Every dysfunctional relationship proceeds though the same stages: from promise to problem to crisis and, ultimately, to repetitive farce. There is one more embarrassing public scene, one more fight that disturbs the neighbors—a lather-rinse-repeat cycle that becomes more tiresome than anything else. That final stage is where the hard right of the GOP has at last arrived in its tortured pas de deux with science.
The most recent Republican to get into an ugly dust-up with the scientific truth is Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Running for re-election against former Gov. (and former Republican) Charlie Crist—and currently trailing in polls—Scott was asked by a reporter whether he believes climate change is real. Depressingly but predictably, he went for what is becoming the go-to dodge for too many in the GOP when pressed on a scientific fact that they dare not acknowledge for fear of fallout from the base, but can no longer openly deny for fear of being called out for willful know-nothingism. “I’m not a scientist,” Scott thus began—and there he should have stopped.
The device, of course, is meant to suggest that the issue is just too complex, just too abstruse for people without advanced degrees to presume to pass judgment on. It was the bob-and-weave used by Fla. Senator Marco Rubio when GQ magazine asked him the age of the Earth. “I’m not a scientist, man,” he said—adding the “man” fillip because it presumably suggested a certain whew-this-stuff-is-hard fatigue.
It was used as well by House Speaker John Boehner when he was pressed about proposed EPA regulations intended to curb greenhouse gasses. “Well, listen,” he began, “I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change.”
There’s something not just risibly dishonest about this reg’lar-folk pose, it’s flat-out unseemly too, which is why less disingenuous Republicans, whatever their views, tend to find a defter way to phrase things. Boehner, Scott, Rubio and the like are seeking to have things two incompatible ways—they deny the science, even ridicule the science, and then they seek to hide behind the skirts of the science, recusing themselves from answering questions because it’s all just too dang complicated.
Never mind that if you take them at their word—if you say, okay, let’s see what the eggheads in the labs say, and it turns out that the eggheads in the labs all but universally agree that global warming is dangerously, frighteningly real—they neatly flip the script. The scientists—the ones to whom they pretend to defer—are suddenly dismissed as “grant-grubbing” hoaxsters, conniving with liberal politicians to “expand the role of government.”
But, okay, let’s pretend the politicos are sincere. If the Speaker, by his own admission, isn’t qualified to debate climate change, fine, he’s excused from the conversation—and he should be expected not to offer further opinion on the matter. This, however, is a dangerous game to play. If being a scientist, man, is a threshold requirement for taking a thoughtful, honest position on climate change, then the same is true for being an economist or physician or astronomer if you presume to offer an opinion on the federal budget or the health care law or NASA funding.
The “both sides do it” faux equivalency game is hard to play on this one, since science denial is simply not endemic in the Democratic party the way it is in the GOP. But that hardly means all Dems have covered themselves in glory. West Va. Sen. Joe Manchin literally shot a hole in a copy of the cap and trade bill in a 2010 election ad, a crude symbolic twofer that signaled yes to guns and no to climate regulation in his rural, coal-producing state. Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, locked in a tough reelection battle, has consistently blocked climate action, opposing tighter regulations on coal-fired power plants, because, she says, “Requiring [the plants] to use technology that has not been proven viable in industrial settings is completely backward,” a good argument if what she says about the technology were remotely accurate—which it isn’t.
But the hard truth is Manchin and Landrieu are outliers among the Democrats, while the counterfactual voices are among the loudest within Republican ranks. The time really has come for the GOP to fix its relationship with science—or just break up for good. Either way, they should do something soon, because the rest of us are getting sick of the fighting.
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