The Republican War On Science: From Climate Change To Reproduction

Fertilization and Implantation-MU

There is good reason that, going back to the Bush years, only six percent of scientists identify themselves as Republicans. For several years Republicans have promoted views contrary to facts as demonstrated by the scientific method, and commonly distort science to justify their positions. We have seen more examples of this with Marco Rubio’s denial that human action is responsible for climate change despite overwhelming evidence that this is the case.

Some on the right have come to Rubio’s defense. One of the more absurd defenses of Rubio came from James Taranto who questioned whether appeals to authority are fallacious. In scientific matters it only makes sense to rely on authorities in the field, and ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that human action is responsible for climate change. Taranto dismissed this by arguing that, “The trouble for global-warmist journalists like Marcus and Lapidos is that an appeal to the authority of a distrusted source undermines rather than strengthens one’s argument.” That is a rather circular argument that conservatives are apparently right in dismissing arguments based upon the views of  climate scientists because conservatives already distrust the source.

Rubio defended his earlier statements by pivoting to yet another area where conservatives promote pseudo-science to promote their views–reproduction. Rubio tried to portray liberals as not accepting settled science in an interview with Sean Hannity, but Rubio got the science wrong:

“All these people always wag their finger at me about ‘science’ and ‘settled science.’,” he told Hannity. “Let me give you a bit of settled science that they’ll never admit to. Science is settled, it’s not even a consensus, it is a unanimity, that human life begins at conception. So I hope the next time that someone wags their finger about science, they’ll ask one of these leaders on the left: ‘Do you agree with the consensus of scientists that say that human life begins at conception?’ I’d like to see someone ask that question.”

Philip Bump turned to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists for their response to Rubio’s scientific claims. The response:

Government agencies and American medical organizations agree that the scientific definition of pregnancy and the legal definition of pregnancy are the same: pregnancy begins upon the implantation of a fertilized egg into the lining of a woman’s uterus. This typically takes place, if at all, between 5 and 9 days after fertilization of the egg – which itself can take place over the course of several days following sexual intercourse.

There are points in human reproduction which are defined scientifically, such as implantation and fertilization. Other points, including the time of intercourse and birth, have clear definitions. When life begins is not such a point:

There’s a blurry line between “pregnancy” and “life” in this discussion. When we asked ACOG if the two were interchangeable, we were told that the organization “approach[es] everything from a scientific perspective, and as such, our definition is for when pregnancy begins.” On the question of when life begins, then, the scientific experts we spoke with didn’t offer any consensus.

“Life” is something of a philosophical question, making Rubio’s dependence on a scientific argument — which, it hardly bears mentioning, is an argument about abortion — politically tricky. After all, if someone were to argue that life begins at implantation, it’s hard to find a moral argument against forms of birth control that prevent that from happening. If that someone were, say, running for president as a conservative Republican, that could be problematic.

Asking for the moment when life begins is a phony conservative frame which has no scientific validity, used to promote their viewpoint. The process of human reproduction is a continuum. The abortion issue involves matters beyond defining when life begins, such as the right of a woman to control her own body. The same is true with contraception, with some conservatives apparently choosing a point before the true onset of pregnancy as when life begins in order to justify opposition to forms of birth control which interfere with implantation.

Think Progress has more on conservative junk science being used to violate reproductive rights.

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Putin Goes To War

As is often the case, David Remnick provides excellent coverage of the events of the last few days in Ukraine. He shows not only what is going on in the Ukraine, but what good journalism should be. On Putin:

Vladimir Putin, the Russian President and autocrat, had a plan for the winter of 2014: to reassert his country’s power a generation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He thought that he would achieve this by building an Olympic wonderland on the Black Sea for fifty-one billion dollars and putting on a dazzling television show. It turns out that he will finish the season in a more ruthless fashion, by invading a peninsula on the Black Sea and putting on quite a different show—a demonstration war that could splinter a sovereign country and turn very bloody, very quickly.

There’s more background information than is found in the typical article which concentrates more on up to the minute news than analysis, and then a return to Putin’s motives:

In a recent Letter from Sochi, I tried to describe Putin’s motivations: his resentment of Western triumphalism and American power, after 1991; his paranoia that Washington is somehow behind every event in the world that he finds threatening, including the recent events in Kiev; his confidence that the U.S. and Europe are nonetheless weak, unlikely to respond to his swagger because they need his help in Syria and Iran; his increasingly vivid nationalist-conservative ideology, which relies, not least, on the elevation of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been so brutally suppressed during most of the Soviet period, as a quasi-state religion supplying the government with its moral force.

