Sunday Sinner Guest Post: Shouldn’t Scientists Make Decisions About Science? By Donald Prothero
Donald R. Prothero has taught college geology and paleontology for 34 years at Caltech, Columbia University, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, and Pierce colleges. He earned his M.A. in 1978, and his Ph.D. in geological sciences at Columbia in 1982, and his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from University of California Riverside in 1976. He is the author over over 35 books (including 7 trade books and 5 leading geology textbooks), and over 250 scientific papers. He is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, the Paleontological Society, and the Geological Society of America. He served as President of the Pacific Section SEPM (Society of Sedimentary Geology) in 2012 (vice-president in 2001), and five years as Program Chair for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1991, he received the Schuchert Award for outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40. He has appeared in many science documentaries, including Paleoworld, Walking with Prehistoric Beasts, Monsterquest, Prehistoric Monsters Revealed, Conspiracy Road Trip: Creationism, and Prehistoric Predators: Entelodon and Hyaenodon. He blogs every Wednesday at www.skepticblog.org.
Shouldn’t Scientists Make Decisions About Science?
The news recently has been full of shocking and disconcerting quotes from the members of Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida was quoted as saying that “the age of the earth is a great mystery,” then had to backtrack when the storm of controversy descended upon him. The most outrageous is by Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia (an M.D., even!), who said (in a recent speech at the Liberty Baptist Church Sportsman’s Banquet):
“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist [note: Broun is NOT a real scientist] that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says. And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.”
When he heard this statement, Bill Nye said:
“Since the economic future of the United States depends on our tradition of technological innovation, Representative Broun’s views are not in the national interest,” Nye told The Huffington Post in an email. “For example, the Earth is simply not 9,000 years old,” he continued, contradicting a remark made by Broun later in the video. “He is, by any measure, unqualified to make decisions about science, space, and technology.”
Or take the now-infamous Todd Akin, Congressman from Missouri who lost his bid for a Senate seat from that state. It was bad enough that he believed and spouted some myth from a discredited anti-abortion doctor that a women’s body can “shut down” and prevent impregnation from rape. But at a recent Tea Party meeting, he said:
I don’t see it [evolution] as even a matter of science because I don’t know that you can prove one or the other. That’s one of those things. We can talk about theology and all of those other things but I’m basically concerned about, you’ve got a choice between Claire McCaskill and myself. My job is to make the thing there. If we want to do theoretical stuff, we can do that, but I think I better stay on topic.
Or take Michele Bachmann, who began her political career fighting for creationism in Minnesota schools, is an extreme hard-line creationist, global-warming denier, and even spouted nonsense from anti-vaxxers during her brief presidential campaign. How about the original field of nine GOP presidential candidates, only one of whom openly admitted that he agreed with the idea of evolution? Who knows how many other Southern GOP Representatives are also creationists, since that is the majority viewpoint in the South?
How about Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin? He’s one of the loudest climate-deniers in Congress, with a list of quotes showing he’s read and absorbed nearly every lie from the climate denier lobby? Or how about Congressman Ralph Hall from Texas, who
was asked about climate change and said, “I don’t think we can control what God controls.” He also said he agrees with Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) that climate scientists are involved in a conspiracy to receive research funding. When the reporter noted that a survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 97 percent of climate-science researchers agree that human activities have contributed to global warming, Hall responded, “And they get $5,000 for every report like that they give out,” adding, “I don’t have any proof of that. But I don’t believe ’em.”
Or take Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who still chatters on about the debunked idea that scientists were predicting global cooling in the 1970s. Or Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, from an extremely conservative district in southern California. He has said in recent months that
an earlier period of global warming may have been caused by “dinosaur flatulence.” Last year, after coming under fire for seeming to suggest that if global warming is real it could be addressed by cutting down trees (when in fact forests reduce global warming by absorbing atmospheric carbon), he issued a statement saying, “I do not believe that CO2 is a cause of global warming.”
These statements of scientific illiteracy and science denialism are appalling enough by themselves, but even scarier is the thought that they come from the members of the House Science and Technology Committee! Hall is the Chair, Sensenbrenner is the Vice-Chair, and Akin, Broun, Brooks, and Rohrabacher are all prominent members. How is it that the House Committee with the greatest influence over science funding and policy in this country is dominated by people with demonstrably false views about science? Shouldn’t a committee in charge of such important tasks as overseeing science policy in this country be run by people who at least understand science, if not by scientists themselves? How did the inmates come to run this insane asylum?
