Will the anti-science Republicans kill conservatism as Americans know it?

With a few notable exceptions, most of the contenders for the seat of Republican presidential candidate are outspoken critics of science. They and their supporters refuse to acknowledge the reality of climate change, want science teachers to tell students that human life was created by a spiritual force from beyond space, and suggest that the best way to get out of our debt hole is to cut government funding for the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, which allocate money to cancer research and childhood autism treatments.

But based on recent demographics, these Republicans are out of touch with what Americans on both sides of the political spectrum want, which is more jobs in science, health care, engineering, and technology. Far from appealing to the average American, the Republican anti-science stance may alienate the party further from the mainstream.

A Nation of Science Workers

Already, some of the most desirable jobs in the United States are directly or indirectly related to science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM). According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, half of the six top-earning occupations in the country are STEM-related: these include jobs in computers, architecture, and medicine. Two of the lowest-earning occupational areas, healthcare support and forestry, also involve science. So STEM isn't just for the elites. Indeed, the fifth largest occupation in America, which employs almost 2.7 million people, is nursing.

Will the anti-science Republicans kill conservatism as Americans know it?

Chart via US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Click to expand.

Americans want STEM jobs, too. US News and World Report's "50 best careers" survey for 2011 singled out jobs in technology and health care as the areas with the "most opportunity." In other words, anti-science Republicans are placing themselves at odds with a huge number of American workers, from military engineers to midwestern nurses. And they are openly disparaging the kinds of STEM skills required to have careers that many Americans consider to be among the best out there.

Especially given that STEM careers are on the rise, Republicans who seek to cut funding to science education and research risk reducing opportunities for young conservative voters who dream of one day working in hospitals and tech companies, or becoming inventors who create more efficient agricultural tools and better pacemakers.

The Rise of the Unaffiliated

Another way anti-science Republicans risk alienating voters is with their argument that Christian Creationist teachings should replace parts of science education. Crowding out science classes with religious training could undermine young people's ability to compete for STEM-related jobs, of course. But Creationism is also an issue that could alienate a growing segment of the electorate who may be conservatives, but identify themselves as "unaffiliated" with any organized religion.

According to the most recent census data from 2008, the fastest-growing religion in America is "unaffiliated." This does not mean that atheism or godlessness is on the rise — it just means that more and more Americans don't identify themselves as part of an organized religion. And that, in turn, means Republican appeals to organized religions like Christianity as a way of boosting an anti-science agenda are going to fall on deaf ears more and more often.

Will the anti-science Republicans kill conservatism as Americans know it?

Chart via Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Click to expand.

Recent census numbers show the unaffiliated representing 16.1% of Americans. At that size, we can expect that this group could easily swing an election one way or the other. This especially true when we look at future trends. The number of self-identified unaffiliated people in America has nearly doubled in size since 1990, and if it doubles again over the next twenty years you've got a large chunk of the electorate indeed.

Interestingly, Latinos are one group where unaffiliated beliefs have grown in popularity quite quickly over the past two decades. Latinos are also one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the US, and they can strongly influence the outcome of local elections in Republicans' favor. This trend is likely to snowball over the coming century: the US Census projects that Latinos will be nearly 25 percent of the US population by 2050.

Future Political Demographies

If the anti-science Republicans continue to lead the conservative charge in America, they risk alienating a large demographic of people who work in STEM-related jobs, and who are not affiliated with an organized religion. Anti-science Republicans run the risk of appearing to reject the value of careers that drive the US economy, and fuel the dreams of Americans. They also risk appearing out of step with a population of people who don't consider organized religion to be an important part of their identities.

One possible outcome of this clash between Republican leadership and American values is that we'll see the rise of pro-science conservatism. Already Silicon Valley's libertarian magnates are altering the course of world politics, and with their investment the high tech sector could prove fertile ground for such a movement. Another possible outcome is that disgruntled pro-science Republicans will start voting Democrat or Independent, and Republican party leadership will have to change its position on science in order to remain relevant in tomorrow's America.

Of course there are many options in between, but these seem the most likely results of the profound cultural rift between the anti-science Republicans and the future of America.

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