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Eruptions of know-nothingism from conservative savior Bobby Jindal

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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 assault on volcano-monitoring research, in a post first published by Science Progress.

http://www.daleh.id.au/Volcano_eruption.jpg

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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18 Responses to Eruptions of know-nothingism from conservative savior Bobby Jindal

  1. mauri pelto says:

    Redoubt Volcano in Alaska is currently undergoing minor eruptions that may lead to something larger, but I guess we could just hope it does not show up unexpectedly on our radar for air traffic control. Well put, I gave up on Jindal before this point of his response. http://www.avo.alaska.edu/activity/Redoubt.php

  2. Rick C says:

    Jindal’s criticism of volcano monitoring demonstrates impeccable timing. It may very well go down in history the way that Bush demonstrated that monitoring terrorist threats was ridiculous when he cut the funding for the levees around New Orleans to makeup the offsets for his invasion of Iraq and tax cuts for the rich. Say that’s what Jindal wants to do with the money he thinks he’ll save from volcano monitoring. I wonder what Gov. moose meatballs thinks of that?

  3. Rick C says:

    Ooops meant to to say that Bush demonstrated his priorities for New Orleans threat from hurricanes not monitoring terrorist threats by cutting levee protection funding.

  4. Jonsi says:

    I posted this same premise on facebook, and the next thing I was bombed by my right wing friends with a Rush Limbaugh interview with Jindal about he is a patriot. Not a link, copying and pasting the entire interview 1 piece at a time even though there is a character limit. 5 pastes. I complained about not just giving a link, and somehow this evolved into a debate on climate change. I’m given a link (thankfully) from junkscience.com regarding the 1997 version of the Oregon Petition. I respectfully told him “I’m getting my PhD in oceanography in 6 months, I’m not even going to read that disingenuous propaganda” and he wrote back “well if you were really a scientist, your colleagues would have trained you to be open to ideas, not dismissive.”

    I then told him they’d be aghast if I came to a seminar armed with 1997 articles from junkscience.com instead of ones from Geophysical Research Letters and that the evidence was overwhelming, how there is a consensus that 95% of the relevant scientists agree on. His retort was how there is no consensus, leading me to another right wing think tank and how it’s an emotionally charged, dishonest statement on my behalf. At that point I produced the recent Doran et al. (EOS, 90, 2009) survey demonstrating that 97% of active climate scientists, and 90% of active Earth scientists as a whole, assert that anthropogenic forcing is a significant component of climate change. I then said “I can’t believe we got onto this conversation because I posted a link making fun of Jindal for being insensitive about volcano monitoring when he’s received $$ for Hurricane monitoring. But what do you expect from a Governor who endorses creationism legislation and has participated in exorcisms?”

    Wrong thing to say :) . I could be more polite; I could possess better rhetorical skills. I simply did not realize how incredible irritating it is to argue with these people. I don’t know the best strategy.

    I like Joes: “what level of CO2 ppm do you believe is acceptable? What steps do you propose to get there?” But how do you even ask those questions when someone genuinely believes it’s all a hoax?

    Hope this didn’t stray too far off topic; it all started because of Jindal and is still ongoing. Now we are discussing how intelligent design should be permitted in schools and how Jindal is a hero for doing it.

  5. Mark says:

    @Jonsi: ‘I don’t know the best strategy.’

    That’s because there isn’t one. Consider those who think we never landed on the moon. The earth is flat and you’ll sail off the edge. Blah, blah, blah.

    I’m considering wagering. I’d like some suggestions on good bets. I’m thinking, if they’re so sure it’s a hoax, I can make some cash from the fools. How about:

    I’ll bet a Jindal $100 that Glacier Nat’l Park will be glacier free by 2020.

    I’ll bet a George Will $100 that the arctic will be ice free by the summer of 2025.

    I’m wondering if they’ll take the bet… A sucker and his money…

    Thoughts?

  6. Harrier says:

    I suppose this is as good a place to post as any. I don’t mean to interrupt anyone’s discussion, but I have felt an urge to reach out to this blog and its readers and ask for help in sorting out a response to what I’ve been reading.

