In some ways, we’re brilliant. Take the Republican party, for example. Their representatives have declared that climate change isn’t real, evolution isn’t proven, rape isn’t a problem, birth control isn’t necessary, and guns are great. And they still keep getting elected. Not that political parties need to be immersed in the latest science, but to claim as Bobby Jindal recently did that he has no opinion on evolution because he’s not a biological evolutionist makes you wonder if he has an opinion on gravity, having never studied Newton. Or for that matter, what’s his opinion on the speed of light?
Alas, we are enveloped in waves of such sophistries. For politicians to parrot a climate denier’s implausible assumptions or some Missouri popinjay’s insistence that rape isn’t real, is to insist on the kind of ignorance that must be actively sought after, applauded, advanced. In fact, this kind of ignorance must be so cleverly calculated that it can compel workers to vote against their own interest, over and over, like what happened recently in Tennessee when Volkswagen allowed its workers to vote for union membership and they voted it down while holding placards produced by Americans for Prosperity, an Orwellian named front group designed to bust unions, among other things. Funded by the Koch brothers, natch.
The media enables the sideshow, of course. Talking heads like George F. Will lend a patina of Edwardian styled class to what is at best an intellectual Happy Meal. This despite actual journalism going on in the same paper (the Washington Post) pointedly refuting George Will’s erroneous claims:
“The new evidence — including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s — contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.”
Thank you Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan of the Washington Post, for pointing out the obvious, but gratitude aside, what kind of editorial hack would allow a columnist to essentially make up facts, or, at minimum, distort interpretation such that the column says the exact opposite of what the science is trying to convey? Fred Hiatt, at the Washington Post, for one. The Wall Street Journal editorial page for another. Then of course, Fox News. But even the so-called liberal media usually gets the frame wrong for science disputes. When Republicans say there is no such thing as climate change, and Democrats reply that climate change is real, CNN and the like say, “Look, Democrats and Republicans are fighting again,” which is a kind of truth, but Gravity is real and so is climate change. Why not point that out? Maybe, as a followup question, someone could ask Republicans what their feelings are on black holes and whether or not the Earth revolves around the sun?
Last weekend, well over 310,000 climate activists descended on NYC out of pure frustration with this phenomena (estimates range from 310,000 to over 500,000). For years now, as the science community has essentially screamed that climate change is real, is happening, is dangerous and will cause untold millions to suffer and cost untold billions, our conservative politicians essentially said, “Meh” or “I can’t hear you.” Or they presented disingenuous arguments like Republican congressmen Rep. Steve Stockman from Texas who claimed sea level rise will not be an issue because when ice melts in a glass of water it does not overflow, failing to realize that much of the ice on the planet is on land and would run into the ocean. Jon Stewart spent a bit of time at Comedy Central schooling him (after asking repeatedly, “are you fucking kidding me?”), which might be funny, only Stockman happens to sit on the Science, Space, and Technology Committee for the US House of Representatives; and, as such, guides our national agenda. This is rather like putting a six-year-old intellect in charge of our national science priorities. I say this with apologies to six-year-olds everywhere.
Not all Republican climate deniers are too stupid to breathe, however. Those with a glimmer of intelligence fall back on various dodges and rationales provided by lobbyists from energy companies and PR firms whose roots were formed deep in other, older protracted public relations battles around tobacco and cigarettes. The Royal Society conducted a survey that found ExxonMobil had given $2.9 million dollars to such American groups that “misinformed the public about climate change,” 39 of which “misrepresented the science of climate change by outright denial of the evidence”. In 2006, the Royal Society issued a demand that ExxonMobil withdraw funding for climate change denial. The institution was ignored. Between 1989 and 2002 the Global Climate Coalition, a group of mainly United States businesses, used aggressive lobbying and public relations tactics to oppose action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight the Kyoto Protocol. The New York Times reported that “even as the coalition worked to sway opinion [towards skepticism], its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.” The lobbyists, of course, remained undeterred—their job wasn’t science, after all, it was persuasion. And they were good at their jobs.
