There’s no Tea in Sanity

Tea-Party-MeetingBrad Plumer writes that the GOP party-wide rush to denounce climate change is being driven by a small minority of fervent Tea Party types.  While it’s an interesting read in its own right, there’s a larger subtext I find downright frightening.  There’s no reason to suppose these findings are limited to their climate fantasies.

Two points struck me:

Researchers on cognitive social networks at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently found that “when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society.”


Tea Partiers are also by far the most confident in their beliefs — more likely to say they are “very well informed” and that they “do not need any more information about global warming.” Note that this dovetails with earlier research finding that when you give those dismissive of global warming more information, it only serves to harden their doubts.

Self-identified Tea Party types make up just 12 percent of the population.  But that’s apparently enough to give them and their warped reality sway over public opinion and policy.  And there’s apparently little the rest of us can do to induce any sanity on them either.  The more we dump rational arguments and data on them, the further convinced they are about their delusions.

Are we doomed to the anti-science Christian theocracy they envision?  A world where our money is tied to gold, the government is apathetic to your plight, education is relegated to kitchen tables and churches, corporations are free to pollute their way to profits, unions don’t exist, and medical care will only be available to those with enough chickens to trade for it?

I’m certainly not expecting the GOP debate tonight to dissuade my fears.

If the economy tanks, will Conservatives repent?

Debt Ceiling Implications Poll
The scariest debt-ceiling poll results, ever

The debt ceiling talks appear to have stalled and the August 2nd date of economic doom draws neigh.  Wall Street bankers, The Fed, the Treasury Department, and most every economist on the planet believe that hitting the debt ceiling will have dire consequences, and that actually defaulting on the debt would be even worse.  Estimates vary in terms of the degree of catastrophe, but virtually no one in a position to be considered an expert on macroeconomics thinks that hitting the ceiling will be no big deal.

In that light, the poll results depicted here are truly frightening.  53% of Republicans, 43% of Independents, and even over a quarter of Democrats believe hitting the ceiling won’t cause a crisis.  Further, somewhere around 60 Congressmen have vowed to vote against any debt ceiling increase, no matter the deal.  Clearly they aren’t worried either.

Chauncey DeVega, over at AlterNet, thinks the reason is that evangelicals have a strong hold on the GOP, and that the fervently faithful have a mindset that ignores numbers that don’t agree with their ideology.  He posits that the Tea Party and other far right conservative groups are running on faith rather than fact.  While there may be some truth to that, it doesn’t explain the plurality of Independents or the chunk of Democrats beholden to the notion that banging into the debt ceiling is a non-event.

I personally think there’s also an element here of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”.  Political issues have become so hyperbolic in the media that virtually every issue is positioned as a looming Armageddon of one sort or another.  Unless you’re following the minutiae of the debates, you’re bound to get pretty numb to all the doomsaying.

However, presumably our elected officials are above simply blowing in the media wind.  They have access to data and discussions those of us in the cheap seats do not.   They are in the position to be able to discern hyperbole from actual danger.  Yet this would not prevent them from being blinded to facts by faith.

GOP legislators faith-blindness goes beyond the debt ceiling.  Similar faith-trumps-data rationale fuels denial of global warming, belief that tax cuts don’t have to be paid for, belief that progressive tax codes constitute class warfare and destroy jobs, belief that trickle down economics is always the answer, and government regulation is always evil.

The problem is that proving that tax cuts actually lower revenue, or that CO2 contributes to global warming, requires many years of data.  And even then,the results are subject to interpretation and are not readily understandable by the average Joe.

Should we hit it, the debt ceiling presents an interesting test case.  If the experts are right, the impact will be felt in the very short term.  It will be widespread, affecting almost everyone, everywhere.  And the impact will be felt for awhile.  It will be virtually impossible to deny that such an impact was directly attributable to ignoring the debt ceiling.  The Conservatives who claimed it would be no big deal will be demonstrably and painfully proved wrong beyond any reasonable doubt.