    I am a college student in my early 20′s, currently on sabbatical to work part-time in my home town. Since being drawn into the subject by a post on the DailyKos, I have spent nearly the past two weeks inundating myself with the news of climate change and the progress of combatting it. I am not a scientist, not even a budding one; my grasp of chemistry and biology has proven weak. Literature and philosophy are my strengths. But I know enough to trust scientists when they present rigorously tested hypotheses and theories. I trust the science of anthropomorphic global warming, and I trust the increasingly gloomy prospects given for the survival of human civilization, at least in its present form.

    These past two weeks have filled me with despair, and dread. My heart pounds hard in my chest all waking hours as I consider what climate change will do to my world. It suddenly seems that my future, previously open and limitless in scope, has been stripped from me. I’ve learned that I am living in a world that will end, and the new world that replaces it will be something from a nightmare. When I think about my previous ambitions- graduating from college, getting a job, publishing a book that I’ve been writing for years- they seem hollow and empty. There seems to be no point in continuing to dream with armageddon bearing down on everyone. I wish sometimes that I was still ignorant of the coming effects of climate change.

    But I will not be a climate change denier. I believe in Truth, and I would rather know what the future holds than be seduced by a comforting lie.

    What pains me also is how powerless I feel to stop this climate change. I have begun trying to reduce my carbon footprint- I turn off lights whenever I can, I use less paper in all things, I take shorter showers. I even used my slightly limited means to purchase a new computer that uses far less energy than my old one. However, I only have a part-time job, and still live with my parents. Their home’s distance from my workplace means I must commute to work, and my town’s mass transit has virtually no presence where I live. And everything I can do is like nothing compared to the rest of the population of the United States. Our political system does not seem currently to apprehend the magnitude of the threat that rising CO2 emissions poses to humanity.

    I have three sisters, the youngest of whom just turned 16. I’m frightened for their future, as well as my own future and the future of everyone I love. This fear has paralyzed my day-to-day life, and I am not sure how to continue functioning in the face of it.

    I may not post much more after this, because I doubt my ability to contribute to the discussion here. I felt compelled to reach out, however. This fear has also been a lonely one, because my family is politically conservative and does not believe in man-made global warming. To actually have a dialogue about this frightening business might make it easier to bear, if only a little. Thank you for any consideration you may spare me.

  7. Jonsi says:

    Harrier, I’m optimistic that things will be alright. If you’ve really not given this much thought before, I encourage you to not take it too seriously at first. Don’t consume every piece of literature as rapidly as possible. Take it slow. Really, there is a lot to be optimistic about. We get to conceptualize and create new energy systems, new businesses, and new homes, carbon free, and live cleaner, more healthy lives. It’s as exciting as it is scary. Rather than read doom and gloom websites, read a book such as Earth: The sequel, by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn. There is plenty of time to learn about the issues and to take action. There is so much opportunity here. Do not let it consume you to the point you find it difficult to function. If that’s happening, turn off your computer, go grab some beers with a mate, and try to pick up some girls.

  8. Bob Wallace says:

    I wonder if Jindal would be willing to visit Tacoma Washington and address the locals on how foolish it is to spend money on volcano monitoring….

  9. Harrier says:

    Jonsi: thank you for your comforting words. I admit I may be taking this concern further than can be practically expected. It’s always been a problem of mine when I find a subject to latch onto: I think about it so much that it overwhelms everything else in my mind.

    You tell me not to worry, that there’s plenty of time. Isn’t the drumbeat of the climate scientists that there isn’t a lot of time? The understanding I’ve come to is that the world has until 2050 to get its greenhouse gas emissions close to zero, and we’re not making very good progress.

    The trouble is that in climate change, I’ve found something to worry about that’s actually worth worrying a great deal about. It’s hard to make it stop, and I feel as though stopping worrying about it would almost be irresponsible.

  10. Harrier: You express yourself poignantly. Your feelings are heartfelt and ring so true for you. Thank you.

    Almost 3 times your age, I hope to have a few decades ahead, if I eat right, exercise and take care of myself. Which may be a real problem in the near future.

    Thank you for sharing how a 20 year old might think of the future. I think it very wise to ruthlessly know what the problem is, then your faith and determination is far more useful. In this case, I think delusional optimism is not helpful at all…even toxic.

