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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 6:59 AM
Updated: Sep 3, 2018 6:59 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.

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 333180

Reported Deaths: 7502
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto22901279
Hinds22780438
Harrison19569326
Rankin14851287
Jackson14342251
Madison10692227
Lee10437179
Jones8746169
Forrest8210157
Lauderdale7561243
Lowndes6790150
Lamar669688
Lafayette6459124
Washington5516139
Pearl River4915149
Bolivar4909134
Oktibbeha478498
Panola4723112
Marshall4654106
Warren4640127
Pontotoc440473
Monroe4255137
Union425379
Neshoba4182180
Lincoln4098115
Hancock405088
Leflore3565125
Pike3530112
Tate349588
Alcorn343974
Sunflower343093
Adams333387
Scott331775
Yazoo331173
Simpson314890
Copiah313867
Itawamba310180
Coahoma308785
Tippah298868
Prentiss292963
Covington282483
Marion279580
Leake278475
Wayne270743
Grenada266388
George261651
Newton256664
Tishomingo236869
Winston235584
Jasper226148
Attala220873
Chickasaw216360
Stone210237
Holmes195674
Clay192254
Clarke182080
Tallahatchie181742
Calhoun177532
Smith175935
Yalobusha169440
Walthall141548
Lawrence137726
Greene135734
Amite132843
Noxubee131635
Perry131038
Montgomery130944
Carroll124531
Webster117532
Jefferson Davis113334
Tunica111127
Benton104625
Claiborne104331
Kemper100729
Humphreys99133
Franklin85923
Quitman83519
Choctaw81319
Wilkinson74632
Jefferson69728
Sharkey51518
Issaquena1696
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 570667

Reported Deaths: 11483
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson834821584
Mobile45819855
Madison36785532
Tuscaloosa26757465
Shelby26612255
Montgomery25739624
Baldwin23810325
Lee16801181
Calhoun15130332
Morgan14941289
Etowah14662368
Marshall12806235
Houston11515292
Elmore10654217
St. Clair10521251
Limestone10472158
Cullman10257204
Lauderdale9991253
DeKalb9298191
Talladega8739187
Walker7594286
Autauga7419113
Jackson7269117
Blount7184139
Colbert6583142
Coffee6045131
Dale5326117
Russell465842
Chilton4645117
Covington4579125
Franklin444381
Tallapoosa4379157
Escambia420082
Chambers3852125
Dallas3688163
Clarke364462
Marion3380106
Pike324879
Lawrence3192101
Winston291072
Bibb280165
Geneva271583
Marengo258567
Barbour243461
Pickens239162
Butler236172
Hale231878
Fayette224564
Henry205145
Randolph194944
Cherokee193948
Monroe192141
Washington177139
Macon167552
Crenshaw164458
Clay162559
Cleburne159145
Lamar149538
Lowndes144354
Wilcox129231
Bullock125642
Conecuh118130
Coosa116029
Perry109928
Sumter108032
Greene97836
Choctaw63825
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