And this is how the war is likely to go:

I spoke with Georgy Kasianov, the head of the Academy of Science’s department of contemporary Ukrainian history and politics, in Kiev. “It’s a war,” he said. “The Russian troops are quite openly out on the streets [in Crimea], capturing public buildings and military outposts. And it’s likely all a part of a larger plan for other places: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson. And they’ll use the same technique. Some Russian-speaking citizens will appear, put up a Russian flag, and make appeals that they want help and referendums, and so on.” This is already happening in Donetsk and Kharkov.

“They are doing this like it is a commonplace,” Kasianov went on. “I can’t speak for four million people, but clearly everyone in Kiev is against this. But the Ukrainian leadership is absolutely helpless. The Army is not ready for this. And, after the violence in Kiev, the special forces are disoriented.”

In conclusion (but read Remnick’s full article first):

Putin’s reaction exceeded our worst expectations. These next days and weeks in Ukraine are bound to be frightening, and worse. There is not only the threat of widening Russian military force. The new Ukrainian leadership is worse than weak. It is unstable. It faces the burden of legitimacy. Yanukovych was spectacularly corrupt, and he opened fire on his own people. He was also elected to his office and brought low by an uprising, not the ballot; he made that point on Friday, in a press conference in Rostov on Don, in Russia, saying that he had never really been deposed. Ukraine has already experienced revolutionary disappointment. The Orange Revolution, in 2004, failed to establish stable democratic institutions and economic justice. This is one reason that Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister, newly released from prison, is not likely the future of Ukraine. How can Ukraine possibly move quickly to national elections, as it must to resolve the issue of legitimacy, while another country has troops on its territory?

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal Russian politician who no longer holds office, said that the events were not only dangerous for Ukraine but ominous for Russia and the man behind them. “It’s quite likely that this will be fatal for the regime and catastrophic for Russia,” he told Slon.ru. “It just looks as if they have taken leave of their senses.”

There are, of course, other views worth reading.  Peter Baker explains why it will not be easy to make Russia pay, despite the rants from Republican politicians such as Marco Rubio who seek to find political advantage in the current international crisis.

Mr. Putin has already demonstrated that the cost to Moscow’s international reputation would not stop him. Having just hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he must have realized he was all but throwing away seven years and $50 billion of effort to polish Russia’s image. He evidently calculated that any diplomatic damage did not outweigh what he sees as a threat to Russia’s historic interest in Ukraine, which was ruled by Moscow until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mr. Putin may stop short of outright annexation of Crimea, the largely Russian-speaking peninsula where Moscow still has a major military base, but instead justify a long-term troop presence by saying the troops are there to defend the local population from the new pro-Western government in Kiev. Following a tested Russian playbook, he could create a de facto enclave loyal to Moscow much like the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that broke away from Georgia. On the other hand, the White House worries that the crisis could escalate and that all of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine may try to split off.

Finding powerful levers to influence Mr. Putin’s decision-making will be a challenge for Mr. Obama and the European allies. Mr. Obama has seen repeatedly that warnings often do not discourage autocratic rulers from taking violent action, as when Syria crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons in its civil war.

Russia is an even tougher country to pressure, too formidable even in the post-Soviet age to rattle with stern lectures or shows of military force, and too rich in resources to squeeze economically in the short term. With a veto on the United Nations Security Council, it need not worry about the world body. And as the primary source of natural gas to much of Europe, it holds a trump card over many American allies.

The longer-term options might be more painful, but they require trade-offs as well. The administration could impose the same sort of banking sanctions that have choked Iran’s economy. And yet Europe, with its more substantial economic ties, could be reluctant to go along, and Mr. Obama may be leery of pulling the trigger on such a potent financial weapon, especially when he needs Russian cooperation on Syria and Iran.

“What can we do?” asked Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution scholar who was the government’s top intelligence officer on Russia during the Georgia war when Mr. Putin deflected Western agitation. “We’ll talk about sanctions. We’ll talk about red lines. We’ll basically drive ourselves into a frenzy. And he’ll stand back and just watch it. He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war.”

Baker also compared Obama’s options to those which George Bush had when Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008. Bush eventually learned that he was wrong about his initial sense of Putin’s soul from looking into his eyes. If anyone still has any doubts, it is clear that Putin’s soul is that of an autocrat and KGB killer.

