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Todd Akin and Rightwing Science

Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri did not misspeak when he misrepresented the nature of rape and women’s biology in a television interview. Rather Akin repeated what is conventional wisdom on the right, opening a trap door into a subterranean world of ideologically-driven right-wing science.

The self-serving science of the right takes place in protected spaces funded by conservative donors for research, analysis, and advocacy that are insulated from the checks and balances of professional scholarship. Conservatives have carved out their own private world of publications and conferences that lack the academic safeguards of open submissions by all comers, anonymous peer reviews from scholars of varied perspectives, and sufficient disclosure to replicate results. They have created websites, background papers, issue briefs, opinion pieces, and legislative analyses based on this flawed work that flouts the standard procedures of scientific study.

Todd Akin’s claim that women automatically protect themselves from pregnancy in “legitimate rape” has long been part of right-wing science.  In 1999, John Willke, MD published an article “Why Pregnancies are Rare” in Life Issues Connector. This is the in-house publication of the Life Issues Institute, an anti-abortion advocacy group that follows the model of purveying religious and political views as scientific truths. Willke is also the former president of the National Right to Life Committee.

With more pseudo-scientific flourish that Akin could muster, Willke makes the same point that women spontaneously reject the seed of rapists: “There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.” He claims that this internal defense mechanism and other factors (such as the alleged natural sterility of 15 percent of the population) limits the number of pregnancies from “assault rape” to about 200 per year, not enough to give anyone pause about banning abortion in cases of rape.

Willke cites no research to support his theory of women’s biological defense from rape fertilization and independent studies have found that the incidence or pregnancy from rape is about the same as other forms of intercourse, coming close to about 30,000 per year. Yet Willke’s article still appears on right-wing websites and is cited by conservatives who have risen to Akins’ defense.

Willke’s work typifies the right-wing ideology masking as science, on issues such as abortion and rape, homosexuality, evolution, and climate change. In 1992, conservative psychiatrists and therapists founded the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which challenged the scientific consensus by contending that homosexuality was a sexual illness, preventable in childhood and curable in adulthood through “reparative therapy.” NARTH blamed the contrary scientific consensus on a code of silence imposed by politically correct associations and journals.

The groups published a newsletter, the NARTH Bulletin and placed its work in friendly journals such as the law review sponsored by Pat Robertson’s Regent University. NARTH internally published a study, “Retrospective Self-Reports of Changes in Homosexual Orientation: A Consumer Survey on Conversion Therapy Clients,” cited as reliable scholarship by Christian Right leaders but debunked by independent reviewers for falsely claiming success in curing homosexuals. Conservatives continue to cite NARTH’s self- generated, self-published work as proof of the baleful effects of homosexuality on individuals and societies.

The Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture set up in 1996 with money from Christian right donors, challenges the theory of evolution on alleged scientific grounds. It promotes so-called “intelligent design” as a non-religious alternative to evolutionary theory, which posits that the complexity of life on earth required intervention by a higher intelligence. An internal memo entitled “The Wedge Project” exposed the Center’s religious and political agenda. It cited intelligent design as the “wedge” for “nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its damning cultural legacies” in favor of a “broadly theistic understanding of nature.” Design theory, it said “promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

Once again, theology and politics are disguised as science. Intelligent design has no testable hypotheses or predictions about the natural world. No empirical body of work to support intelligent design has made it into peer reviewed scientific journals. Nonetheless, the well-funded Center skillfully created the appearance of scientific debate by financing sympathetic scholars and creating a self-contained network of journals, conferences, seminars, and books (many published by religious presses) that were marketed in the media and used by conservative politicians.

The right has also constructed a sell-funded coordinated network of groups dedicating the denying the occurrence of human-induced climate change. Some of these organizations, like the George C. Marshall Institute include some eminent scientists. However, the goal of this network is not to study openly the issue of climate change, but to counter the views of most independent scientists, including the scholars serving on the UN’s Independent Panel on Climate Change, that global warming is real, dangerous, and advanced by human activity. The work of the denier scientists is then disseminated by conservative think tanks and politicians to prove that the science on climate change is too uncertain to justify remedial measures.

Ironically, one of the most prominent deniers, physicist Richard Muller, has since recanted his views, based on the overwhelming evidence for global warming and the contribution made by human emissions of carbon dioxide. He now says, “Greenhouse gases could have a disastrous impact on the world,” But there are plenty of other more complaisant deniers to take his place.

Todd Akin has opened up the issue of how the right used pseudo-science to advance its political and religious agenda. It is now the responsibility of the media to devote its resources to exploring thoroughly this issue.

Allan J. Lichtman, a professor of history at American University, is the author of White Protestant Nation.

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