“Let’s play “Jeopardy.” Round One: Science Literacy. Category: Evolution. For $500: Which is the largest demographic group to reject Darwin’s theory of evolution?”

According to Chris Mooney’s bestselling new book, The Republican Brain, a follow up to his 2007 polemic The Republican War on Science, the answer is easy: Tea party Republicans.

From 50% to 80% of Americans, depending on the poll and how one interprets the data, do not believe in evolution. Yet natural selection theory has been settled science for more than a century. Even the Catholic Church agrees that evolution doesn’t have to conflict with church dogma. So, what gives?

The explanation, according to Mooney is simple: conservatives are scientifically illiterate. Mooney bases his conclusions primarily on two issues: anthropogenic global warming and evolution. The heat generated by Republican grey matter working through complex scientific theories pops their hard-wired neural circuits like corn heating in a kettle. Because science is made up of “facts,” he writes, there must be some neuro-cognitive evolutionary reason for why the right wing brain limps along asit does. He equates the far right of the Republican base, which does fervently embrace these anti-science views, with both Republicans and conservatives in general.

It’s a neat theory: Republicans are congenitally defective. Well, he doesn’t use the word “defective”. He does say he believes they are cognitively incapable of accepting such staggeringly complex concepts as “survival of the fittest.” But he’s got a big heart. I’m not making value judgements, he’s quick to claim. I’m just reporting facts. We should try to understand these mental slackers not blame them.

Just-so science

Trendy science journalism has long been hampered by a style of argument that identifies patterns of behavior and then tries to construct adaptive explanations for why this group thinks that way or why that group votes this way. These speculations have been charitably called “science.” They should be more contemptuously labeled “just-so stories” as they rely on the fallacious assumption that every behavior exists for a biologically deterministic reason.

Mooney’s narrative reminds me of the fanciful Rudyard Kipling tale about how the leopard got its spots. They came about courtesy of the leopard’s friend, an Ethiopian, who painted it with black paint left over from darkening his own skin. Kipling’s wonderful turn-of-the-20th century “Just So Stories” contain fictional tales that pretend to explain scientific phenomenon. No one takes them seriously. The trouble with Mooney’s “just so” story about the biology of politics is that some people—mostly Democratic ideologues—do believe it.

Let’s return to our Jeopardy contest, which highlights a classic just so story. What’s the correct answer? There is a clear Republican-Democrat split over the validity of evolutionary theory, although neither party’s adherents win awards as a group for scientific literacy.According to the latest poll on this subject, by Fox News, in September 2011, the pollsters asked: Which do you think is more likely to actually be the explanation for the origin of human life on Earth, the biblical account or Darwin’s theory of evolution or both accounts (which is logically impossible,but humans are not always logical).

The results are frightening. Only 28% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans accept the purely scientific explanation. So, are both Democrat and Republican brains defective? To make his case, Mooney flips the issue upside down, lumping together as evolution supporters those who subscribe to the science and those who believe that God guided evolution (the“both” category). Using this metric, 52% of Democrats and 41% of Republicans subscribe wholly or in part to evolutionary theory. That’s a real but hardly earthshaking difference.

These patterns have persisted for decades, and scientific literacy on this issue may even be backsliding. In 2005, an NBC poll found that 33% of Americans subscribed to strict evolutionary theory; 57% believed in either the fundamentalist Biblical version of human origins, which holds that the earth was created in six days and a crafty snake talked poor Eve into sinning, or a divine presence.

Polling on hot-button science issues almost never breaks down the data by racial groups. But a friend of mine, who is an internationally respected geneticist and dean of research at the Joint School of Nano-science and Nano-engineering at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and North Carolina A&T University, was curious. Joe Graves,, who is black, asked pollsters Peter Hart and Bill McInturff for the response percentages among African Americans. Graves was saddened by what he was told. Only 16% of blacks believed in evolution; 80% accept a Biblical account at least in part; and more disturbing, he says, 60% take the Bible, as scientific gospel.

How do the views of blacks compare to tea partiers? They didn’t exist in 2005, but we do have recent polling data.The Fox survey, in line with others, found that 66% accept the Biblical account in whole or in part and 55% believe in the literal truth of the Bible.

The problem with just so theories is that, like Eve’s serpent, they come back to bite. Mooney has trapped himself into arguing that both tea partiers and African Americans have defective brains, with black “Democratic” brains being more so.