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Drinking Scandal And The State of the Union

It is a sad commentary on the state of political discourse in this country that so many people are far more concerned about Marco Rubio drinking water than the competing arguments made during and after the State of the Union Address. We saw a thoughtful look at our current problems from Barack Obama and then Marco Rubio responding with the usual Republican bromides and straw man attacks, showing that the current Republicans have nothing to say about the real world, and no capacity for coming up with meaningful solutions to our problems.

I was sure happy it was Barack Obama on my television screen last night as opposed to Mitt Romney. Rubio’s speech showed how if Mitt Romney had been elected, the entire State of the Union Address would have been full of the same types of lies, distortions and irrational arguments that we heard from Rubio in the Republican response.

Obama had already debunked the gist of the Republican response with lines such as these: “Most Americans – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity,” and “deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan. A growing economy that creates good, middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts.”

Rubio’s throat became dry and he took a sip of water. Big deal. I object more to seeing him fall back on perpetuating the same false narratives about Democrats which Republicans have been relying upon for years to avoid read debate over the issues. Criticize him for trying to pass of a plan which would destroy Medicare as a means to save him. Criticize him, as Paul Krugman has, for his simplistic and untrue explanation for the economic crisis, and ignoring the Republican Party’s role in crashing the economy and obstructing attempts at recovery. Compared to this, drinking water is trivial, even though it will probably be the lead skit on Saturday Night Live this weekend. This is what Rubio will be remembered for, regardless of the significance. It would have been cooler, even if unacceptable, if he had reached for a beer instead. It would have been a far better speech if he had presented some actual ideas.

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An Inane And A Meaningful Response To Marco Rubio’s Comments On The Age Of The Earth

The response to Marco Rubio’s answer to a question on the age of the earth shows why we need both a better opposition party and a better news media. Rubio’s answer:

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?
Marco Rubio: I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

Often ignorant comments such as this receive brief mention in the liberal blogosphere and are forgotten, but this comment continues to receive a lot of attention. Mark Halperin writes this off as an example of How the left-wing Freak Show is gearing up for ’16:

There’s one area where Democrats are really far ahead of Republicans right now. Science and technology, no. It’s doing this thing that Democrats failed to do in 2000, to stop George W. Bush, which is really, really early on using the left-wing Freak Show to define anyone who’s thinking of running for President, as quickly as possible, in negative terms on Twitter, on cable, on the Internet. They’re all over this Rubio thing because they want to control his image in a negative way and they did it this cycle too. They went after Romney early, it really hurt him. And they’re doing it now. And, you know, as a matter of just pure politics, it’s very effective because Rubio’s not full-time thinking about running for president. He’s out there dabbling but people on the Left will just be defining anyone who looks like they might be strong in four years.

Halperin has often referred to the right wing Freak Show, while far too often repeating their falsehoods as if there was some validity to them. It is even worse if he is going to call criticism of Rubio’s statement a left-wing freak show, analogous to the right-wing freak show of Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, and others who promote a fictitious right wing narrative. There is no real comparison between these people who spread misinformation and those on the left who criticize Rubio for making a statement showing such disregard for science.

It also borders on the right wing conspiracy-theory mentality to see this as a plan to take out (or Palinize) Rubio in preparation for a possible 2016 presidential run. This response came after the interview, not part of some long-range conspiracy. This is not a quote being invented or taken out of context as we frequently see from the right wingers. This is not an attempt to dig up some long past statement or action, as right wingers often do when attempting to demonize a political foe. This is an honest response to a recently published interview on a subject which the left is quite concerned about–the Republican denial of facts and science.

In his answer, Rubio played down the importance of the question stating, “I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow.” Alex Knapp responded to this in Forbes:

…the age of the universe has a lot to do with how our economy is going to grow. That’s because large parts of the economy absolutely depend on scientists being right about either the age of the Universe or the laws of the Universe that allow scientists to determine its age. For example, astronomers recently discovered a galaxy that is over 13 billion light years away from Earth. That is, at its distance, it took the light from the Galaxy over 13 billion years to reach us.

Now, Marco Rubio’s Republican colleague Representative Paul Broun, who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology, recently stated that it was his belief that the Universe is only 9,000 years old. Well, if Broun is right and physicists are wrong, then we have a real problem. Virtually all modern technology relies on optics in some way, shape or form. And in the science of optics, the fact that the speed of light is constant in a vacuum is taken for granted. But the speed of light must not be constant if the universe is only 9,000 years old. It must be capable of being much, much faster. That means that the fundamental physics underlying the Internet, DVDs, laser surgery, and many many more critical parts of the economy are based on bad science. The consequences of that could be drastic, given our dependence on optics for our economic growth.