Thanks to such work, politicians have reversed their positions and moved away from supporting efforts to push for renewables and other ways to lessen our carbon footprint. Consider this: the 2012 Republican nomination battle saw Romney, Gingrich, and Pawlenty all disavow their past support for climate science and climate protection. In one debate, Pawlenty was challenged on his climate change efforts as head of the National Governors Association and governor of Minnesota, and he replied: “It was a mistake, and I’m sorry … You’re going to have a few clunkers on your record, and we all do, and that’s one of mine. … I made a mistake.” As Newt Gingrich took heat for a TV ad in which he and Speaker Nancy Pelosi sat together and spoke on behalf of climate action, he repeatedly declared it was “the dumbest thing I’ve done in the last four years.” Mitt Romney, who prioritized climate change action as governor of Massachusetts, used his speech accepting the Republican nomination to take a dig at President Obama’s concern over climate change, then repeated the line on Meet the Press, insisting: “I’m not in this race to slow the rise of the oceans or to heal the planet.”
Scientists came to a decisive view on the dangers of global warming in the 1980s, the Reagan era, when faith in the power of unfettered markets surged and it was harder than ever to make the case for collective action, market regulation and a strong role for the state. But tough national and international regulations is exactly what the crisis requires. Conservatives fought this not only because it aligned them with wealthy corporations whose deep pockets enabled their candidacies, but because it also aligned with their general principle that less government was always better.
Worse, though, in the world of the conservative ideologue, there’s a growing conviction that an environmental scientist is a potential 5th columnist. They call this the ‘watermelon’ theory on the environmental movement, green on the outside, red on the inside, because any effort toward stronger regulations is socialist, apparently. Does your organically cleaned washroom breed Bolsheviks? This is delusional, to be sure, but delusional world views have real world consequences. Galileo was sentenced to house-arrest and died a broken man in 1642. Shortly before he died, imprisoned and exhausted, Galileo denied what he knew to be true and finally agreed with the Catholic church: okay, whatever, the Sun revolves around the Earth. No oceans failed or worlds boiled into oblivion because of his capitulation, which, of course, will be the consequences of denying that anthropocentric global warming is real.
By the way, the Catholic church did not admit that they had made a mistake on that little matter of the Earth revolving around the Sun until 1992.
H.L. Mencken, who always had an eye for the weak and dumb in American life, paid an inordinate amount of time considering the case of the American South. One of Mencken’s tongue in cheek laws was that “Nature abhors a moron,” and one of his favorite pastimes was to attack the South for being ruled by what he termed the “booboisie.” …an interesting mash-up of boob and bourgeoisie. When Mencken called out Arkansas for especially sharp ridicule by elevating the state to “the apex of moronia,” the Arkansas legislative body complained and Mencken was, predictably, unmoved. Trying a different tactic, the Arkansas House of Representatives decided to hold a group prayer, to pray for Mencken’s soul. His response? “I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves and the sound of many things in my ears,” Mencken told the press, “and I knew the House of Representatives of Arkansas was praying for me again.”
This obviously didn’t convert the Arkansas House of Representatives to his view, nor, by the way, did it affect Mencken. If anything, his readership probably went up. In a famous essay on the South entitled the The Sahara of the Bozart, Mencken suggested that the South was now “almost as sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”
Harsh words. And it is true the South has changed extensively since Mencken’s time. In fact, as if in retaliation, a Southern literary boom followed shortly on his venomous pronouncement. But many of the Southern state’s governments are as backwards and as moronic as anything Mencken might have inveighed against today. Take the current refusal to support minimum wage laws, the rabid union busting, the disregard for environmental regulations, the South’s addiction to gun culture, and their denial of Federal funds for Medicaid expansion even when the Federal funds are being handed out freely. Really, all these are indicative of less than stellar intellectual activity. But perhaps the most significant parallel lies with those who still tow the biblical story line on creation, like Virginia House Delegate Richard Bell’s recent attempt to legislate the teaching of creationism and climate change denial. Mencken, I suspect, would take special delight in Delegate Bell, just as he took special delight in the infamous Scopes ‘evolution’ trial. He even convinced Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes in what he famously duped, “the Monkey Trial.”
Maybe Delegate Bell would like a brief primer on that historical event. Throughout most of the eight-day trial in Dayton, Tennessee, Mencken’s reports were syndicated nationally with equally stinging political cartoons seen by millions of Americans. In a not so funny twist, a mob almost lynched him after he called the people of Dayton “yokels,” “primates,” morons,” and “hillbillies.”
But Mencken saved his most potent venom for William Jennings Bryan, the populist defender of the biblical view. “It is a tragedy, indeed,” Mencken wrote of Bryan, “to begin life as a hero and to end it as a buffoon. But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us can shake and inflame them, and he is desperately eager to order the charge.”