Should that come to pass, the question is, will that shake the faith of Conservative politicians and supporters in their other sacred tenets?  Might they be willing to entertain the reality of global warming given the catastrophic impact of their blind faith in the debt ceiling non-crisis?  Or will this be swept under the rug much like the predicted May 21st end of the world predictions.  That was also proved wrong, but the faithful seem to somehow have accepted that failure with no apparent impact on their other beliefs.  Maybe a sufficiently strong faith is even able to overcome incontrovertible reality.

Either way, if the economy tanks, it should certainly cause the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” crowd to pay attention.  Maybe that bodes well for our collective political future if we can at least get the majority of the voters to begin operating from data-based rather than faith-based policies.  Although, it would be a hellish way to learn a lesson.


Shimkus on the genesis of global warming

New Orleans Flood
Don't sweat the coming flood, there'll be fresh veggies in Greenland

Illinois Republican John Shimkus is vying to be the head of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce when the new Congress convenes in 2011.  This committee is one of the oldest in existence, and plays a central role in the formulation of energy policy.  It would also be the genesis of any carbon or climate based legislation.

I’m sorry, did I say genesis?  No, a Shimkus led Energy and Commerce Committee would be the genesis of no such thing.  Why?  Because of Genesis, as in the Book of.  Shimkus recently quoted Genesis 8:22 on the House floor, “As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never cease.”  He cites the passage as proof that we needn’t worry about this whole silly global warming thing because God says He won’t let us destroy the planet.  It’ll be over when He says it’s over, and not before.  (Charles Jaco, of KTVI in St.Louis covers the story in a video clip.)

Yet Shimkus doesn’t stop there.  He explains that the notion of puny little mankind impacting something like the global climate is strictly arrogance on our part.  Sure, the climate’s changing, but we didn’t do it, can’t stop it, and frankly should just embrace it—go with the flow, so to speak.  He goes on to tout the upside to global warming.  Sure, New Orleans and NYC will be underwater, but hey, vegetable gardens in Greenland!

Where was this line of reasoning during the cold war?  We’d have saved billions of dollars and countless man-years of worry and angst if only we’d realized global nuclear annihilation would be prevented by God instead of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).  And think of all the money wasted on smokestack scrubbers to abate the northeast’s acid rain in the 70’s.  If only we’d have been patient, God would have set it right for us.

God’s fine with us being irresponsible.  He kind of expects it.  After that whole Eve and the snake debacle He learned that having given us free will meant he was going to spend eternity chasing us around with a galactic size roll of supernaturally absorbent Bounty towels to clean up our messes.  So, you know… no worries.

Maybe Shimkus is fully aware he’s using the bible as a lever to carry out the objectives of the big oil lobby.  Maybe he’s dumber than a starving polar bear who walks 1000 miles to hug a man in his driveway and fails to think, “(sniff, sniff) Hmmm… smells like lunch.”  Either way, let’s not put this guy in charge.

Mythbusting popular science

Are they helping or hurting science? (Photo by Roger Jones on Wikimedia)

Science has an image problem in this country.  In everyday culture, it’s gone from being an arcane art to being a popularity contest.  It’s commonplace to see surveys asking people on the street if they believe in evolution or if they believe in global warming—as if somehow science was subject to democratic majorities.

The danger is that much of what people believe about science is shaped by the media.  Yet the media is motivated by attracting eyeballs more than conveying the nuances of a topic.  Hence, an interesting bit of research by a scientists at Cornell gets turned into the headline:

Scientist proves that humans are psychic

All of which would be fascinating, except that’s not really what happened.  The study shows a data correlation that could be explained by people having precognitive abilities, but may have other explanations.  After all, science is about understanding why and how something happens, not just that it does.  Otherwise a scientist might observe the data correlation that supermarkets are more crowded on Saturdays, then conclude that clearly people are more hungry on the weekend and call it a “proof.”  Fortunately, science goes a bit deeper than that.  The burden for calling something a scientific proof is actually pretty darn high.  But most people don’t really know that.  They don’t really understand the scientific process.

Science has been popularized by television shows like Mythbusters where the cool side of applied science usually involves blowing something up.  While this has been a great boon for making science more accessible, it also does a disservice by creating the perception that a couple of guys in a well stocked warehouse can scientifically prove something given a few hours and an ample supply of duct tape.  While these experiments are great entertainment, they are not scientifically accepted proofs.  And this is a distinction lost on many of the viewers.

