Don’t Confuse Me with the Facts!

Just how depressing have America’s policy debates become? What is the extent to which emotion and ideology have replaced reliance on facts, evidence and data–and what are the consequences of our refusal to confront unpleasant realities?

Permit me to offer just two examples.

In Florida, as you have probably heard, state workers are not permitted to use the phrase “climate change.” As the Guardian wryly noted,

You might have missed it, but Florida has solved climate change. Our state, with 1,300 miles of coastline and a mean elevation of 100 feet, did not, however, limit greenhouse emissions. Instead, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), under Republican governor Rick Scott, forbade employees from using terms like “climate change,” “global warming” or “sea-level rise”. They’re all gone now. You’re welcome, by the way.

It’s pointless to call linguistic distortions of reality like this Orwellian: people tune you out when you use that word and, besides, Big Brother at least had wit. These are just the foot-stamping insistent lies of intellectual toddlers on the grift. It is “nuh-uh” as public policy. This is an elected official saying, “I put a bag over your head, so that means now I’m invisible” and then going out looting.

It isn’t only Florida; Scott Walker’s Wisconsin has a similar rule.

North Carolina went them one better:

In North Carolina, the legislature passed a ruling after the state’s Coastal Resources Commission released an estimate predicting the sea will rise 39 inches along the state’s coast in a century, ABC News reported.

The estimation alarmed developers and seaside residents. If the state was to take action, it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, said ABC. North Carolina would need to draw new flood zones, build waste-treatment plants and elevate roads, and several permits of planned development projects would be in jeopardy.

So the state’s legislature promptly addressed the problem–with a bill banning the actual measurement of sea levels; henceforth, sea-level rise “may be predicted based only on historical data.”

It isn’t only climate change. For a number of years, Congress has banned federal research by the CDC on gun violence–a ban it extended in the immediate aftermath of the Charleston church shooting that left 9 people dead.

The ban began with the 1996 Dickey Amendment, which barred the CDC from involvement in any research that could be interpreted as advocating tougher gun laws. Jack Dickey, a Republican Congressman from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who was then a junior member of the House Appropriations Committee, authored a rider to a spending bill that also slashed $2.6 million from the CDC’s budget— the precise amount that the organization had dedicated to studying gun violence the year before.

Ever since, CDC studies on guns and public health have been virtually non-existent. Dickey has since expressed regret over sponsoring the measure.

Every single day, 89 Americans die from gun violence, and yet we refuse to support research on the causes, effects and consequences of those deaths.

Representative David Price, vice chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, recently argued that

“Regardless of where we stand in the debate over gun violence, we should all be able to agree that this debate should be informed by objective data and robust scientific research.”

Representative Price is wrong. There is nothing that ideologues and interest groups fear more than “objective data and robust scientific research.” Their most fervent hope is that public policy debates continue to be conducted in the absence of evidence. Their motto is: don’t confuse me with science or fact.

Problem is, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson is fond of noting, science is true whether or not you believe in it. Facts exist whether we accept them or not.

Ignoring reality is ultimately unsustainable.


Words and Pictures

In a recent speech, Noam Chomsky addressed the “controversy” about global warming.

There is indeed a controversy: on one side, the overwhelming majority of  scientists, all of the world’s major National Academies of Science, the professional  science journals, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) : all agree that global warming is taking place, that there is a substantial human  component, and that the situation is serious and perhaps dire, and that very soon,  maybe within decades, the world might reach a tipping point where the process  will escalate sharply and will be irreversible, with very severe effects on the   possibility of decent human survival.

It is rare to find such consensus on complex  scientific issues.

A couple of weeks ago, a reader of this blog sent me an “info graphic” she had discovered that illustrates the matter. It’s well worth clicking through and viewing.

The question, of course, is: why is there so much resistance to settled science? I understand opposition by the self-interested, the industries dependent upon fossil fuels. But the anti-science cohort is far larger than the special interest groups, and it extends well beyond denial of global warming. It’s larger than the religious fundamentalists who are still arguing about evolution.

There are some kinds of ignorance–willful or not–that are harmless. Rejection of a reality that can literally destroy us is not one of them.



The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

The real question facing America right now is how long it will be before the lunatics outnumber sane folks.

I’m not talking about the recent spectacle of Todd Akin, or the ongoing self-parody that is Michelle Bachmann. If they were anomalies, they’d be entertainment; as it is, they are just two of a terrifyingly large number of political figures who reject science and reality–with very negative consequences for the rest of us.

