Why are they waging a war on science?

Nicole Colson asks why the right's anti-science prejudices are able to get a hearing.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Gage Skidmore)Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (Gage Skidmore)

THE LATEST report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is out, and the news is not good.

The report assesses the "impacts, adaptation and vulnerability" likely to result from climate change. Predicting serious negative impacts on food crops, water supplies and global species loss, as well as the potential destabilization of nation states, it should be a wake-up call to politicians in the U.S. and around the globe about the need to confront climate change immediately.

The last report from the IPCC in September removed any ambiguity about what was causing climate change: greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. This one tackles what it could mean for us. As Slate.com reported:

What makes the new IPCC statement so striking is its process. The entire 44-page summary was agreed to, line by line, by scientists and political representatives from more than 110 governments during a marathon session...That process also makes the report's conclusions necessarily conservative. The document therefore touches only on the effects of climate change that have widespread consensus.

The report states that there is "high confidence"--a greater than 80 percent chance--that "the combination of high temperature and humidity [will compromise] normal human activities, including growing food or working outdoors in some areas for parts of the year," threatening more famines and increases in food prices, among other outcomes.

The IPCC concludes with "medium confidence"--a greater than 50 percent chance--that "[c]limate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks."

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YOU'D THINK a study this frightening would be setting off alarm bells in the halls of Congress. But good luck getting a Republican member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology to even admit man-made climate change is real, let alone a problem.

According to a survey of legislators' public statements by the liberal group ThinkProgress, 130 members of the current Republican caucus in the House of Representatives--more than half--deny basic tenets of climate science. Half of this 130 deny that man-made climate change is even taking place. Of 22 Republicans on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, 17 are climate change deniers.

Among those 17--members of the House Committee on Science, mind you--are Georgia Rep. Paul Broun, who once described evolution as a "lie from the pit of hell," and California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, who has stated that global warming is not only a "total fraud," but a plot by liberals to "create global government to control our lives."

Days before the release of the new IPCC report, at a hearing of the committee to review the Obama administration's latest budget request for science agencies, the thundering ignorance of House members was on full display as they attempted to "catch" John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a scientific falsehood. Consider this exchange with Rohrabacher:

Rohrabacher: Do you believe that tornadoes and hurricanes today are more ferocious and more frequent than they were in the past?

Holdren: There is no evidence relating to tornadoes. None at all. And I don't know any spokesman for the administration who has said otherwise. With respect to hurricanes, there is some evidence of increased activity in the North Atlantic, but not in other parts of the world. With respect to droughts and floods, there is quite strong evidence that in some regions, they are being enhanced by climate change--not caused by [climate change], influenced by climate change.

Rohrabacher: I don't mean to sound pejorative...but they're weasel words--that in some areas, "globally" there's not more droughts, "globally" there's not more hurricanes and they're not more ferocious. Is that correct?

Holdren: If you want to take a global average, the fact is a warmer world is getting wetter, there's more evaporation so there's more precipitation, so on a global average there's unlikely to be more droughts. The question is whether drought-prone regions are suffering increased intensity and duration of droughts, and the answer there is yes.

Rohrabacher: [snickering] So we actually have more water and more drought? Okay, thank you very much.

Florida Rep. Bill Posey proceeded to ask Holdren why humans should be worried, since dinosaurs went through a period of climate warming. When Posey declared that the Earth has been subject to ice ages and periods of warming in the past, Holdren pointed out:

There have been periods when the temperature was 3, 4 or 5 degrees Celsius warmer than it is now. The difference between the circumstances you're describing and the circumstance we're in now is the changes that are being imposed on the climate--in a substantial part because of human activity--are faster than the ability of ecosystems to adapt and maybe, even more importantly, faster than the ability of human society to adapt.

As io9 website pointed out, Posey is recycling a line of Newt Gingrich, who once tried to claim that since the dinosaurs were "fine" living under a warmer climate, humans have nothing to worry about.

In a just world, Posey and Gingrich would have to relocate to an ice floe in the Arctic to run their own experiments about whether climate change is taking place or not.

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THE REJECTION of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change is just one of many instances of the misuse of science for political aims. All too often, "science" becomes an arena of political battles, where the consensus among experts is ignored and even ridiculed, or dubious science is promoted with the aim of bolstering certain political causes.