Here’s an even more disturbing thought – scientists currently believe that the Earth is about 4.54 billion years old because radioactive substances decay at generally stable rates.  Accordingly, by observing how much of a radioactive substance has decayed, scientists are able to determine how old that substance is. However, if the Earth is only 9,000 years old, then radioactive decay rates are unstable and subject to rapid acceleration under completely unknown circumstances. This poses an enormous danger to the country’s nuclear power plants, which could undergo an unanticipated meltdown at any time due to currently unpredictable circumstances. Likewise, accelerated decay could lead to the detonation of our nuclear weapons, and cause injuries and death to people undergoing radioactive treatments in hospitals. Any of these circumstances would obviously have a large economic impact.

If the Earth is really 9,000 years old, as Paul Broun believes and Rubio is willing to remain ignorant about,  it becomes imperative to shut down our nuclear plants and dismantle our nuclear stockpiles now until such time as scientists are able to ascertain what circumstances exist that could cause deadly acceleration of radioactive decay and determine how to prevent it from happening.

The bottom line is that this economy, at its root, is built on  a web of scientific knowledge from physics to chemistry to biology. It’s impossible to just cherry pick out parts we don’t like. If the Earth is 9,000 years old, then virtually the entire construct of modern science is simply wrong. Not only that, most of the technology that we rely on most likely wouldn’t work – as they’re dependent on science that operates on the same physical laws that demonstrate the age of the universe.

Now, this doesn’t mean that our representatives to the Congress and to the Senate should be scientific experts. But if they hold ideas about the world around us that are fundamentally at odds with scientific evidence, then that will ultimately infringe on their ability to make reasoned judgments about a host of issues where the economy touches technology. And that could end up harming the economy as a whole.

Politicians who are ignorant of basic science are not capable of making rational decisions on public policy in the 21st century. It is possible that Rubio might be more knowledgeable about science but feels it is necessary to deny scientific facts to maintain the support of the anti-science right wing. If this is the case, such cowardice is also not desirable from those in government.

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Ignorance And The Alternate Reality Of The Right Wing

If you had to pick just one word to characterize the modern conservative movement it would have to be ignorance. To believe the stuff they say it is necessary to be ignorant of history, economics, science, and public policy. The major reason for their ignorance is their rejection of legitimate sources of information while believing the outrageously untrue claims regularly made by Fox, right wing talk-radio, and their chain emails. I’ve pointed out many times that the more you watch Fox, the dumber you are. I had thought that this primarily involved matters related to right wing ideology and policy. This would include the belief that Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attack, that Saddam had WMD which represented a threat to our national security, that cutting taxes brings in more revenue even during eras of relatively low tax rates, that creationism is a valid alternative to evolution, and that climate change is a hoax. This also includes their bizarre misconceptions about the beliefs of others, the belief that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, or the absurd belief that Barack Obama is a socialist. (Newt Gingrich has now claimed that the Congressional Budget Office is a “reactionary socialist institution,” which conservatives are certain to repeat when the facts contradict their beliefs.)

As bad as all this is, matters are even worse. A Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind Poll found that readers of newspapers such as The New York Times and USA Today are, as would be expected, more likely to be aware of events which are unrelated to conservative talking points. However, those who watch Fox know less than those who follow no news at all. Taegan Goddard summarized:

A new Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind Poll finds that the Sunday morning political shows on television “do the most to help people learn about current events, while some outlets, especially Fox News, lead people to be even less informed than those who they don’t watch any news at all.”

“For example, people who watch Fox News, the most popular of the 24-hour cable news networks, are 18-points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government than those who watch no news at all (after controlling for other news sources, partisanship, education and other demographic factors). Fox News watchers are also 6-points less likely to know that Syrians have not yet overthrown their government than those who watch no news.”

These results mirror a University of Maryland study published last year.

The trend towards rejecting reality has led former Bush speech-writer David Frum to write an article asking, “When Did The GOP Lose Touch With Reality?”

