STREAMING NOW: Watch Now

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.

Mike Pence

Political Figures - US

Belief, religion and spirituality

Business and industry sectors

Business, economy and trade

Climate change

Donald Trump

Drugs and society

Elections and campaigns

Energy and environment

Energy and utilities

Environment and natural resources

Government and public administration

Government bodies and offices

Government organizations - US

Political organizations

Politics

Science

Smoking

Society

US Congress

US federal government

US political parties

US Republican Party

White House

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: 501097

Reported Deaths: 9990
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34338538
DeSoto32117403
Hinds31939628
Jackson24494382
Rankin21995390
Lee15543235
Madison14581280
Jones13851242
Forrest13453251
Lauderdale11991317
Lowndes11050188
Lamar10521135
Pearl River9533237
Lafayette8550140
Hancock7732127
Washington7438158
Oktibbeha7146131
Monroe6777177
Warren6694176
Pontotoc6664102
Neshoba6637206
Panola6531131
Marshall6467134
Bolivar6317148
Union602894
Pike5820152
Alcorn5669101
Lincoln5436135
George496879
Scott472898
Tippah469281
Prentiss467281
Leflore4658144
Itawamba4636105
Tate4588111
Adams4587119
Copiah448592
Simpson4446116
Yazoo444187
Wayne439772
Covington428894
Sunflower4239105
Marion4226108
Coahoma4160105
Leake408288
Newton381779
Grenada3707108
Stone360364
Tishomingo359792
Attala331589
Jasper329965
Winston314291
Clay308076
Chickasaw300367
Clarke292494
Calhoun279446
Holmes267987
Smith264050
Yalobusha234047
Tallahatchie228051
Greene219348
Walthall218763
Lawrence212940
Perry205556
Amite205156
Webster202946
Noxubee186740
Montgomery179656
Jefferson Davis171743
Carroll169138
Tunica159839
Benton148838
Kemper141941
Choctaw133426
Claiborne132737
Humphreys129538
Franklin120228
Quitman106428
Wilkinson105139
Jefferson94534
Sharkey64120
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 819597

Reported Deaths: 15406
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1147901924
Mobile725791338
Madison52306697
Shelby37597350
Baldwin37245552
Tuscaloosa35101612
Montgomery34106740
Lee23526246
Calhoun22225488
Morgan20941378
Etowah19825500
Marshall18361304
Houston17384412
St. Clair16054339
Cullman15443293
Limestone15343199
Elmore15241286
Lauderdale14302295
Talladega13836283
DeKalb12649261
Walker11202370
Blount10192176
Autauga10043148
Jackson9871184
Coffee9210191
Dale8897185
Colbert8860201
Tallapoosa7084198
Escambia6772134
Covington6712183
Chilton6641162
Russell636659
Franklin5959105
Chambers5607142
Marion5005127
Dallas4973200
Pike4795106
Clarke475584
Geneva4571127
Winston4516103
Lawrence4321117
Bibb425186
Barbour357776
Marengo338090
Monroe331464
Randolph329764
Butler326396
Pickens316284
Henry312666
Hale311388
Cherokee302860
Fayette292880
Washington251551
Cleburne247760
Crenshaw245275
Clay243368
Macon234663
Lamar224147
Conecuh186153
Coosa180240
Lowndes175164
Wilcox168839
Bullock151644
Perry138840
Sumter133038
Greene126744
Choctaw88527
Out of AL00
Unassigned00
Tupelo
Partly Cloudy
65° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 65°
Columbus
Clear
63° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 63°
Oxford
Clear
64° wxIcon
Hi: 79° Lo: 59°
Feels Like: 64°
Starkville
Clear
63° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 60°
Feels Like: 63°
Clear cool and dry to begin your weekend, but both afternoons should be a little bit above what we expect for this time of year temperature wise. Rain chances begin to return late Sunday night, with at least two chances for storms over the next week, summer could be strong.
WTVA Radar
WTVA Temperatures
WTVA Severe Weather