Consider, for example, how claims that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks of gestation have been used to push for increased limitations on women's right to obtain abortion. As Mother Jones reported in 2011:

According to a pair of Harvard researchers who have studied fetal pain bills, the 20-week bans are neither scientifically nor constitutionally sound. In a recent paper in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Glenn Cohen of Harvard Law School and Sadath Sayeed of Harvard Medical School note that there is no conclusive evidence that fetuses can feel pain at that point in gestation, nor are they considered viable...

The lawmakers and anti-abortion groups arguing for the 20-week bans are "espousing a view that aligns with the political hope," rather than medical evidence, says Sayeed, who is both a neonatologist and a lawyer.

But Republicans, at the state level especially, have also been successful in getting other fake science written into law regarding abortions--forcing women seeking to terminate a pregnancy to listen to claims about the "harm" abortion can cause, including thoroughly debunked "links" between abortion and breast cancer, or between abortion and mental health problems.

As New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rush Holt, a plasma physicist, explained to Salon.com, critiques about science from politicians are often in the service of ideological agendas:

I am not saying that scientists are smarter or wiser than other folks. But there are habits of mind...a deep appreciation of evidence, an ability to deal with probability and statistics, to be alert to cognitive biases and tricks that our minds play on ourselves...a willingness to accept tentative conclusions and...the uncertainty of these scientific conclusions--not as reason for inaction, but a way of finding the best path forward.

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NOT SURPRISINGLY, anti-science rhetoric and the misuse of dubious science is particularly pronounced among Republicans. While the right rejects the scientific consensus around climate change, it cherry-picks other disputed and debunked scientific claims when convenient for propaganda purposes.

Journalist Ronald Brownstein concluded in a 2010 article in the National Journal that the Republican Party in the U.S. is practically unique in its wholesale rejection of climate science:

The GOP is stampeding toward an absolutist rejection of climate science that appears unmatched among major political parties around the globe, even conservative ones...

Indeed, it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as is the GOP here. Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says that although other parties may contain pockets of climate skepticism, there is "no party-wide view like this anywhere in the world that I am aware of."

Climate denialism runs from the top of the Republican Party to ordinary supporters at the bottom. But there are differences among the different factions of the GOP. A Pew research poll from November found that 67 percent of Americans overall say there is solid evidence that the earth has been getting warmer over the last few decades--compared to just 46 percent of Republicans. But within the party, only 25 percent of Tea Party Republicans agreed with the statement, compared to 61 percent of non-Tea Party Republicans.

In other words, it is the Tea Partiers--right wingers who espouse a libertarian-style mistrust of "big" government and its policies--who are most committed to the anti-science offensive.

The impact of the Tea Partiers is reflected in beliefs about another scientific issue: the theory of evolution. The percentage of Republicans who say they believe in evolution has declined from 54 percent in 2009 to 43 percent in 2013, according to a December Pew poll.

You can also see the Tea Party's hallmark persecution complex in the public discourse around scientific questions: The expression of accepted scientific truths like climate change and evolution are contested on the grounds that the right wing is somehow being "oppressed" by those on the other side.

Consider the reception to the current Fox Cosmos series, hosted by physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Right-wingers are gaining media attention by attacking the show for its "biases" against creationism and "intelligent design" theory, the (slightly) more sophisticated version of creationism. Typical was the complaint of Danny Faulkner of the creationist group Answers in Genesis: "Creationists aren't even on the radar screen for them."

It's true that Cosmos has not given equal time to creationists--because, as deGrasse Tyson points out, the origins of the universe and the theory of evolution are settled questions as far as science is concerned. He told CNN:

I think the media has to sort of come out of this ethos that I think was in principle a good one, but doesn't really apply in science. The ethos was that whatever story you give, you have to give the opposing view, and then you can be viewed as balanced. You don't talk about the spherical earth with NASA and then say, "Let's give equal time to the flat-earthers."

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DEGRASSE TYSON'S comment is refreshing--as is the entire Cosmos series. It is a testament to the scale of the right-wing assault that hearing a scientist state on prime-time television that "[t]he theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is scientific fact" feels like a victory.

