Scott Rhode, morning news anchor & reporter
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Put “Alaskans are…” into Google, and the search engine’s autocomplete feature shows the most popular formulations of that phrase. In addition to idiots, Alaskans are weird, Asian, not Americans, and racist – so racist, apparently, that another alternative for “Alaskans are…” is “Malaysians are stupid.” (Sorry, Malaysians.)
Alaskans aren’t the only idiots. “Journalists are…” idiots, too, as well as being liars, scum, intellectual prostitutes, actors on the political stage, watchdogs, like dogs, the eyes and ears of the public, and overpaid. I’ll try not to take too much of that personally.
All of this was inspired by Bad Astronomer Phil Plait’s observation (suggested by a Twitter follower) that “Scientists are…” a lot of unflattering things, according to Google autocomplete. Digging in, he found that the reason for these popular search terms is, naturally, because the Web is full of sites disparaging scientists. More specifically, the searches are so popular because people are seeking out sites disparaging scientists.
People have also been seeking out “science” itself. Based on searches in online dictionaries, Merriam-Webster declared “science” its 2013 word of the year. Normally, the word of the year is a neologism (Oxford Dictionary went with “selfie”) or a word that is heard repeatedly because of some particular phenomenon (e.g. “chad” from 2000). But “science” is ancient and ever-present. Why in 2013 were so many people suddenly wondering, “What is science, anyway?” A Merriam-Webster editor figures it’s because science was at the root of so many public discussions. But isn’t that the case every year? Understanding science has been essential for civics & citizenship for decades, and I doubt our increasingly technologized society reached a tipping point in the last 12 months. Anyway, I don’t see how knowing the definition helps anyone understand Science, Technology, and Culture issues. But it’s certainly a sensible place to start.
Plait figures the popularity of “science” is good for scientists. For those who seek it, the dictionary definition may replace the smears on the Web’s anti-science sites. That’s one way to rehabilitate scientists in the eyes of Google autocomplete. But Plait says scientists must take action themselves for Google to suggest the searches he'd like to see: Scientists are explorers, teachers, or important. (Not that teachers have it easy. “Teachers are…” overpaid, lazy, stupid babysitters. But teachers are also underpaid, role models, and heroes.) To accomplish this, Plait recommends a two-pronged strategy: 1) take every opportunity to praise scientists on the Web, and 2) prove the nay-sayers wrong by being nice. Alaskans (and journalists) can improve their reputations the same way. Malaysians, too.
Ex-Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt became a boogeyman of the Left when he said, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” This was taken as a religious motivation to oppose environmental conservation: why have consideration for future consequences if the end of the world is imminent? However, Watt insisted he never held such a belief. In 2005, Watt wrote in the Washington Post that, in context, he was saying that resources should be conserved for future generations. Furthermore, Watt claimed that nobody seriously held such a nihilistic view: “I know of no Christian who believes or preaches such error.” But a lot has changed since his notorious quote in 1981—and even since his 2005 denial. What Watt considered a slur is now orthodoxy.
On the specific environmental issue of global warming, Watt’s disavowed argument is openly employed by Republicans in Congress. On Sunday, Chris Mooney posted a video montage of several examples. To be sure, the new argument is not explicitly eschatological; no one is saying per se that climate change should be ignored because the End Times are near. Rather, the argument is that God is in charge, so the world will end on God’s schedule, and humans can’t change that. Mooney is puzzled because he figures climate denial is motivated primarily by economics, so he assumes it aligns with religious belief only because of a convenient political umbrella or by a shared mistrust of scientists. While those certainly seem to be factors, with politicians ever ready to impugn the integrity of scientists, Mooney may be missing a more obvious explanation.