    My generation has taken from you the promise of a stable future. Or maybe we borrowed against it. I have apologized to my kids many times. I am so sorry. We knew 10, 20 and 50 years ago if we cared to pay attention. It hit me fully about 3 years ago. And I continue to process how huge is this looming challenge.

    You are so brave and wise to face facts. And the changes the young will be forced to demand of the world are staggering to ponder.

    It is a pity that so much decision-making power rests with people over age 60… with only a few decades ahead. But that is changing. And those of us who know what must happen will accept the severity of the change that your generation – and younger generations must bring to the world.

    Climate triage decisions are being made today. Although they are light and slight compared to what you will face. It is early in the climate survival chess game, but many see how it might turn out. But not all the pieces are yet called into play. To me it looks like we don’t really know how soon – so you could have a full and prosperous life. And we don’t really know how bad it will be. But we are getting upsetting answers all the time. By our actions today we will help mitigate and adapt. And I suspect that within a few years we will all know what is inevitable and what we can possibly change. And what we will just have to accept.

    I might refer you to a wonderful essay “Our mistakes are abundant, our responsibilities great” at http://www.ecologicalhope.org/zine/vol-1-no-1/#3

    My kids are your age and I say, eat right, exercise and brush your teeth anyway. You should expect and must demand a long and healthy life. I am sorry that you will have to struggle more for your world that I did.

  11. Jonsi says:

    Harrier, you misunderstood me, and it’s cool. I’m not telling you not to take things seriously, but if worrying about it makes you unable to function (that’s a strong statement), then step back! You don’t have to become well educated and an advocate in a week’s time. Learn more while enjoying your life. It’s a serious issue but not so serious as to suffer panic attacks. There’s a big difference between being worried about something, and suffering from worry. If you are experiencing the second because you feel it’s too dire, then definitely take a break for a week and have some fun. I assure you, many brilliant people are working on these problems and there is room for optimism. The best thing for you to do is educate yourself, but you really can afford to do that over the course of a year (or 6!). And when you feel more relaxed about it, you can find meetup groups or certainly ones at your university on issues of climate change and sustainability. You really don’t need to process it all at once :) .

  12. Harrier says:

    To Richard: thank you very much for your words. It’s comforting to read the words of someone else with a similarly dire view of the future. If nothing else, I have some company in my despair.

    In many respects I’m fortunate: I am an American, after all, and upper-middle class at that. I have resources at my disposal with which it might be possible for me to see through the troubles of the future, which can’t be said for billions of people. Being so blessed, I feel that I must attempt to make use of the opportunities granted to me. So I will certainly attempt to complete college, and perhaps find a more stable job than I had originally intended. And if all else fails, I have plenty of room to move North as the planet warms.

    I may attempt to keep writing as well, though the book I was working on was set in a future that it may not be possible to realize now. Perhaps I’ll come up with another kind of story to make sense of things.

    But I think I’ll keep visiting this blog. I know that if I work and pray I can learn to live with the specter of climate change.

  13. jorleh says:

    You have funny governors there. And your people have elected them, I suppose?!

  14. llewelly says:

    Harrier Says:
    March 4th, 2009 at 8:47 pm :

    I’ve learned that I am living in a world that will end, and the new world that replaces it will be something from a nightmare. When I think about my previous ambitions- graduating from college, getting a job, publishing a book that I’ve been writing for years- they seem hollow and empty. There seems to be no point in continuing to dream with armageddon bearing down on everyone. I wish sometimes that I was still ignorant of the coming effects of climate change.

    The whole point of this blog is that the destruction of civilization is still avoidable. If we can get on a path like that outlined by Joe Romm, most of the world’s people will be both wealthier and healthier in 50 years than they are today, despite the damage wrought by global warming. It’s true we would be better off if we had started 5 years ago, much better off if we had started 10 years ago, etc, etc. And it’s true things will be a lot worse if we fool around for another 10 years. But right now, a path to a better tomorrow is still possible. (Furthermore – there is no likely point at which carbon emissions stop mattering.)

  15. llewelly says:

    I wonder if Jindal would be willing to visit Tacoma Washington and address the locals on how foolish it is to spend money on volcano monitoring….