The hold of the anti-science dogmas of the right wing is connected to the general conservative shift in mainstream politics over the last three or four decades. This shift was driven especially by the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s, which gave the Republican Party--then attempting to retake the initiative against the achievements of the social movements of the 1960s and early '70s--useful foot soldiers in the culture wars.

The Religious Right and the related Tea Party phenomenon have been important factors in the GOP's success in dragging mainstream politics to the right--and more generally, in allowing Corporate America to wage its one-sided class war against the working-class majority.

Because of this, the right-wing ideologues have been tolerated, even when their fanaticism occasionally causes conflicts with the Republican establishment and the party's big business backers--like last fall, when the Tea Party wing of the GOP defied Wall Street and pushed the U.S. economy to the brink of default with the shutdown of the federal government.

Since then, the "adult faction" of the Republicans has attempted to reign in the ideologues, with some success. But the party's corporate-backed neoliberal agenda still requires an ideological assault on "big government"--which is why the right's anti-science offensive is still useful, even if it tarnishes the GOP's image in the eyes of sane people.

Climate-change denialism, in particular, does have another source. It is championed by sections of the ruling class--the fossil fuel industry, most obviously--whose profits depend on defeating any governmental action to respond to global warming. There is an entire industry devoted to disputing that climate change is real; insisting that if it is real, it isn't the fault of human beings; and denying that anything can be done about it.

But we also have to remember that climate-change denialism isn't the primary reason why the U.S. government isn't acting to curb greenhouse gas emissions. After all, the White House is controlled by a president who campaigned on the promise of reversing the Bush administration's put-the-oil-companies-first agenda.

Barack Obama and the Democrats readily admit that climate change is a real and present danger--in their partisan with the Republicans, they often warn about the dangers of denying that global warming is real. Yet they continue to pursue "all of the above" energy extraction policies that are guaranteed to make climate change worse, much less prevent it.

This provides a valuable lesson about the "world's greatest democracy." The U.S. ruling class needs the right-wing faction of the Republicans to drag mainstream politics to the right--but Corporate America doesn't put all its eggs in one basket. Ultimately, the plane that is hurtling toward climate-change disaster has two wings.

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ONE OF the most stunning aspects about the right today is how openly they use public school curriculums as an ideological battleground.

In the social sciences, there are the attacks on left-wing scholars, like former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels slanders of Howard Zinn--or the banning of ethnic studies in Arizona. But the assault extends into the hard sciences, too.

For example, the right has been successful in getting some school districts to teach "intelligent design" alongside evolution. In Kansas, for example, a lawsuit by the misnamed Citizens for Objective Public Education (COPE) is challenging the state's science standards because they include the teaching of evolution--which the group claims is a "religion" and should therefore be excluded.

In early 2012, Alternet reported:

[T]here are seven bills before state legislatures aimed at undermining the teaching of science in public schools: two each in Missouri and New Hampshire, and one each in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Indiana. Three of these bills are just as keen to sow doubts about "global warming" as they are about "biological evolution," and one does not bother to specify which "scientific controversies" it wishes to teach. In addition, there is also one law already on the books (the Louisiana Science Education Act), which, although sophisticated enough to avoid endorsing creationism or climate science denial, opens the door to "critical thinking" on both topics.

As author Phil Gasper notes, all this is "highly contradictory" for the system:

[C]apitalism depends on scientific innovation to expand, but this seems to be one more example of the system being "like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells." Marx and Engels had in mind the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, but the description also fits the growth of irrationalism, not to mention the collision between capitalist growth and the natural world.

At heart, an understanding of science and its laws can be a part of encouraging engagement with the world and understanding human beings' role in it. The right's war on science, by contrast, is about atomizing and fracturing our ability to understand the world around us--and, ultimately, to work toward creating a society in which human needs are a priority.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson explained about the message of Cosmos:

You are equipped and empowered with this cosmic perspective, achieved by the methods and tools of science, applied to the universe. And are you going to be a good shepherd, or a bad shepherd? Are you going to use your wisdom to protect civilization, or will you go at it in a shortsighted enough way to either destroy it, or be complicit in its destruction? If you can't bring your scientific knowledge to bear on those kinds of decisions, then why even waste your time?