Williams Jennings Bryan was a great orator, a great populist and religious man, true, but his view of evolution was more nuanced than today’s current crop of fundamentalists. In fact, he seems a far more sophisticated man than Delegate Bell, or Ken Ham, the current defender of the creationist creed at Kentucky’s local yokel creationist museum shop. According to historian Ronald L. Numbers Bryan, “not only read the Mosaic ‘days’ as geological ‘ages’ but allowed for the possibility of organic evolution. Bryan’s main argument with the Darwinian view was its application to human societies. Bryan believed that Social Darwinism served not so much as an explanation for injustice but more as an excuse for injustice, particularly in the areas of harming the weak and waging war.
Byran was actually victorious in the Scopes trial, at least from the perspective of the jury and citizens of Dayton, but it was a pyrrhic victory at best. Just five days after the Scopes trial ended, Bryan died. Not one to soften his rhetoric, Mencken declared privately, “We killed the son of a bitch.” Publicly he quipped that God had taken a thunderbolt and threw it down to kill Clarence Darrow but missed and hit Bryan instead.
God knows what Mencken would have to say about our current day creationists, Delegate Bell or Ken Ham, neither of whom have the rhetorical chops of Bryan, nor his intellectual acumen. In fact, if Ken Ham and his creationist project is any indication, the South has actually gotten worse since Mencken’s time. To be fair, it’s really not just the South—though it’s heavily represented. Roughly, half our population believes in some kind of creationist myth. That’s like saying half our population doesn’t believe in gravity. The fact that a debate took place at all, much less took place at a Creation Museum which purports that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs and man co-existed; and that geologic features such as the Grand Canyon and fossils were created in a global flood provoked by Adam and Eve’s original sin—make the debate even more strikingly weird than the one Mencken wrote about 83 years ago. By all accounts, Bill Nye, The Science Guy, won, but the fact that the debate was even held tells us more about the rabid anti-intellectualism of the new South than Phil Robertson waxing dumb in interviews after Duck Dynasty.
Unfortunately, Delegate Bell’s bill, HB 207, is a kind of a doubling down on dumb, not only supporting a ridiculously anti-scientific view of evolution and climate change, but demanding that public schools teach fiction beside non-fiction with equal weight. HB 207 would direct the Virginia State Board of Education and local school boards to “assist teachers to find effective ways to present scientific controversies in science class.” Sounds innocuous on its surface, but once you read the bill, you begin to understand that it essentially creates a “right” for teachers to teach kids to be skeptical of “scientific theories” — even when overwhelming scientific consensus exists. Fox News comes to the school yard.
According to a report by the National Center for Science Education, the bill forbids “any public elementary or secondary school teacher from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science class.”
The language of HB 207 is so broad that just about any controversial topic involving science would fall under its restrictions.
Dickie is not acting alone, unfortunately. The bill is part of a national trend of legislative proposals, led by creationist organizations like the Discovery Institute and climate-change deniers such as the Heartland Institute. Together these organizations have pushed schools nationally to adopt curricula that has encouraged educators to include in their lectures the “non-scientific problems” creationists and intelligent-design proponents claim to have identified in the theory of evolution. A federal court held in 2005 that teaching intelligent-design in public schools is unconstitutional.
Mencken of course would love this turn of events — in a deeply cynical fashion, of course. Besides arguing about the relative merits of evolution, Bell’s House bill would also demand equal time for climate change deniers. There’s rich irony in this — for whether Bell and educators acknowledge it or not, scientists have identified climate change as a major threat to the Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia. The National Journal reported last February that, “the economic impact of these [climate change] forces will be profound; some estimates run as high as $25 billion.”
In 2012, Bell’s colleague, Del. Chris Stolle (R) called “sea level rise” a “left-wing term” and excised any mention of it from a state report on coastal flooding…Yes, please. Kill the messenger. That’s always an effective solution. Not only shall we deny science, we shall deny the reporting of science, the teaching of science. We shall mandate ignorance for our region and our time.
H.L. Mencken would feel right at home.
Note: HB 207 was effectively killed in the Courts of Justice Committee on February 12, 2014
Busy day here at APV, this Saturday marks our first fundraiser, here’s a link if you haven’t heard about it and are planning on being in Richmond this weekend, and everyone is hustling to get their work done and be ready for the big throw down. With that in mind, here’s some light reading for your Wednesday afternoon.
