U.S. House doesn’t need scientists?

House Sci. Comm. Chair Lamar Smith

House Sci. Comm. Chair Lamar Smith

Normally, SparkRayGun avoids diving into into the turbulent waters of politics but, I could not let a passage from a recent Humanity Plus Magazine article float into the ether without comment.

Responding to the possibility that black holes may not exist (note the word “may not”), U.S. Rep. Michele Bachman told The New Yorker:

“[O]ur biggest blunder as a society was ever listening to [scientists]. If black holes don’t exist, then other things you scientists have been trying to foist on us probably don’t either, like climate change and evolution … Fortunately for me, I did not take any science classes in college.”

Texas Rep. Lamar Smith who is Chairman of the House Science Committee, followed with:

“Going forward, members of the House Science Committee will do our best to avoid listening to scientists.”

Wow. Just. Wow. Americans should be afraid. Be very afraid. What does the House Science Committee’s even do? Plenty.

To quote only a small portion from its About page, the Committee “has jurisdiction over all energy research … astronautical research … exploration [of outer space] … marine research (see Postscript below for the full text).”

Before you march angry on Washington with your Bunsen burner in one hand and a can of whoop-ass in the other, here’s the good news? The article from which H+ quoted was a parody by New Yorker comedian Andy Borowitz.

The Shame of tl;dr

The Shame of tl;dr

In fact, I committed the unthinkable crime of tl;dr and so off I charged up the San Juan Hill that is Facebook, loudly proclaiming the End of the Rational World As We Know It.

But I’m not alone (and I did later apologize to Facebookia). H+ author John G. Messerly rightly points out that, even though the quotes may be fake, they accurately represent the sobering fact that “the disdain for and ignorance of science by many politicians is very real.”

The Shame of tl;dr Part Deux

The Shame of tl;dr Part Deux

Here are a few cases of very real and very troubling anti-science sentiment publicly expressed by House Science Committee members. Don’t hurt yourself with the impending facepalms.

  • Chairman Lamar Smith: In 2013, Smith crafted a bill that would create a new set of controversial criteria for National Science Foundation grant proposals, effectively overturning the peer review process in favor of a politicized funding criteria process controlled by Congress (aka the guys who are NOT scientists). Fellow committee member Eddie Bernice Johnson chastised Smith, saying “the moment you compromise both the merit review process and the basic research mission of NSF is the moment you undo everything that has enabled NSF to contribute so profoundly to our national health, prosperity, and welfare.”
  • Paul Broun: In 2012, Broun declared: “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.” (Does that make Dr. Sheldon Cooper, Satan?) Broun also believes the earth is about 9,000 years old. No comment — except “no.”
  • Jim Sensenbrenner: In 2009, the Wisconsin representative claimed “I personally believe that the solar flares are more responsible for climatic cycles than anything that human beings do.” The scientific community says: “Over the last 35 years the sun has shown a slight cooling trend. However global temperatures have been increasing. Since the sun and climate are going in opposite directions scientists conclude the sun cannot be the cause of recent global warming.”
  • Dana Rohrabacher: Writer Henry Decker seems almost incredulous as he is forced to type these insane words in a 2013 post: “Rohrabacher has claimed that ‘CO2 is irrelevant,’ ‘polar bears are not becoming extinct,’ and that ‘dinosaur flatulence’ may have caused past climate changes.” Science says: Well, the opposite of all those things.

One wonders if any of these politicians actually hold these irrational beliefs in reality or are simply pandering to what they believe is an uneducated electorate. The very fact that elected officials would push any of these clearly debunked, pseudo-scientific views in any arena — sincerely or otherwise — punches a dangerous hole into the fabric of American scientific progress.

These are men who hold the purse strings to so many vital fields of research that will ultimately decide our fate as a species — climate change, robotics, artificial intelligence, stem-cells, bio-tech implants, evolutionary biology, bio-medicine and nanotech.

Borowitz’s parody is as funny as it is prophetic. Millions of otherwise educated Americans show a deep disdain for science — misidentifying its biggest strength as its greatest weakness.

Science has always been and will always be a process of discovery that is provisional in nature. Scientific truth is never fixed with 100% certainty because new discoveries may very well overturn Conventional Wisdom.

And as we can clearly see in world conflicts: provisional thinking is always preferable to dogmatic  thinking. Scientific thinking builds skyscrapers and airliners. Dogmatic thinking crashes airliners into skyscrapers.

That’s how we progress in science: We question any and all established principles and seek fresh evidence in our quest to evolve as the best humans we possibly can and reach out to a mysterious and awesome universe.

As H+ writer Messerly adds with regard to the latest black-hole research:

Many ideas in theoretical physics are at the cutting edge of science and particularly open to revision. It may turn out that black holes don’t exist, but for the moment rational persons should align their view with that of the majority of physicists. And if there is no scientific consensus about the matter, then the rational response for the rest of us is to withhold judgment.

As usual the media deserves a lashing for pushing a regular diet of science bashing on a daily basis. Headlines and hurried news reports often leave out many key details of new research, leading consumers to think that any new finding is somehow final.

Notice some headlines flatly proclaim: “Black Holes Don’t Exist!” rather than the more accurate: “Some scientists have discovered some anomalies that seem to bring parts if black-hole theory into question.” Not as sexy, is it? Not to mention that the consensus among physicists disagrees with the recent, very preliminary research. And, yes, all physicists could be wrong and they know it.

As Messerly masterfully concludes: “Sensationalized reporting is easy and it sells, while real scientific investigation is a slow and difficult process.”

Yes, Fake Lamar Smith, we do need to listen to scientists if we want to progress as a species. Unlike other animals, humans cannot rely on tooth or claw to evolve. Our best and only tool for improving and extending life and health is our rational brain capable of exploring this universe using the scientific method. And what a wondrous tool of discovery it is.

* Postscript: “The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has jurisdiction over all energy research, development, and demonstration, and projects therefor, and all federally owned or operated non-military energy laboratories; astronautical research and development, including resources, personnel, equipment, and facilities; civil aviation research and development; environmental research and development; marine research; commercial application of energy technology; National Institute of Standards and Technology, standardization of weights and measures and the metric system; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; National Science Foundation; National Weather Service; outer space, including exploration and control thereof; science scholarships; scientific research, development, and demonstration, and projects therefor. The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology shall review and study on a continuing basis laws, programs, and Government activities relating to non-military research and development.”

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