Science and the Republicans' Annulment of the Enlightenment

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to reporters following a rare Sunday Senate session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sunday, Jul
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks to reporters following a rare Sunday Senate session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sunday, July 26, 2015. Senior Senate Republicans lined up Sunday to rebuke Cruz for attacking Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an extraordinary display of intraparty division played out live on the Senate floor. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Many years ago, my father and I were watching the "Tonight Show" in the Johnny Carson era. A guest that evening was one of my favorite actors, Peter Finch. During the interview, my father, a physician, said plainly, "that man is going to have a heart attack." He noted that Finch was fidgety, was sweating from his brow, and was breathing in a labored way. I didn't think much of his remark until the next day, when on the evening news it was announced that Peter Finch had died that morning. Of a massive heart attack.

I tell this little vignette to illustrate a point about knowledge. My father was an exceptional doctor -- first in his medical school class, an often-published researcher, a leader in medical education. But in many respects he was merely one of hundreds of thousands of doctors and other scientists who dedicate themselves to knowledge that has everyday applications. Physicians are particularly apt at this praxis, needing to know an enormous amount about the human body to treat their patients every day. I have, unfortunately, drawn on medical knowledge and practice more than I'd like, but it's given me an acute appreciation for what doctors and nurses do.

Increasingly, other scientists are engaged in acquiring, synthesizing, and applying knowledge for the benefit of humankind, directly immersing themselves in the practice of informing policy and educating the public. This is especially evident on the most momentous issue of our time, climate change. It's often said that 97 percent of the global scientific community is convinced of human-made global warming and its likely catastrophic consequences if left unchecked. Many of them are speaking out forcefully, a sharp departure for politics-averse scientists.

Now, along comes President Obama's most ambitious action to curb the emission of greenhouse gases, which will focus on the main culprit, electric utility plants, under the authority of the Clean Air Act. This action is, of course, informed by years of research on climate by tens of thousands of scientists. It will cut carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030 and increase the share of renewable energy production to 28 percent. Many scientists say this is still not enough, but at least Obama is showing some leadership as we head into the final negotiations on a global climate agreement in Paris late this autumn.

The problem of knowledge -- who speaks the truth, in effect -- is punctuated by the reactions from the right wing, which have been wholly predictable. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell vowed last spring to block the new EPA rules. Every GOP presidential hopeful has condemned the plan as too costly, "overreaching," or even illegal. Most of them still deny that climate change is occurring; Ted Cruz explicitly disavowed it at a high-donor confab hosted by the energy moguls, the Brothers Koch. Typically, the know-nothings preface their ignorance by saying they aren't scientists, but they think the "jury is still out" on climate change.

Cruz, consistently behind in polls, went even further. "They're cooking the books. They're actually adjusting the numbers," he said of climate scientists. "It is always disturbing to hear science use the language of theology. Deniers. Heretics. That's not what science is supposed to be about. Science should follow the facts." It's a clever bit of rhetorical ju-jitsu, but actual scientists were quick to point out that Cruz himself was using data that did not capture the whole picture, much less the scientific knowledge that supports the theory of a warming planet. And, to be clear, scientists don't use theological terms like "heretics" in the climate change discourse.

We will hear much more of this nonsense from the Republican candidates in their first debate this week. Like so much in the GOP, extremist views are the coin of their realm and science won't be spared. You might say they're all using Trumped-up charges against Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. One senses -- and fears -- that anti-science ideology is so severe and permeating the Republic base that the authenticity of science itself is under attack.

Another case is the deal with Iran to curb its nuclear development program, which the Republican Party has, without a shred of evidence, declared will aid the Iranians in deploying a nuclear weapon. Here again, the utility of and respect for knowledge is at stake. Not only has the Iran deal been endorsed by most technical experts, but common sense dictates that an agreement that delays Iran's nuclear program by 15 years is highly preferable to one that does nothing to delay it. (The CIA, by the way, has said repeatedly that Iran does not have a nuclear-weapons program.)

There was no sadder sight at the congressional hearings on the Iran deal than witnessing the know-nothings challenging energy secretary Ernest Moniz (Stanford, MIT physicist) and defense secretary Ashton Carter (Oxford, MIT, Harvard physicist) with distractions like electromagnetic pulse weapons (extremely improbable) or detectable cheating by Iran (against which the agreement is robust). Of course, the opponents of the deal have their scientists, too, just like the tobacco industry did. The honest among them are obsessively transfixed by the minutiae of "break out" times and surreptitious bomb making, ignoring the Herculean difficulties of such scenarios and, more importantly, the massive disincentives confronting Iran should it violate the agreement.

This is where knowledge is decisively useful if mindful of its practical, real-world applications. Physicians are increasingly attuned to the socio-economic, gender, and cultural context in which their patients live. Climate scientists take into account not only how carbon traps heat in air and ocean, but how certain human activities -- e.g., deforestation or drilling for oil in the Arctic -- dynamically affect climate.

As a society, we tend to undervalue what sophisticated science offers us. As it happens, it was the left in the 1960s that first cast aspersions on "Big Science," that which seemed to serve corporate interests. Some radical feminists detect patriarchy in scientific method. But now the right-wing has taken up the anti-science crusade literally with a vengeance because so much of it runs against conservative shibboleths, their own obstinate myths about market economics, religion, and human behavior generally. It's an extremely destructive crusade, occurring only here among the advanced economies, poisoning the common well of how to understand the world.

Tellingly, each election cycle someone asks the GOP candidates if they believe in the theory of evolution. (In science, by the way, a "theory" is proven; a "hypothesis" is not.) Most often, they say they don't or they punt, as most of this year's contenders have decided to do. I can confidently say that my father, a rock-ribbed Republican, would not approve.