores called Tobacco Road, which sold cigarettes alongside soft drinks and chips. But he was also eager to establish some libertarian street cred. "A government big enough to go after smokers is big enough to go after you," he wrote.

Anti-intellectualism has a long tradition in American politics. Pence was part of its resurgence at the start of the new millennium. He was an outspoken skeptic when it came to climate science, even though reputable experts had been warning about carbon emissions and rising temperatures since the mid-1960s. Pence declared "global warming is a myth" and alleged, against the evidence, that Earth "is actually cooler today than it was about 50 years ago."

Although Republicans had once been in the forefront of the effort to regulate so-called greenhouse gases, a disinformation campaign funded mainly by fossil-fuel interests had elevated skepticism about the science to an article of faith in the GOP. As a coal industry memo noted, opponents of efforts to curb pollution needed to "reposition global warming as theory (not fact)."

The abuse of the word "theory" is a favorite technique for anti-science activists, and Pence gave this classic move a workout after he got to Congress. In one of his early speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives, Pence announced, "It has ever been an avocation of mine to contemplate and to study the origins of man and of life here on Earth."

If Pence's vocabulary was a bit 19th-century, so was his thinking. After calling Charles Darwin "a sincere biologist," Pence attacked the science of evolution, which, in his telling, was conjecture and thus no worthier of respect than other notions about the origins of life. Darwin "hoped that some day it would be proven by the fossil record but did not live to see that," declared Pence, "nor have we."

Of course, there is nothing uncertain in the prevailing science on the origins of life on Earth. As the National Academy of Science explains, a scientific theory is not merely conjecture. It is "a comprehensive explanation of some aspect of nature that is supported by a vast body of evidence." This is why physicists still talk about a "theory" of gravity that explains why objects fall down and not up and biologists speak of "cell theory," even though the fact that living things are composed of cells is established truth.

A willful denial of the facts was required for Pence to press his case against Darwin, but he was clearly devoted to this cause. Having cast doubt on the science of evolution, he said that he was only asking for everyone to be open-minded. "I would simply and humbly ask ... can we also consider teaching other theories of the origin of species?"

Then, he declared that his own mind was shut.

"The Bible tells us that God created man in his own imagine, male and female," said Pence. "He created them. And I believe that."

Pence's speech on evolution, preserved on C-SPAN, was delivered in the cadence of a radio preacher. Pence had developed this way of speaking during his years as a broadcaster, when he pitched himself as "Rush Limbaugh on decaf." But as friendly as he sounded, Pence was determined to impose his religious views through public policy and to do it through the manipulation of language.

Another example was his proposal to use federal funds to turn gay people straight. So-called "conversion therapy," promoted by quacks and religious bigots, assumes that homosexuality is a medically treatable pathology, which it is not. Pence's proposal never gained traction in Congress, but it was a loud dog whistle to those on the homophobic Christian right.

With not a single piece of successful legislation credited to him as author, Pence was more activist than lawmaker. He posted a more conservative voting record than all but 20 fellow Republicans. He regularly addressed the Conservative Political Action Convention (C-PAC) and wowed the Christian right with calls for a Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

Pence as governor

With his sights set on the White House, Pence sought executive experience back home in Indiana, where a GOP advantage in registration helped him win a narrow victory in the 2012 governor's race. He installed his wife, Karen, in an office at the state house, a first for first ladies of the state, and had a pair of red phones wired to connect his desk directly with hers.

Pence was unremarkable as governor, save for his commitment to the causes of Christian conservatives in pushing a state law that permitted discrimination against gay customers by businesses. When Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2015 was approved, Pence signed it into law in a rare, private ceremony where he was flanked by clergy from a variety of religions.

Reaction to RFRA and the photo was intense. Pence backed down, seeking amendments that watered down the law. But while the episode seemed to threaten his future, he was rescued by Donald Trump's offer to join his ticket as the GOP's 2016 candidate for vice president.

In the weeks after the presidential election, Pence took over the Trump transition team as then-New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was pushed aside. Trump's lack of political experience opened the door for Pence to suggest many of his friends and allies for top federal jobs. A number of cabinet secretaries, including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, have closer ties with Pence than Trump. It is Pence who sponsors a regular White House prayer breakfast attended by top officials, and he has been most influential in the selection of Trump's nominees to the Supreme Court.

Six months into the new administration, Republicans were already talking about how Pence seemed to be running a shadow campaign to become the GOP nominee for president in the event that Trump was felled by either the Russia scandal or some other force. Pence's chief of staff is a sharp-elbowed political player named Nick Ayers, and his connections to big donors are strong. Organized and methodical where the President is chaotic and impulsive, Pence is ready to achieve the dream he believes God wants him to fulfill.

Should Pence achieve his goal, he would likely remake the GOP, now almost a cult devoted to Donald Trump, as a Christian right political party where people of other faiths would struggle to find a home. Instead of policy driven by personality, a Pence administration would likely pursue policy guided by a particular reading of the Bible. And the divisions that now seem to be separating Americans would become broader, deeper, and even more difficult to bridge.

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