Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
—Philip K. Dick, author
You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.
—Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 2003
What’s real is what’s real, and, like it or not, no one can change the nature of reality. Except, of course, with mushrooms.
It happens so often that we are inured and desensitized to it. Creationists spout lies and distortions about science and reality, and no one disputes them (except an occasional high school student who challenged Michele Bachmann’s assertion that Nobelists denied evolution). Politicians like Rick Perry and Bachmann get up and brag about their doubts about the reality of global climate change and evolution, and they become the darlings of the GOP. Partisan media like Fox News and their parent company NewsCorp admit that they are receiving money from GOP candidates, or funneling it to them, and no one seems to care. News Corp and Rupert Murdoch get away with all sorts of outrages in their tabloids, yet they are so powerful that British politicians and cops dare not cross them—until their actions are so extreme that all of the UK is disgusted with them. But every once in a while, the cat is let out of the bag, and someone says something that reveals how these people are either abysmally ignorant of reality because of deluded ideology, or they are smart enough to recognize it but play along in a cynical grab for power over those who are ignorant or ill informed.
The latest incident occurred when two pundits on Fox News were discussing the GOP candidates. They point to Jon Huntsman as the sole candidate who would admit that global warming is real (Romney, Gingrich, and others who also once admitted it are now backtracking to kowtow to the extremists who vote in GOP primaries and caucuses). They comment that he’s losing ground to Rick Perry, who made false claims not only about global warming but also about how scientists were allegedly committing fraud. One of the Fox anchors, Clayton Morris, says it it in no uncertain terms:
Certainly, if you dive into the weeds a little bit on this global warming thing, you see that it seems the facts are certainly on Huntsman’s side on all of this and fact checkers have come out, and we’re actually having our own brain room look at this right now, that any of Perry’s comments don’t seem to hold a lot of water. But it doesn’t matter, because what’s resonating right now in South Carolina is helping Governor Perry tremendously. He fired back at Huntsman on global warming and gaining traction, facts or not.
There it is, in black and white. Pundits on Fox News admitting global warming is real, that it is supported by the scientific community—yet it matters not to Perry or others in the GOP craving power because their base doesn’t believe in reality. Political strategy aside, is this not among the most cynical things one could hear in the media? That facts are clear but don’t matter, since the GOP candidate must tell the extremists in their party what they want to hear, not tell the truth?
None of this is surprising to those of us in the scientific community who have followed politics since 2000. As Chris Mooney showed in his book The Republican War on Science, the GOP during the 8 years of Dubya pursued policies that were strongly in favor of big corporations, and ignored or rewrote the recommendations of their own science advisors whenever science and reality got in the way of their ideology. These incidents ranged from the subtle (rewriting EPA rules to favor big corporations) to the outrageous, such as the Bush official and former oil company lobbyist Philip Cooney tampering with and toning down a scientific report on global warming, even though he had no science background and was clearly doing the bidding of the Administration and the oil lobby.
Indeed, the conflict goes back to the early Bush years, when Dubya backtracked on campaign pledges to curb global warming, and soon pursued policies that favored polluters, even while he was bragging to the media that he was in favor of creationism. The most revealing quote of all came when New York Times Magazine columnist Ron Suskind interviewed Karl Rove on Oct. 17, 2004:
he said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
Once again, possibly without realizing it, they let the cat out of the bag. They know what is real, but they are cynical enough to play whatever political games they must play, and deny what they know to be real, all in the quest to gain and keep power. Machiavelli would not be surprised, but it is a pretty shameful admission nonetheless.
There were some in the media who have noticed it and commented, but now that the media are so polarized, you won’t hear anyone on the right wing commenting on it (with the exception of Morris above). One of the more measured and non-partisan analyses came from Nobelist Paul Krugman. As he puts it in his recent column:
Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, isn’t a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. And that’s too bad, because Mr. Hunstman has been willing to say the unsayable about the G.O.P. — namely, that it is becoming the “anti-science party.” This is an enormously important development. And it should terrify us.
I could point out that Mr. Perry is buying into a truly crazy conspiracy theory, which asserts that thousands of scientists all around the world are on the take, with not one willing to break the code of silence. I could also point out that multiple investigations into charges of intellectual malpractice on the part of climate scientists have ended up exonerating the accused researchers of all accusations. But never mind: Mr. Perry and those who think like him know what they want to believe, and their response to anyone who contradicts them is to start a witch hunt.
So how has Mr. Romney, the other leading contender for the G.O.P. nomination, responded to Mr. Perry’s challenge? In trademark fashion: By running away. In the past, Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, has strongly endorsed the notion that man-made climate change is a real concern. But, last week, he softened that to a statement that he thinks the world is getting hotter, but “I don’t know that” and “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans.” Moral courage!
Of course, we know what’s motivating Mr. Romney’s sudden lack of conviction. According to Public Policy Polling, only 21 percent of Republican voters in Iowa believe in global warming (and only 35 percent believe in evolution). Within the G.O.P., willful ignorance has become a litmus test for candidates, one that Mr. Romney is determined to pass at all costs.
So it’s now highly likely that the presidential candidate of one of our two major political parties will either be a man who believes what he wants to believe, even in the teeth of scientific evidence, or a man who pretends to believe whatever he thinks the party’s base wants him to believe.
And the deepening anti-intellectualism of the political right, both within and beyond the G.O.P., extends far beyond the issue of climate change.
Now, we don’t know who will win next year’s presidential election. But the odds are that one of these years the world’s greatest nation will find itself ruled by a party that is aggressively anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge. And, in a time of severe challenges — environmental, economic, and more — that’s a terrifying prospect.
I concur that those prospects are truly terrifying, especially as we saw the consequences of eight years of Bush policies that ignored reality and played cynical power games. Fortunately, there is still time for voters to come around and recognize this manipulation of ignorant right-wingers.
In the meantime, I proudly wear a badge which proclaims my allegiance to the “reality-based community”.
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