A few years ago, I noted a short news item about a woman who told her daughter that fossils were not older than Jesus. No matter how little sense that makes, that was her belief. To her, that’s how the world works. Therefore, the simple reason why religion is now being mustered against climate change is because it’s part of a belief system. Not all belief systems, of course; there are plenty of religious environmentalists. But there are some, evidently unknown to Watt, who ground their anti-environmental stance in religious belief. Katherine Stewart cited the “Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming” from the Cornwall Alliance, which concludes that combating climate change would harm the poor and that “stewardship” entails preserving the fossil fuel economy. Working backward from this conclusion, the declaration denies any evidence of human-caused global warming. While this too is distinct from Watt’s supposed End Times anticipation, it shows that the union Mooney finds so bizarre is simply a manifestation of sincere belief.
Maybe Mooney leaps beyond that explanation because he sees Bible-based reasoning as supporting some prior motivation. Anti-environmentalism is not an essential feature of religious belief; it changes over time, responding to other forces. Those forces include active opposition. In his 2005 op-ed, Watt warned of a campaign to split the anti-environmental and religious factions of the GOP by promoting religious environmentalism as an alternative. That wedge seems to be working, given stories like this one about climate-aware evangelical scientists. Republicans, more so than Democrats, have invested in denialism as a tribal identifier, so doubling down on denial is a rear-guard defensive posture to hold the factions together. If Mooney’s perception that the factions are an unnatural fit takes hold, they could come unglued. Then it really would be the End Times for the GOP coalition.
Prospective teachers are different from all other college students in one very peculiar way: they are the only adults who take classes in "social studies." It's a subject that is only taught in elementary and middle schools. Anyone else might study history or geography or economics, but not "social studies." Those disciplines are included within "social studies," of course. They are among the ten themes identified by National Council for the Social Studies in their curriculum standards, although the themes are given obscure names. History is called "Time, Continuity, and Change." Geography is "People, Places, and Environments." Economics is "Production, Distribution, and Consumption." Other themes are called "Civic Ideals and Practices" (or, simply, civics); "Power, Authority, and Governance" (politics and law); "Global Connections" (international affairs); "Individuals, Groups, and Institutions" (sociology); "Individual Development and Identity" (psychology); "Culture" (anthropology). And then there's "Science, Technology, and Society," which is... well, there's no other name for it.
Science, Technology, and Society is an actual field of study. Sometimes called Science, Technology, and Culture or Science and Technology Studies, it's everywhere around us. Broadly speaking,
Specter lists several other examples of
Clearly, Democrats can ignore and impugn science and scientists as well as Republicans, making it harder to claim a monopoly on rational thought. But there is a manifest difference. Only Republicans put denialist planks in their political platforms, as the Alaska Republican Party does in its platform (PDF file) by treating "Creation Science or Intelligent Design" as "theories for the origins of life" while also demanding that children be taught "evidence disputing the theory" of "evolution outside species." (The AKGOP platform also opposes embryonic stem cell research and human cloning, which are
While denialism exists across the political spectrum, there is a stronger tendency among Republicans to not only elect denialist candidates, but for candidates to be elected on the basis of denialism. Among Democrats, Sen. Harkin stands out for his obsession with alternative medicine. Democrats tolerated ex-Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney's 9/11 conspiracy theories for a few years before they gave her the heave-ho, leaving her to run for president on the Green Party ticket in 2008. By comparison,
The correct answer is "4.5 billion years." "I don't know, but pretty old" is also acceptable. But "I'm not sure anybody actually knows" is the sign of someone who's not paying attention. The fact that, in this century, a presidential candidate is being asked about the age of the Earth is a pity. More pitiful was Texas Gov. Rick Perry's response. Sure, he was apparently set up by a crafty mom using her kid to stump Perry in
Since scientists are fairly certain about the age of the Earth, Perry must be disputing what it means to "know" something "completely and absolutely." Perry is suspending judgment about the age of the Earth, and by proxy suspending the judgment of anyone who claims to know, until there is no doubt about the outcome. Not that Perry is super-skeptical when it comes to other things. He has presided over 235 executions, the most of any governor, and never used his clemency power, so he must believe the findings of twelve ordinary citizens are sufficient to convict a man and sentence him to death. But the findings of nearly 1200 scientists (counting only those named Steve) are not sufficient to even be considered knowledge when it comes to geology, apparently.
