So the political future of the conservative
movement stagnation and the GOP party is one Bobby Jindal, the creationism-promoting Louisiana Governor, who “sounded creepily like a monologue from Kenneth the Page, 30 Rock‘s bewildered hillbilly,” as Gawker.com illustrated with various video clips. Guest blogger Chris Mooney dismantles Jindal’s most recent eruption of anti-science syndrome, his in a post first published by Science Progress
Someone recently asked the conservatives to stop giving me low hanging fruit. It’s true: I’ve been gorged. The attacks on science have been so numerous, so abundant, and so intellectually indefensible, that it is a full time job tracking them, and I’ve rarely been up for it….
But I’ll dive back in for Governor Bobby Jindal, the creationism-promoting conservative rising star who governs my home state of Louisiana. It’s now notorious that Jindal–who, in light of his post, ought to be extremely attuned to the importance of tracking natural disasters–decided to mock volcano preparedness funding in his rebuttal to President Obama’s speech before Congress last week. As Jindal put it, the recently passed stimulus bill contained “$140 million for something called ‘volcano monitoring.’ Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, DC.”
Just substitute the word “hurricane” for “volcano” here, reread the statement, and be prepared to gasp at Jindal’s striking insensitivity. Indeed, he didn’t even get the facts right: the $140 million appropriation was for “U.S. Geological Survey facilities and equipment, including stream gages, seismic and volcano monitoring systems and national map activities”–and thus not entirely for volcano monitoring.
Conservatives have been targeting the U.S. Geological Survey for a while–the Gingrich Revolutionaries even tried to do away with it entirely when they swept into Congress in the mid 1990s. This despite the agency’s obvious importance and effectiveness, which it has demonstrated in many instances, such as during the 2004 tsunami catastrophe. The attacks are themselves part of a broader tradition in American politics that is not itself partisan: The mockery of specific scientific appropriations, which are made to look silly even though, in most cases, it’s actually serious research geared toward a public purpose. Call it the “sex lives of marmots” line of argument, as a Washington science policy hand once memorably put it to me.
The greatest modern institutionalization of attacks on specific scientific appropriations came from the Wisconsin Democratic Senator William Proxmire, who initiated the “Golden Fleece Awards.” The idea was to ridicule government projects that wasted public monies, and often these were science-related projects. In the 1980s, the great Carl Sagan even had to go in and meet personally with Proxmire to get him to back off from attacks on NASA’s SETI program. Thankfully, Proxmire listened.
But if Proxmire touched off the Golden Fleece tradition, lately conservatives seem to have been spouting the corresponding rhetoric. We all remember how John McCain and Sarah Palin mocked important scientific research on grizzly bears and fruit flies during 2008 election. In each case–as with Jindal–experts patiently explained that this research serves a purpose and is eminently defensible, or even innovative. But it seems those who lampoon individual scientific research grants rarely bother to find out what they’re actually criticizing. It’s a point and blast–or point and laugh–technique that reeks of deep anti-intellectualism.
We should concede, however, that this impulse does at least have the glimmer of a serious argument behind it. We can’t fund all scientific research; we do have to make hard choices among competing priorities; and there should indeed be a strong relationship between the research we fund with public dollars and what we hope to get out of it.
The tricky thing about most basic research, though, is that you don’t always know what you’ll get out of it when you release the funds. Such research often opens up new and surprising avenues that themselves then spin off important innovative technologies that no one could have predicted. (In Jindal’s case, he wasn’t even attacking basic research, but rather, research of obvious disaster safety import. Not even my caveats can help him.)
In an ideal world, then, specific scientific appropriations would hardly be above criticism–but you would also have to make a cogent argument for why they’re not the best use of our investments. You wouldn’t just mock that which you don’t understand.
At the same time, though, it would also behoove scientists and their supporters to bear in mind that it really isn’t obvious to many people how basic research, applied research, and technology differ. Just consider the stem cell case: Advocates talked about the “search for cures” in a battle over funding for basic research. In California in 2004, “cures” mobilized many supporters of Prop 71, which provided billions of dollars in state funding.
So while the Jindals of the world are certainly debasing our discourse with wanton attacks on science, we also have some ‘splaining to do. Not because it will make conservatives cease the attacks, but because it will help others to tune them out.
Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”
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