This issue is not particularly limited to the field of science.  Politics often has similar situations such as when popular polls are held asking how to fix the economy, as if the economy will yield to a majority vote.  Perhaps the better question is, why are we so keen to take complicated fields, boil them to their essence, and then claim mastery of the discipline?

Part of this problem is based on our slide into the populist ideal where everyone is thought capable of everything.  The notion that the only thing distinguishing me from a corporate CEO, a concert pianist, or a Nobel laureate is just that I haven’t yet chosen to apply my considerable talents to that field yet.  It’s not that hard, there’s nothing special about people who do that.  I could be President.  I could be a climate scientist.  I could be a rock star.  I just haven’t chosen to be.  We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid we give our young children in an effort to encourage them and give them self-esteem, and somehow it’s convinced us that nothing is very complicated or outside our grasp.

Maybe the world really is an abstruse place.  Maybe experts really do add value.  And while it’s great that you’re interested, maybe following along in the news doesn’t quite give your opinion on the matter quite the same weight as professionals working in the field.

GOP promises a return to the dark days of science

phrenology-head (by DoubleM2 on Flickr)
Phrenology Head (Photo by DoubleM2 on Flickr)

Next week, voters are widely expected to give the House back to Republicans.  There’s also a reasonable chance the Senate will change hands as well.  One of the areas that will suffer the most if and when this happens is science and technology.

It’s not just that science based programs and research funding will be cut. Those programs were slashed dramatically under the Bush Administration, and the weak economy has not allowed Obama to restore many of them.  Rather, it is the country as a whole that will suffer.

Under President Bush, science was repeatedly purged, censored, twisted, and manipulated to back politically motivated objectives.  Scientists were fired or defunded for not reaching conclusions that were ideologically aligned with the administration.  Science was not seen as a quest for objective understanding and technological progress, but at a means to a pre-defined end.  It’s no wonder scientists hailed the election of Barack Obama who promised that scientific thought and research would play a crucial role in his government.

Yet the going into the mid-term election, the GOP continues to promise that they will return the country to the dark days of science where profit and religious doctrine will hold sway and data can stay in the back room with the geeks.

This is seen most clearly in the denial of anthropogenic global warming.  While 92% of climate scientists find the data supporting man-made warming credible, exactly 0% of current or prospective Republican Senators or Congressmen do.  As a result, they’ve vowed to not only kill any sort of carbon based energy policy, but have promised to hog-tie the EPA so they will be unable to regulate carbon dioxide under existing laws despite the Supreme Court ruling that not only is it legal for them to do that, it is their obligation.  This position is not motivated by science, but rather by profit for the existing industries.

Republicans have promised to block any attempts at net neutrality regulations despite evidence that such policies would foster innovation and spur development of new technology based industries.  The reason being that such regulations might erode profits for existing business models.  Something the current corporate titans don’t want to have to deal with.

The GOP has more recently come out against funding development of rare earth minerals outside of China.  This despite the dependence of high tech devices and projects on such minerals.  The danger being that China currently produces 97% of the world’s supply of rare earths, and has strongly indicated that it will hold them hostage should countries such as ours demand currency adjustments or changes meant to create a fairer trade balance between China and the rest of the world.  In this case, the motive for stalling the initiative is purely political, as it thwarts a potential accomplishment the Democrats might claim.

In addition, the Republicans have their unfounded morality based opposition to stem cell research.  And further still, the desire to teach our children that science is only useful when it doesn’t lead you to uncomfortable conclusions like evolution or the big bang.

This is not a condemnation of conservatives.  By definition, conservatives are disposed to preserve the existing condition.  They are the natural political brake assuring that choices are made carefully and cautiously.  But the current GOP position is not really conservative at all.  They want to take us backwards.  Back to the dark ages of reason where superstition reigned.

Many on both sides of the aisle pine for the time when the economy ran strong, the middle class flourished, and the US was an unquestioned superpower on the world stage.  All those things are directly attributable to this country being the science and technology powerhouse on the planet. Those days are behind us… and the Republicans seem intent on keeping it that way.