Gov. Perry simply doesn't trust scientists. Especially climatologists. When it comes to global warming, Perry says, "I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data, so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects." Which shows he not only distrusts scientists, he must think they're stupid, since this conspiracy to rake in the sweet, sweet grant money makes no sense. Running a grift against anyone with a vested interest in proving them wrong, such as energy companies threatened with carbon regulation, is not logical. Being smart people, if scientists were scammers they would shake cash from those wealthy interests, cooking up whatever results their patrons find useful. Also, as Jonathan Zasloff points out, they would milk the job by pretending that the results were uncertain.
Gov. Perry doesn't doubt geologists because he's skeptical (he's not) or climatologists because there's a global warming conspiracy (there isn't). He adopts these positions because he's a Republican politician, and the Republican Party is where anti-science finds a home. The campaign of Perry's rival, ex-Utah Gov. John Huntsman, criticized Perry by saying the GOP was at risk of becoming "the anti-science party." To which Steve Benen adds, "it’s a little late for that." Benen recalls that, four years ago, four out of ten GOP presidential hopefuls did not believe in evolution; this year, that's the case for all of them except Huntsman. Has there been new scientific data since 2008 which casts doubt on the theory of evolution? No, the only new factor is that an insufficiently anti-evolution candidate lost the last presidential election, and nobody wants to make that mistake again. Except for Huntsman, who's trying to distinguish his brand by planting his flag on the issue: being "anti-science" drives away voters who would otherwise mark a ballot for the GOP, he says. He probably hopes there are enough left who will mark a ballot for him, but that's a shrinking slice of the Republican electorate. As David Brooks said in a widely-quoted column last month, "The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities."
I've been criticizing Rush Limbaugh for accusing Democrats of impugning families and churches so that government can replace them as social supports. But he hasn't named any Democrats who actually do so. True, there are people who attack religion, and some of them are Democrats. The first and only avowed atheist to serve in Congress is California Rep. Pete Stark, a Democrat, but he didn't mention his religious views until he had been in office for 34 years, and he wouldn't impugn churches because he's a member of one (Unitarian). That is in no way comparable to how top-tier Republican officials impugn science. While families and faith are touted as the foundation of American freedom, science has its place, too, as the foundation of knowledge. As the always-quotable Steve Benen says, "[T]he question speaks to how earnestly a person processes evidence and reasons...." For instance, when Gov. Perry was asked about why abstinence-only sex education doesn't work, he seemed confused because the factual premise conflicted with his prior belief. "Abstinence works," he replied. (Also, as Benen points out, Perry is comfortable letting children make up their own minds regarding evolution but not on sex ed.) That's a failure to demonstrate rational thinking on a matter directly related to government policy. That's the kind of impugning that makes my head hurt.
UPDATE: Addressing the criticism about his remarks, Gov. Perry acknowledges that the Earth might be very old, or it might not. That's a step in the right direction, but to get out of the anti-science box, Perry would have to next ask, What makes anyone think the Earth is very old? He must be aware that there are clues (Leonardo da Vinci and James Hutton noticed them centuries ago). But he denies their significance. "I happen to be one who is skeptical," Perry says, referring to global warming (not to geology -- and not, I might add, to
There was a funny bit in a small story today in the Anchorage Daily News, no doubt included simply so readers could chuckle at it. Julia O'Malley went to the Rock & Mineral Show and saw a mom and her daughters looking at some fossils. "It's an education, a broader horizon to let them know what we have and what the earth provides," the mom told O'Malley. Then her 4-year old asked if the fossils are older than Jesus. "No," her mother said.
I'll give her a little credit and assume she wasn't insisting that the Cretaceous fossils were less than 2000 years old. Heck, even a Young Earth Creationist is inclined to believe that such things date to Noah's flood, before the start of Jesus' mortal existence. Perhaps she was speaking less about the age of the fossils and more about her belief in the eternal nature of the Godhead. If not, she was completely sabotaging the educational intent of bringing her daughters to the rock show.
Speaking of Jesus and rocks...