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War on Science: Evolution, Climate Change, and the Curious House Committee on Science

Congressman Paul Broun. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr)

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Paul Broun.Congressman Paul Broun. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr)“What do many Republicans in the House of Representatives have in common with the 17th century Spanish Inquisition? Both have waged a war on science.”

In 1632, summoned by Pope Urban VIII, inventor of the telescope Galileo Galilei faced the notorious Catholic cardinals presiding over the Inquisition because he advocated new science (the Earth revolves around the sun) over old science (the earth is the center of the universe). The frail septuagenarian, justifiably terrified, denounced his own unequivocal findings by asserting, “I affirm . . . that I do not now hold the condemned opinion and have not held it since the decision of authorities.” Despite his contrition, Galileo was deemed a heretic and spent the balance of his life under house arrest.

Today, the conflict between religion, commerce and science continues to hover over rational discourse like an unregulated acid rain cloud. Just last week when GQ Magazine asked Florida senator Mark Rubio the earth’s age, he employed a bojangle-esque intellectual two-step and said, “I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians . . . ” Senator Rubio thinks this is best debated “amongst theologians?” Presumably, archeologists and paleontologists need not apply.

More frightening than Rubio’s pandering is the assortment of nonscientific beliefs held by Republicans controlling the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. As the majority party during the 112th Congress (and soon to be convened 113th), the GOP occupied 23 of the 40 seats while also claiming the chairmanship and vice chairmanship.

With jurisdiction over federal scientific research and development, who did the Grand Old Party select as their representatives on the committee? To suggest this was a head-scratching list is an understatement.

On the origin of our species, member Paul Broun of Georgia said at Liberty Baptist Church, in September of 2012, “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.” Another member, Sandy Adams of Florida, agreed when she said, “I’m Christian. I believe in the biblical terms of how we came about.”

Then there’s Todd Akin of Missouri, who was a committee member when he famously suggested that in cases of “legitimate rape,” women had a biological means to prevent pregnancy. Mr. Akin also claimed evolution was not “a matter of science” because of “all of the different things that have to be lined up” to create life.

Beyond ignoring dinosaurs and billion-year-old rocks is the commission’s dismissive attitude toward global warming. None other than committee Chairman Ralph M. Hall of Texas said of climate change in an interview, “I don’t think we can control what God controls.” He then added that he is “pretty close” to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s belief that climate science is a “conspiracy.” Not to be outdone, the committee vice chairman at the time, John Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, referred in 2009 to a federal climate report as “at worst junk science.” On his web page, member Lamar Smith of Texas, to be the next committee chair, claimed the major television “networks have shown a steady pattern of bias on climate change.”

To make matters worse, the committee Republicans have acted on their weather-blindness in ways that seem well-suited for certain industries (like major GOP contributors oil and gas), but not the human species or their habitats. For example, in April of 2011, the committee passed bill H.R. 910 (Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011), which amends the Clean Air Act “to prohibit the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from promulgating any regulation concerning, taking action relating to, or taking into consideration the emission of a greenhouse gas to address climate change, and for other purposes.” In other words, the bill asserts that greenhouse gases don’t degrade air enough to be regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The bill passed in committee without a single dissenting Republican vote (all but two Democrats voted against). H.R. 910 subsequently passed the Republican House and now sits in the Senate awaiting their take on deregulating hydrocarbons. During debate, the fact that 97.5 percent of all climatologists (Doran, 2009) agreed that “human activity is a significant . . . factor in changing . . . global temperatures” fell on deaf GOP ears.

Unfortunately the stakes are far too high to tolerate a Committee on Science that, like Inquisitional cardinals, blithely ignores research. Sadly, while US students ranked 25th in math and 17th in science of 34 countries surveyed (2009, Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development), it is likely this subset of US politicians waging war on science would rank close to dead last in that same sample. Galileo lamented of his plight before the Inquisition, ” . . . what would you say of the learned here who . . . have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?”

With more frequent hurricanes battering our coast, low-elevation islands drowning, and melting glaciers and polar icecaps disappearing, we require political advocates who embrace rather than reject sound policy based on empiricism. If not, we have only one of Galileo’s choices, and it’s not to laugh.

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