    As pointed out in the article, not all of the $140 million goes to volcano monitoring… A substantial portion goes to stream gauges and other flood control related things. Which are important in a state which contains the final miles of America’s largest river. Most of his constituents have spent their entire lives in an area where the well-being of every citizen depends in part on USGS work.

  16. Hmpf says:

    @Harrier: I know how you feel. I’m only 32, so I’ll – hopefully – still be around a long time to deal with this mess, too. And I know the despair of realising what that means; I only realised less than a year ago, myself.

    I don’t really have advice for the right way to get active on this yet; I’m still searching. (Reduce your own footprint as much as you can, obviously, and spread the knowledge – but I think we’re all agreed that we need to get far more proactive than that.)

    I have this little bit of consolation: after the first shock, you *will* adjust emotionally to this new view of reality. You won’t be terrified all the time. The human psyche is very flexible: it can adjust to horrible situations and define them as ‘the new normal’. For me, it was a bit like realising that death is real, back when I was a kid. For a while that was an almost unbearable thing to know; but, eventually, I learned to cope. It meant living in a different way, of course – essentially, it meant ‘living as if it mattered’ – which of course it always did; it just took understanding the reality of death to drive that truth home, for me.

    So now we realise that the entire world we live in is far more fragile than we thought, and that many things that we had taken for granted may end in our lifetime. This means we have to live less obliviously, in many ways – but maybe that is a good thing, too. I’m glad I’m more aware of reality now; this feels like a more appropriate starting point for a meaningful life than the kind of obliviousness that is fostered by our culture.

    And, as others here have said – we may still be able to turn this thing around. Not completely – but enough, perhaps, to avert a complete collapse of civilisation.

    (Whoah. Incoherent much? Sorry; I’m in a bit of a hurry.)

  17. lgcarey says:

    Harrier, thanks for posting, it was in fact a useful contribution to the discussion, since I expect that most of us have at least moments of significant anxiety over AGW, even if that’s not the main topic of much discussion here. I would strongly agree with previous suggestions that you not immerse yourself in this stuff to the neglect of your relationships, hobbies, etc. – winding up paralyzed by anxiety isn’t going to help you or the situation. And, as previously pointed out, the whole premise of Climate Progress is that the situation is NOT hopeless (even though it is certainly very serious) – folks here are not sitting around telling each other “we’re all doomed”.

    What can you do to make a difference? – I think a key hint comes from NY Time columnist Tom Friedman, when he says “it’s more important to change our leaders than our light bulbs”. Personal changes are admirable (when I first figured out the real implications of AGW, I did in fact change all our light bulbs, and bought a Prius, too), but a real solution to a problem this big is going to require some BIG social changes. However, a lot of those changes can be viewed as really exciting – really positive stuff we should have been doing ages ago anyway – untying our economy from petroleum, shutting down the incredibly dirty coal plants, focusing on actually building useful stuff again, building a green economy, etc. Read Friedman’s book “Hot, Flat and Crowded” for his view of the potential upside to some of this disruption. Also maybe take a look at some of Bill McKibben’s writing and visit his http://www.350.org.

    Scientific expertise is not required. As far as I’m concerned, the AGW issue boils down to a question of (a) common sense (i.e., why should we suddenly stop paying attention to science now, just on this particular issue?), (b) risk management (if 90 electricians said you needed a new fuse box or your house might burn down, and 1 said things were just fine, what would you do?), and (c) public policy (this problem is not something that “the market” or individual ecological virtue will be able to fix without government setting the parameters and providing incentives and disincentives). Accordingly, we are all dependent on everyone else who “gets” the fact that there’s a big problem here starting to make their voice and vote count. Even if your immediate family doesn’t get it, I am confident that there are peers around you (even if you haven’t met them yet) who are sharing the same concerns — seek them out. Best regards, and please feel free to post.

  18. Ronald says:

    Harrier,

    A book suggestion “A Guide to Rational Living,” by Albert Ellis, a somewhat well known book and Phycologist. It will help you sort out feelings.

    Quite literally, how we feel is how we think. If I was to die tomorrow and I knew it, my feeling bad about that wouldn’t change the facts one bit. So why feel bad about it. Just live until then as good as a person can.