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Carolyn MazureBack to OpinionCarolyn Mazure

Rick Perry: Man of science?

Republican presidential hopeful Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during the Johnson County GOP Fall BBQ at Clear Creek-Amana High School, Friday, Oct. 7, 2011, in Tiffin, Iowa. Photo: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

In a recent Republican debate, Governor Perry offered that Galileo, often recognized as one of the fathers of modern science, “got outvoted for a spell” — referring to the time when the famous astronomer was tried for heresy by the Catholic Church because he posited that the sun was the center of our solar system. (Perry did not mention the important point that, in fact, the sun is the center of our solar system.)

Perry’s reference, by implicitly questioning the validity of science, serves as a siren’s call to his fundamentalist base. The Texas governor embraces the position that climate change is a “contrived, phony mess.” He maintains that the warming of the planet is not the result of human behavior — car emissions, factory pollution and the like — despite six independent investigations of climate data declaring humankind’s undeniable role in global warming. Perry argues that climate scientists are manufacturing concern to elicit money for their own studies and further their own careers. And Governor Perry does not stop there. He has also famously characterized evolution as a theory “that’s out there and has some gaps in it.”

As political analysts are pointing out, Perry’s cynicism about science is particularly intriguing, given that we now know that the governor himself has used scientists within his own campaign. Perry has gone beyond the typical practice of employing consultants, looking instead to social scientists, whom his campaign refers to as “eggheads,” to conduct actual experiments on potential voters. According to journalist Sasha Issenberg’s new book “The Victory Lab,” these carefully controlled experiments evaluate, for example, live versus taped appearances to determine how Perry can increase his approval ratings, contributions and volunteer recruiting. In adopting the findings drawn from these experiments, he has enjoyed an impressive track record of success in his campaigns. As if science has not done enough in helping him to win past elections, the use of this scientific approach also has saved his campaign money.

So if the scientific method is so good for Perry and his campaign, why is he trying to discourage public trust in it?

Certainly if one wants to be seen as outside the mainstream — the zeitgeist of current presidential contenders — one good way to do it is to question basic principles, like how the world goes round. However, by introducing doubt about scientific findings and discrediting scientists’ authority, he also attempts to create a void that he can fill. What better way to foster fear than by increasing uncertainty about what to believe and who to trust? Perry, recently interviewed in Time magazine, attested: “I think people are fearful. And they’re looking for someone who they can be excited about.”

Which leads to the inevitable question: Why has Perry stuck science, of all things, so squarely in the bull’s eye, drumming up voters’ vulnerability?

For starters, science is an easy mark. Our country struggles with understanding what science is and what scientific findings mean. In part, this is because as scientists, we too rarely, and not always clearly, explain the real world implications of scientific work. And, in part, this is because despite great effort on already cash-strapped schools to stay competitive globally, our science education has fallen behind.

Nonetheless, science can truly be an antidote to fear. By uncovering the unknown, science and scientists help us solve problems and improve our lives. In fact, despite Governor Perry’s doubts about our solar system, climate change and the biology of life, the broad and expanding science of evolution actually teaches us how species change and adapt to survive.

Scientific inventions — electricity, transistors, the Internet — advance the connectivity of our world. Further, scientific developments in myriad fields like engineering, physics and mathematics are essential if we’re to remain competitive economically. According to a National Academy of Sciences report, “as much as 85 percent of measured growth in U.S. income per capita was due to technological change.”

Science doesn’t just make us more of a player in the global market — it can also save our lives. For example, the recent completion of the human genome project is actively leading to new diagnostic tests and therapies for a variety of diseases. Just in the past two weeks, scientists at the University of California, San Diego announced that they have identified the multiple genes that play a role in regenerating nerves after injury. These new findings may prove invaluable to treating those who suffer from spinal cord injuries and strokes.

At a time when so many of us are facing insecure economic futures, seismic geopolitical shifts and growing environmental distress, it’s understandable why we would be attracted to a confident leader who seems to have the answers we are looking for. The irony is that it’s scientists who are actually testing and finding solutions for some of the most frightening challenges Americans are up against.

Carolyn M. Mazure is a professor of psychiatry, and associate dean for faculty at Yale School of Medicine.