My new Think Again column is called “Think Again: The Fox Propaganda Train Rolls On" and it's here.
My new Nation column is called “What’s the Story, Mr. President?” and it’s here.
And my Daily Beast column addresses the silliness that is the Michael Bloomberg for president discussion, here.
Now here’s Reed:
They Blinded Me With Science
This country’s scientific community is experiencing a number of dangerous shortages. First off, there’s the alarming underrepresentation of ethnic minorities and women in scientific fields. There’s also a looming scarcity of qualified computer scientists necessary to design and maintain our increasingly complex digital infrastructure. Even in clean and renewable energy technology, the US’s scientific edge over the rest of the world is rapidly eroding. But there’s one other shortfall that sprung to mind this week in lieu of this “dog bites man” revelation concerning Fox News’s ridiculous climate change equivocation: the startling deficiency in clear, concise and relevant reporting about science.
Scientists themselves have certainly noticed, as this Pew survey from last year shows.
“A substantial percentage of scientists also say that the news media have done a poor job educating the public. About three-quarters (76%) say a major problem for science is that news reports fail to distinguish between findings that are well-founded and those that are not. And 48% say media oversimplification of scientific findings is a major problem.”
Hmmm, injecting a false equivalence between unequal ideas or arguments because analyzing the details and explaining them is too hard, you say? Where have we heard that before? And let’s not kid ourselves that only Fox News does stuff like this. Lots of mainstream news organizations get sucked into repeating—willingly or not and without a hint of the hypocrisy involved—talking points like the previous administration’s odious phrase about policy being guided by “sound science.” Maybe it’s time that we in the media break free of the same rigidly objective approach when it comes to reporting on science as well?
Nah, says Daniel Sarewitz in this perplexing Slate article. Instead, we need to have more Republican scientists to balance everything out! His argument flows from an apparently startling (to him) statistic found in the same Pew study mentioned earlier. It discovered that the political ideology of the surveyed scientists (who were all members of the AAAS, it should be noted) now runs more than nine to one in favor of Democrats. “This immense imbalance has political consequences,” he soberly warns, before calling for a kind of affirmative action effort to put more pocket protectors on conservatives.
“How would a more politically diverse scientific community improve this situation? First, it could foster greater confidence among Republican politicians about the legitimacy of mainstream science. Second, it would cultivate more informed, creative, and challenging debates about the policy implications of scientific knowledge. This could help keep difficult problems like climate change from getting prematurely straitjacketed by ideology. A more politically diverse scientific community would, overall, support a healthier relationship between science and politics.”
In fact, this prescription for encouraging greater ideological balance within the scientific community sounds awfully familiar to the same remedies many mastheads have undertaken to counteract the journalism profession’s supposed liberal bias. And it suffers from the same fatal flaws. By implicitly endorsing the notion that the legitimacy of one’s work is necessarily a byproduct of one’s private political beliefs stands against the very principles of scientific inquiry. The same logic that says journalists, who tend to be liberal in their personal political beliefs, must propagate a “liberal media” also dictates that liberal scientists therefore can’t help but conduct “liberal science.” The message, in other words, becomes inseparable from the messenger. And from there, its but a short and slippery slope to enforcing an ideological test upon the makeup of scientific academies or government-sponsored research to add “legitimacy,” as Sarewitz suggests. But this will only serve to heighten the politicization of science rather than neutralize it. I mean, take one look at how well this hyperpoliticized approach is working out for our judiciary.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all for more diversity and I welcome conservatives joining the ranks of our nation’s scientists, mathematicians and engineers, just as I would be fine if they suddenly flocked to journalism. But if I were the deans of MIT and Caltech (or the Columbia Journalism School, for that matter), I’d wait a bit before deciding to double the endowments to handle the oncoming crush of new conservative students. Simply put, some professions correlate more strongly with people of certain ideologies because of the required skill sets of those professions. Careers that necessitate seeking out the unfamiliar, testing new ideas, gaining new perspectives and facilitating change or progress, by their very nature, tend to attract small-l liberal thinkers. By contrast, other professions, like, say, the financial industry or the military (specifically the officers corps), emphasize different values and so they happen to be populated mostly by conservatives. (And, for some reason, I’ve yet to come across an essay bemoaning a lack of liberals among our nation’s hedge fund managers.)