Why do blacks as a group reject evolution more than any other demographic in America, including conservatives? As Graves notes, the majority of American blacks belong to fundamentalist Protestant denominations, such as the National Baptist Convention, which claims that every aspect of the Bible is true. Graves believes the best explanation for anti-science thinking is not the Republican/Democrat divide but the religious and educational schisms in America. Tea partiers and African Americans, as groups, share certain characteristics. Their educational levels are low and their religious fervor is high. Several studies have demonstrated a negative relationship between student religiosity and likelihood to take science classes or pursue a science career. Turns out that if you factor in education and strength of religious belief, the Democrat-Republican divide dissolves almost entirely.

Liberal precautionary politics

As other critics of Mooney’s speculations have pointed out, by subject matter, the left anti-science kook index is remarkably high. It includes “natural” remedies and alternative medicine, the special nutritional benefits of organics, the inherent threat of genetically modified crops, cell phones as carcinogens, the link between vaccines and autism, the toxicity of tested and approved chemicals, the intrinsic dangers of fracking and nuclear power, etc. etc.

Yet Mooney goes apoplectic at any suggestion of equivalency. He contends that conservative denialism is more consequential than the liberal version. He excuses it as the product of really good intentions gone bad or mainstream liberal belief in the “do not harm” dogma of the “precautionary principle, which he praises as sound science.” Few scientists would agree.

In 1992 delegates at the United Nation's Rio Earth Summit approved a statement declaring: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” (emphasis added)

Led by the liberal “The Science and Environmental Health Network” and with the strong support of such mainstream leftist groups as the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Environmental Working Group, Greenpeace and the like, activists junked the UN statement and adopted the far more radical: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” (emphasis added)

The switch from a standard based on“irreversible danger” to one grounded in “harm” rankles scientists. In its crudest application liberals invoke the precautionary principle as a means of deciding whether to allow corporate activity and technological innovation that merely might have undesirable side effects on health or the environment. In practice, the principle is strongly biased against the process of trial-and-error so vital to progress and the continued survival and well being of humanity.

I couldn’t find any polls of scientists on this issue, but most international scientific bodies, including regulators in precautionary Europe, reject the hard-left version of the precautionary principle endorsed by Mooney. An informal survey of 40 top scientists by the British free thinking group Spiked found almost no one who supports the mainstream liberal view. Writes Spiked:

“Imagine medicine without vaccines, penicillin, antibiotics, aspirin, X-rays, heart surgery, or the contraceptive pill. Imagine scientific theory without Newton, Galileo, quantum mechanics, or the human genome project. Imagine transport without airplanes, railways, cars or bicycles; power without gas, electricity, or nuclear energy; agriculture without pesticides, hybrid crops or the plow. Imagine man had never been to the moon. This is how scientists imagine history, had past developments been subject to the constraints of the ‘precautionary principle—the assumption that experimentation should only proceed where there is a guarantee that the outcome will not be harmful.”

Debasing science literacy

Polemical books like The Republican Brain debase political debate and science literacy. It’s one thing to say that conservatives, or anyone, who reject evolution or the evidence that humans play a destructive role in climate change are ignorant on those particular matters. Republican politicos play shamelessly with the politics of global warming and evolution. Those are factual statements. It’s entirely different kind of argument, however, when he claims that those who reject evidence of global warming or evolution are hard-wired to ignore the evidence—that they have under-developed brains.

Despite his frequently sophomoric glibness, Mooney’s central thesis is worth exploring, even with the inherent uncertainty and author biases that infect the socio-psychological studies that he favors. There are intriguing issues here. For example, widespread Republican support for nuclear energy or GM crops is not necessarily an indicator of science literacy. A sizable percentage of conservatives may reflexively take these positions because it’s the opposite of what most liberals believe or because industry supports them. Had Mooney stuck to this kind of analysis and the indisputable cognitive dissonance displayed by über-conservatives (or liberals for that matter) on specific issues he might have contributed to the science literacy debate. Instead he went for the cheap polemic.