The Bush years cannot be repudiated, but the memory of them can be discarded to make way for a new and more radical ideology, assembled from bits of the old GOP platform that were once sublimated by the party elites but now roam the land freely: ultralibertarianism, crank monetary theories, populist fury, and paranoid visions of a Democratic Party controlled by ACORN and the New Black Panthers. For the past three years, the media have praised the enthusiasm and energy the tea party has brought to the GOP. Yet it’s telling that that movement has failed time and again to produce even a remotely credible candidate for president. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich: The list of tea-party candidates reads like the early history of the U.S. space program, a series of humiliating fizzles and explosions that never achieved liftoff. A political movement that never took governing seriously was exploited by a succession of political entrepreneurs uninterested in governing—but all too interested in merchandising. Much as viewers tune in to American Idol to laugh at the inept, borderline dysfunctional early auditions, these tea-party champions provide a ghoulish type of news entertainment each time they reveal that they know nothing about public affairs and have never attempted to learn. But Cain’s gaffe on Libya or Perry’s brain freeze on the Department of Energy are not only indicators of bad leadership. They are indicators of a crisis of followership. The tea party never demanded knowledge or concern for governance, and so of course it never got them.

Frum addressed the alternative reality created by talk radio and Fox:

But the thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action ­phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) “the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.”

We used to say “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” Now we are all entitled to our own facts, and conservative media use this right to immerse their audience in a total environment of pseudo-facts and pretend information.

One terrifying example of the alternate reality promoted by the far right was seen at the Religious Right’s “Thanksgiving Family Forum” which six candidates for the Republican nomination attended. They support a warped version of the Constitution which exists only in their heads, containing views which are the opposite of what the framers intended. Rob Boston tried to correct a small number of their mistaken beliefs:

I can’t dissect the entire event. I don’t have that much time or patience. But I did take a few notes and want today to explain a few basic things to the Religious Right:

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison don’t agree with you. You hate the separation of church and state; Jefferson and Madison loved it. Jefferson and Madison worked together to end the government-established church in Virginia and guarantee religious liberty for all. Jefferson coined the metaphor of a “wall of separation between church and state.” Madison spoke of the “total separation of the church from the state.” Neither favored an officially Christian government. They are not on your side; stop invoking them.

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are two different documents designed to do different things.  There’s no doubt that the Declaration of Independence is an important historical document. It was a bold statement of our nation’s desire to be free from British control. But it does not list our rights. The rights of Americans are outlined in the Constitution, not the Declaration. I realize that it bothers you that the Constitution is secular and that you place great stock in the fact that the Declaration contains a deistic reference to the “Creator,” but that does not change this simple fact: The foundational governing document of the nation is the Constitution – and it does not state that we are an official Christian nation.

We have three co-equal branches of government. It’s discouraging to hear you cheer when candidates vow to stop the courts from handing down decisions that you don’t like. Our system grants the president no such powers – and for good reason. We’re not a dictatorship, after all. An independent judiciary is essential to the maintenance of a free society. When you applaud a man who promises to fire, harass and intimidate judges and turn the courts into a rubber-stamp body, you are advocating for autocracy. Aside from the separation of church and state, there is another important type of separation in our Constitution: the separation of powers. You might want to read up on it.

When you advocate denying public office to people on the basis of what they believe (or don’t believe) about God, you are being bigots. Article VI of the Constitution states that there shall be no religious test for federal office. People are free to reject political hopefuls on the basis of their beliefs, of course, but candidates should not promote this type of bigotry. We would have no difficulty labeling a person who says that a Jew is unfit for the presidency an anti-Semite. Likewise, a person who says that an atheist is unfit for that office should be called what he or she is: a bigot. It’s not something to be proud of.

You cannot simultaneously argue that decisions are best left to states and localities and demand federal control when states and localities do something you don’t like. Several candidates attacked Washington, D.C., policy-makers and asserted that states and local governments should have more control, much to the delight of the audience. They talked about how people have the freedom to make decisions on the local level. But apparently that freedom does not extend to making decisions that the Religious Right does not like. Moments later, many of these same candidates vowed to stop states from legalizing same-sex marriage or civil unions and demanded to criminalize abortion in all 50 states by federal writ. When you promote this type of intellectual disconnect, you expose yourself as the giant hypocrites that you are.

The day before the event, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said in a statement, “It’s a shame that so many candidates see fit to attend this fundamentalist Christian inquisition masquerading as a debate. Our nation faces many serious problems, but a lack of religion in our political system isn’t one of them. In fact, this election has already become deeply entangled with religion, with four candidates now claiming that God told them to run. Enough is enough.”

 

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