So, Michael Lind, the Policy Director for the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation, a “centrist” Washington think tank, published an interesting article in Salon yesterday morning:
Lind notes that new technologies in fossil fuel extraction push back the date at which the industrial world will begin to seriously run out of carbon based energy, and he thinks this is a very good thing. I.e. there’s centuries worth of coal just waiting to have the mountains scraped off it, new fracking technologies mean there’s enough natural gas for another hundred years, there’s lots of oil in shale and tar sands in Canada and the high plains and new advances in undersea extraction will allow us to get at all that methane under the sea floor (not to mention all the methane trapped in ice and permafrost that global warming is helpfully releasing). Even better it’s all here in North America, so we don’t have to go to the Mid East, and buy/steal it from those nasty Arabs.. Oh and another thing, “Global Warming” is sort of a scare tactic by the “Greens” who want everyone to live like Hobbits in some idilic medieval agricultural paradise… and, even if it is really as bad as everyone says, it won’t be that bad, and we’ll all adjust and be fine, or at least the kind of people who work for well funded Washington think tanks will be fine (I’m sure science will come up with a way to raise Martha’s Vineyard a couple feet when the seas eventually do rise). Oh and, if you have to move away from hydrocarbon based fuel… nuclear power is a great alternative and we need more and more of it, cause it’s so clean and cheap and safe… hell, I can’t even figure out how they turn a profit on it, it’s so cheap, and clean and… er safe, right? If this seems well, a little too good to be true, welcome to the club. The letters section at Salon did a good job of raking him over the coals so I’m not going to do an extensive critique here, but I will point out a few things and then I’ll post some interesting links that commentators volunteered.
Lind hypothesizes that there’s something on the order of five times as much oil and natural gas available as was formally thought, but as I mentioned last week in another post, the oil companies are going after this stuff precisely because the easy to get oil and gas is running out. This stuff is hard to get to, it’s dirty and needs much more refining, it makes a terrible mess of the environment and in the case of fracking, the technology is very new and the risks it poses are just now becoming apparent. Fracking poses a real threat to the water table, and if you haven’t seen the Academy Award nominated documentary Gasland I suggest you have a look for a quick seminar on the law of unintended consequences.
Methane makes CO2 look like an amateur when it comes to green-house gasses. There’s real fear that as the ice caps melt and the permafrost in the arctic thaws, massive amounts of sequestered methane could be released leading to a truly catastrophic effects on the earth’s climate. Lind seems to think this is also fine, all that methane is just sitting there waiting to be burned for fuel to power our washing machines and ipads, never mind the war, pestilence, famine and death that will surely follow the massive climate disruption this will cause. This is indicative of Lind’s thinking throughout the article, so what if the monsoon fails in India, so what if the western desert spreads into the great plains and the corn belt moves north, so what, as long he doesn’t have to use mass transit and besides, the Canadians aren’t exactly gonna stand in our way are they? And yes, I’m being hyperbolic but these are the same thought processes that brought us the war in Iraq, the hurricane Katrina debacle and the BP oil spill, “Don’t worry, nothing can go wrong, and if it does, then, we’ll think of a plan to fix it”… or not. I’m not that worried that we’re about to run out of oil completely and be plunged into a Road Warrior world, where desperate gangs fight for supremacy amidst the ruins of civilization (the fevered dream of so many of those fat, camo wearing, gun hoarders you see at certain rallies), or that the climate will change drasticaly in the next weeks or months. But I do worry that the kind of inside the beltway complacency that Lind manifests in this essay, will prevent us from doing the hard work that is needed now so that we don’t have to face the many bad scenarios that come from forever waiting and procrastinating until it’s too late.
Here’s Andrew Leonard’s take down of Lind in Salon today.
“If Michael Lind’s intention, in his Salon article published Tuesday, “Everything you’ve heard about fossil fuels may be wrong,” was to throw so many bombs at once that critics would be too buried by shrapnel to respond, then he at least partially succeeded. It’s hard to know where to start grappling with a column that simultaneously dismisses the challenge of global warming, declares a new golden age of fossil fuels that could last millennia, ridicules renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar while advocating a massive nuclear power buildup, and even throws in a few digs at city-living and organic agriculture, just for fun. Readers who might more logically expect to see such sentiments espoused in the National Review or the American Spectator than in Salon were unsurprisinglyannoyed.“
Finally, what to make of this sort of thing is always hard, something tells me that the powers that be will try and keep solar and other renewables expensive and exotic as long as they can until they can figure out a way to put a meter on the sky. Still, we encounter so much bad news, so much of the time, it’s nice to report something good for a change.