But Sarewitz can’t seem to accept that this self-selection process naturally draws liberals into the sciences in greater numbers. Surely, something else must be going on, and there is, although he stumbles across the reason inadvertently:
“Consider the case of climate change, of which beliefs are astonishingly polarized according to party affiliation and ideology.
A March 2010 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of Democrats (and 74 percent of liberals) say the effects of global warming are already occurring, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans. Does that mean that Democrats are more than twice as likely to accept and understand the scientific truth of the matter? And that Republicans are dominated by scientifically illiterate yahoos and corporate shills willing to sacrifice the planet for short-term economic and political gain?"
These sound like trick questions. So let me give carefully crafted and qualified answers: Yes and yes.
Time was, Republicans and Democrats could be occasionally counted on to work together to confront serious scientific problems and craft policy solutions to fix them, based on a common acceptance of data and facts on the ground. Take, for example, the Clean Air Act, one of the most effective pieces of environmental science policy ever enacted in this country. Forty years ago, this bill got its start thanks to a Democratic Congress and President Nixon’s signature. It was strengthened and updated 20 years later by another combination of a Democratic Congress and Republican president, George H. W. Bush.
One doesn’t have to wonder too long about this kind of cooperation occurring in the next divided Congress. Not when the recent midterm elections offered Republican voters across the country a Hobson’s choice on electing climate change deniers. Not when a smug, incurious man whose only discernible legislative function appears to be publicly excusing gross corporate malfeasance will be serving as the next chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Not when the new junior GOP senator from Kentucky either doesn’t know or, more likely, doesn’t want to rankle his creationist constituents by publicly acknowledging an incontrovertible scientific fact about the age of the planet he inhabits. And heck, when the senior GOP senator from South Carolina merely wrote an op-ed about wanting to work with Democrats on watered-down climate legislation, he ignited a fierce backlash of right-wing anger so intense that he ultimately found convenient excuses to back away from the bill this year. I mean, it’s simply not a coincidence that this book was also a New York Times bestseller.
Indeed, what Sarewitz doesn’t seem to grasp is that this ideological imbalance isn’t a case of science abandoning Republicans; it’s Republicans who have abandoned science. In the intervening years since the first President Bush, Republicans—first nationally, and now at nearly every level of political office—have executed a broad-based retreat from scientific policy engagement. They can no longer abide regulatory solutions—successfully proven, I might add—like the Clean Air Act, and so complex science and environmental issues now get crudely hammered, like everything else, with the same “tax cuts and free market” cudgel. And so armed, it becomes easy to dismiss something like the overwhelming preponderance of climate change data found by every major scientific research organization, because the facts, as Stephen Colbert famously joked, have a known liberal bias.
So, to try and do for science what the same conventional wisdom has done for journalism would be a tragic case of fixing what ain’t broken. Our nation’s scientific community does have its share of problems, no doubt, but one of them most certainly not worth worrying over is the unbalanced ideological makeup of its practitioners. That’s a lesson I hope we in the media will someday learn as well.
And the mail:
About Bush v. Gore.
What has always amazed me is that the Constitution expressly provides a remedy for disputed national elections. The House votes for President, the Senate for Vice President. Had Florida sent two sets of electors (not the first time in history a state would have done so) Congress would have been required to resolve the election, the Congress sworn in on Jan. 3 2001.
With a solid GOP majority, the House would have certainly elected Bush President. The Senate is where things would have gotten interesting. Democrats had as I recall either a one seat majority or a majority due to Gore being the sitting Vice President. There is no way the Democrats would have elected Leiberman and thereby lost their Senate majority. They could have, and had the choice been available, would have elected Al Gore to serve another term as Vice President under Bush. Why? To maintain their Senate majority (Jeffords had not yet changed caucuses).
I know for a fact at least one Democratic Senator was aware of this as I and another attorney explained it to him in December 2000 just before the Bush v. Gore atrocity was handed down. The election was a near tie and the Constitutional resolution would have had both candidates in office. The Supreme Court decision really elected Cheney VP, thereby providing him with the Constitutional office from which he could safely put into practice his evil plans.