Despite what Mooney may believe, it is possible to think independently on science and policy issues even if one votes mostly Republican or mostly Democrat. I became a Democrat in 1972, briefly dropping out of college to volunteer in New Hampshire for George McGovern’s insurgent primary effort. I’m a 10-year columnist for the leftist Ethical Corporation magazine and run the Genetic Literacy Project affiliated with the liberal-leaning Center for Health&Risk Communication and the fiercely non-partisan think tank STATS at George Mason University. I’m also an unpaid fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which recruited me 10 years ago to write on science issues after I co-authored an op-ed in the Washington Post attacking George Bush’s stem cell policy for being anti-science.

I reject hard-line Republican stands on climate change, evolution, gay rights and abortion rights. But that doesn’t stop me from voicing support for many conservative principles, such as constructive free enterprise and financial sobriety, rejecting strangulating regulations, endorsing cost/benefit analysis-- and from roundly criticizing the mainstream left’s scientific illiteracy on some of the most important issues of our time, including its simplistic demonization of chemicals, genetic modification, nuclear energy and the shale gas revolution.

That’s why it was startling to read Mooney’s chapter, “What the Frack is True?” He writes that when he first encountered the controversy over hydraulic fracturing, he was seduced by anti-shale gas propaganda, like the documentary Gasland, which liberals still almost universally praise as if it were “Night and Fog” or “Titicut Follies.” After diligent investigation—diligence is what liberals do, of course, as opposed to conservative research standards, which apparently don’t exist—Mooney writes that he found that “[industry] didn’t appear guilty in the way that many environmentalists seem to assume.”

So, “does that mean liberals are wrong? Is fracking innocent?” he rhetorically asks. “The best answer I can come up with—a typically spineless liberal one, I confess—is “it looks that way….” But wait, there is more. Mooney goes on to say that his revisionist view of fracking is “a position increasingly taken by mainstream liberals, Democrats,and environmentalists … because it is a position that science and the facts allow them to take.”

Bzzz. The Jeopardy buzzer goes off. Wrong answer. It’s on this issue that Mooney shows his true spots, with apologies to Rudyard Kipling. “I’d love to see similar data on a scientific topic where liberals reject a widely accepted scientific fact in similar numbers,” Mooney has written.

Let’s go to the polls, as he likes to do. The latest research by the Pew Research Center, a liberal think tank, found that among those aware of what fracking is, 73% of Republicans versus 33% of Democrats believe fracking is reasonably safe; 53% of Democrats oppose it versus only 15% of Republicans. In sum, the percentage of Democrats who embrace the anti-science liberal view that even Mooney rejects is far, far greater than among Republicans. Don’t expect Mooney to come clean, but a far larger percentage of Democrats rejects the mainstream scientific views on fracking than Republicans reject evolution.

It’s not only Republicans who find many of Mooney’s just so stories dopey science. Check independent science blogs, like Science 2.0, whose readership is almost all liberal or left libertarian. Editor Hank Campbell, dismantles Mooney’s limited understanding of epigenetics, an emerging field of science that suggests that perhaps Lamarck had some things right—certain behaviors may actually be able to change the underlying genetic code. Proving that a little knowledge can be dangerous, Mooney makes the chicken-egg argument that Republicans vote Republican because their parents voted Republican, which rewired their brain and biology, with the reprogrammed DNA then passed on to their children. No, Chris, culture does not equal genetics.

Mooney does get occasional kudos from mainstream scientists, such as Neal Lane, former director of the National Science Foundation. But Lane doesn’t praise Mooney’s science acumen.“[A]t the highest levels of government, ideology is being advanced in the name of science,” he wrote in a blurb excerpted on the book’s cover. In other words, he likes Mooney’s polemical attack on Republican political know-nothings, who put adherence to far right causes or their eagerness for corporate donations ahead of sound science. But that’s not Mooney’s point in this book. He's claiming the"Republican brain" is less biologically developed than Democratic grey matter--and that's stupid.

Guess what? What some Republicans believe out of ignorance or for political expediency, soft-headed Democrats often embrace for ideological vanity (and sometimes for crude personal financial gain as well; see: organic farming lobby). Mooney and hard-edged Democrats may denounce this analysis as “equivalency,” but they often peddle something far worse: scientific illiteracy. Science is indeed on trial and unfortunately Chris Mooney is testifying for the anti-science faction.

Jon Entine is founder and director of the Genetic Literacy Project and senior fellow at the Center for Health&Risk Management and STATS at George Mason University.

(This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, May 3, 2012)

Featured image credit: 123RF