A few days ago, Timothy Egan wrote a piece for the New York Times titled “The Crackpot Caucus.” In what he called a “quick tour of the crazies in the House,” he quoted Rep. John Shimkus–chair of a subcommittee that oversees climate-change issues–pooh-poohing the very notion of climate change, and explaining that “The earth will end when God declares it to be over.” More God talk came from Texas Rep. Joe Barton, who opposes wind energy because “Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Clean energy would slow the winds down and make it hotter.” Mitch McConnell is among those who dismiss climate change as “a conspiracy and a hoax.”

John Huntsman was the only presidential candidate running in the Republican primary who was willing to say he accepted the theory of evolution. Jack Kingston of Georgia rejects evolution because there’s no indentation where our tails used to be. I’m not kidding.

There are literally hundreds of similar examples.

In Atlanta, Tea Party activists are claiming responsibility for defeating a 1 cent sales tax add-on that would have paid for highway and transit improvements in a ten-county area. The measure was backed by a bipartisan, urban-suburban consortium, and ran afoul of another rampant conspiracy theory: the U.N.’s “Agenda 21.”

Agenda 21, also known as the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, along with a  Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests, was adopted by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janerio in June of 1992. It’s a non-binding declaration of an intent to address climate issues, but it has sparked fierce resistance from the more loosely-tethered-to-reality fringes, who have labeled it a scheme to destroy private property rights and “urbanize” America. Alabama has actually passed a law forbidding its “implementation” in that state.

Now, despite the claims of the Tea Party, Atlanta’s transportation tax didn’t fail simply because some fearful folks bought into the Agenda 21 conspiracy. As Neal Pierce notes in “Region Shoots Self in the Foot,” decades of anti-tax and anti-government rhetoric, rural resentment of urban Atlanta, and poor strategic decisions all played a role. But these elements were mutually reinforcing, and the consequences for the region–where congestion is already a nightmare–are likely to be profound. In the words of the Atlanta Chamber president, failure of the measure spells “economic disaster for Georgia.” (But hey–they sure showed those “anti-liberty” internationalists from the UN!)

Modern life requires a level of cognitive ability and reason that is in dangerously short supply.

Large numbers of Americans, including uncomfortably large numbers of elected officials, believe in a variety of far-fetched conspiracies that defy elementary logic (exactly how did Obama’s “Kenyan” family manage to plant that birth announcement in Hawaiian newspapers 40+ years ago? How did they know he’d be President??).

In the case of the “birthers,” the conspiracy persists because it de-legitimizes a black man who somehow became President. Those who deny climate-change and evolution are rejecting ideas that make them profoundly uncomfortable–facts that challenge limited and rigid worldviews, or (in the case of some elected officials) run contrary to the interests of their bigger campaign donors. Those who see dark motives (and black helicopters) emanating from the United Nations probably need something concrete to which they can anchor free-floating anxieties.

There have always been reality-challenged people at the fringes of society. What is so terrifying is that they have been normalized. We elect them. Politicians who do know better pander to them. Pundits take them seriously, or at least act as if they do.

Sociologists and political scientists tell us that the past 25 years has seen a profound shift to the political Right. I don’t think that’s what has happened; I know many sound and sane conservatives, and they aren’t the ones who worry me. We haven’t gone Right; we’ve gone unhinged.

I worry that we aren’t very far from the day when the inmates control the asylum.


Easy Answers are Rarely the Right Answers

The various contenders for the Republican Presidential nomination have been falling all over themselves to attack the Environmental Protection Agency, joining their congressional colleagues in a race to see who can call loudest for abolition of the agency. According to these critics, the continued existence of the EPA is a leading reason job creation has lagged the recovery.

It’s so nice to have a simple explanation for our current economic lethargy. Get rid of the tree-huggers! Everyone knows that scientists just made up stuff like global climate change anyway. (What no one seems to know is why they would do that, but let’s not think too deeply or we might get headaches…)

Let’s assume the EPA is really enforcing policies that hinder job growth. I’ve seen no evidence to that effect, but let’s play “what if.”  Does that mean we should NOT protect the environment? Wouldn’t it make more sense to evaluate EPA regulations, to do a cost-benefit analysis to see how we can continue to protect the earth while taking care not to unduly hinder the economy? Of course, that sort of analysis is complex. It requires analytical skills. And it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker.

If we don’t emerge pretty soon from this era of stupidity, we’re doomed.