In a recent column, mathematician John Allen Paulos (author of the bestseller Innumeracy) argued that there should be more scientists in Congress. He writes:
I’ve visited Singapore a few times in recent years and been impressed with its wealth and modernity. I was also quite aware of its world-leading programs in mathematics education and naturally noted that one of the candidates for president was Tony Tan, who has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. Tan won the very close election and joined the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who also has a degree in mathematics. China has even more scientists in key positions in the government. President Hu Jintao was trained as a hydraulic engineer and Premier Wen Jiabao as a geomechanical engineer. In fact, eight out of the nine top government officials in China have scientific backgrounds. There is a scattering of scientist-politicians in high government positions in other countries as well. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a doctorate in physical chemistry, and, going back a bit, Margaret Thatcher earned a degree in chemistry. One needn’t endorse the politics of these people or countries to feel that given the complexities of an ever more technologically sophisticated world, the United States could benefit from the participation and example of more scientists in government. This is obviously no panacea — Herbert Hoover was an engineer, after all — but more people with scientific backgrounds would be a welcome counterweight to the vast majority of legislators and other officials in this country who are lawyers. Among the 435 members of the House, for example, there are one physicist, one chemist, one microbiologist, six engineers and nearly two dozen representatives with medical training. The case of doctors and the body politic is telling. Everyone knows roughly what doctors do, and so those with medical backgrounds escape the anti-intellectual charge of irrelevance often thrown at those in the hard sciences. Witness Senator Bill Frist, Gov. Howard Dean and even Ron Paul.
Paulos speculates that scientists are ill-suited to the culture of American politics, where stretching the truth and schmoozing rich people and corporations is the prerequisite. As he puts it:
For complex historical reasons, Americans have long privately dismissed scientists and mathematicians as impractical and elitist, even while publicly paying lip service to them.
One reason is that an abstract, scientific approach to problems and issues often leads to conclusions that are at odds with religious and cultural beliefs and scientists are sometimes tone-deaf to the social environment in which they state their conclusions. A more politically sensitive approach to problems and issues, on the other hand, often leads to positions that simply don’t jibe with the facts, no matter how delicately phrased. Examples as diverse as stem cell research and the economic stimulus abound. Politicians, whose job is in many ways more difficult than that of scientists, naturally try to sway their disparate constituencies, but the prevailing celebrity-infatuated, money-driven culture and their personal ambitions often lead them to employ rhetorical tricks rather than logical arguments. Both Republicans and Democrats massage statistics, use numbers to provide decoration rather than information, dismiss, or at least distort, the opinions of experts, torture the law of the excluded middle (i.e., flip-flop), equivocate, derogate and obfuscate. Dinosaurs cavorting with humans, climate scientists cooking up the global warming “hoax,” the health establishment using vaccines to bring about socialism – it’s hard to imagine mainstream leaders in other advanced economies not laughing at such claims.
Paulos argues that our celebrity-obsessed culture prefers flash over substance, and our tendency to give all viewpoints equal time, even garbage vs. science, works against it. In his words:
Skepticism enjoins scientists — in fact all of us — to suspend belief until strong evidence is forthcoming, but this tentativeness is no match for the certainty of ideologues and seems to suggest to many the absurd idea that all opinions are equally valid. The chimera of the fiercely independent everyman reigns. What else explains the seemingly equal weight accorded to the statements of entertainers and biological researchers on childhood vaccines? Or to pronouncements of industry lobbyists and climate scientists? Or to economic prescriptions like 9-9-9 and those of Nobel-prize winning economists? Americans’ grandiose (to use Newt Gingrich’s malapropism) egalitarianism also helps explain why the eight or nine original Republican presidential candidates suffered little for espousing, or at least not clearly opposing, scientifically untenable positions. Jon Huntsman, the only exception, received excessive kudos for what seems a rather lukewarm acceptance of climate change. To avoid receiving the candidates’ canned responses on these and other issues, I sometimes wish that a debate moderator would forgo a standard question about immigration or jobs and instead ask the candidates to solve a simple puzzle, make an elementary estimate, perform a basic calculation.
With this kind of background, it’s no wonder we saw absurdities like that same committee on March 10, 2011, trying to officially define carbon dioxide and other known greenhouse gases as not greenhouse gases, and restricting the scientific information the EPA could act upon. After this absurd display of putting politics before scientific reality, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts delivered a withering rebuke:
Mr. Chairman, I rise in opposition to a bill that overturns the scientific finding that pollution is harming our people and our planet. However, I won’t physically rise, because I’m worried that Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating about the room. I won’t call for the sunlight of additional hearings, for fear that Republicans might excommunicate the finding that the Earth revolves around the sun. Instead, I’ll embody Newton’s third law of motion and be an equal and opposing force against this attack on science and on laws that will reduce America’s importation of foreign oil. This bill will live in the House while simultaneously being dead in the Senate. It will be a legislative Schrodinger’s cat killed by the quantum mechanics of the legislative process! Arbitrary rejection of scientific fact will not cause us to rise from our seats today. But with this bill, pollution levels will rise. Oil imports will rise. Temperatures will rise. And with that, I yield back the balance of my time. That is, unless a rejection of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity is somewhere in the chair’s amendment pile.
Sadly, the recent election returned all of those same House Republicans on the Science and Technology Committee to Congress, where (thanks to gerrymandering), they held control of the House, and will still hold the same positions on that committee (despite the fact that Democratic House candidates won more votes). So I don’t expect a more science-literate 113th Congress next January, and nothing can be done about the situation until the GOP loses the House.
The situation reminds me of the famous quote from Mark Twain:
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.