Chapel Hill, NC
The compromise that isn't—because its really the conservative position through and through—is one bad (and scary) thing. But what really upsets me about Obama is that he is not what I think we expected—the progressive version of Ronald Reagan. Now, no one despises old Ronnie more than I, but he was very successful at shifting the paradigm. Republicans now routinely extol repugnant ideas that would have been unspeakable just 40 years ago. They have changed, I expected Obama to shift the paradigm in the same way. But he has not. He has not proposed huge federal works projects (a national healthcare database and high speed rail would have been nice); he has not proposed an overhaul of the federal tax code; he has not been the champion of the middle class that he could have been. What he has done will be easily overturned by conservative majorities now and in 2012. Obama told the soft-spoken, sometimes tongue-tied Harry Reid that he had a gift—meaning Obama's ability to stir people with rhetoric. I feel somewhat foolish that I actually thought he had some stirring ideas behind those words. Not to be overblown, but I do feel that we are doomed. The only thing I keep telling myself is that if you give a conservative enough rope, they hang themselves. I may not live to see it and what the conservatives accomplish may make my middle class existence a living hell (I'm 56) but they will, some day, go down in flames. Problem is, they may take most of us with them.
Maybe I'm wrong and just speaking for myself, but I think most "liberals" understand that the tax deal had to be made, given the circumstances. The outrage is that Obama and the Democratic majorities allowed those circumstances to develop. That 57 votes out of a hundred are not enough to pass legislation in The World's Greatest Deliberative Body is ridiculous. It was obvious from the start that would be a problem; and now it's become some kind of warped conventional wisdom that, duh, you need 60 votes to pass anything. If the Republicans win the Senate in 2012, I'll bet that rule is changed the day after they're sworn in.
Fort Worth, Texas
The Republicans disgust me, but they never disappoint. Their utter shamelessness and open contempt for the well-being of the United States and its people have become Republican trademarks.
The Democrats constantly disappoint, but they're more pathetic than disgusting. I keep hoping they will stand at last and cast the Republicans' lies back in their teeth, then do what they know to be right and damn the consequences. They never do, of course. You might as well expect courage from clams.
The American people disappoint me and sadden me beyond words. We have proven that we are easy prey for demagogues and for those who appeal to our baser nature. We have become intolerant, cowardly, shallow and selfish. We are willfully and proudly ignorant, quick to judgment and just plain mean. We have betrayed our country and everything noble that it once stood for.
I am extremely disappointed in President Obama's concession to the GOP on extending the Bush tax cuts to the wealthy and can only hope the Democrats in the House and Senate have the good sense to just let the issue die by the end of the year. When the Republican majority in the next session then brings the tax cuts up as their primary act, I hope that the Democrats will obstruct the bills as the Republicans have done in this session in order to stem the flow of our wealth into the grubby hands of the greedy sons-of-bitches who put millions of people out of work and were rewarded handsomely for their fraud and criminality, rather than being thrown into jail where they belong. Does anyone truly think that the tax cuts will eventually convince investors to put their money back into the US economy in the form of hiring workers? The private sector hasn't shown much willingness to work for the benefit of citizens so far.
The wealthy individuals in our society were given a huge income boost through the actions of Congress through TARP and the grants and loans provided from the Federal Reserve to our Wall Street investment brokers and shareholders. After such a massive plundering of the public treasury for the well-being of an extremely small minority of individuals, it's long past time for the Democrats to say "no" to the voodoo economics that has infested our politics since the Reagan era. We cannot sustain our government on borrowed money, but we equally cannot sustain our government by strangling its revenue sources.
Bluff City, TN
Unfortunately one of the best blogs you ever wrote was a couple of months ago and it is the truth. Fox news is setting the agenda for the whole nation.
They are not only controlling the GOP, they control what the other networks report. Whatever they want to make as the issue of the day, the other networks fall in step. How they want to frame an issue is how the tone is set. There aren't any mavericks in broadcast news anymore. 60 Minutes no lnger exposes corruption, they profile celebrities.
This past election was all about the Bush tax cuts. Do you think they would have pumped all of that money into local congressional races if there wasn't a better return for their money? Fox news acted like the DEMs created this mess and no other major news organization challenged them on it. Unless the DEMs find a way to challenge Fox news, it is going to get tougher.
BTW, if more people are watching Fox news than any other network, aren't they the mainstream media?
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