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The Curious Wavefunction

The Curious Wavefunction

Musings on chemistry and the history and philosophy of science

The House of Representatives Committee on Science is turning into a national embarrassment

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A few days back I wrote a post explaining why I am all for private support of basic science, especially in an age when government funding and support is flagging. My feelings were simply reinforced when I came across this news piece documenting the shameful behavior of Republican members of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology in denying climate change and harassing John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor.

The debacle was part of a hearing in which the members were supposed to discuss the upcoming 2015 budget with Holdren. Instead the proceedings turned into a mixture of hostile heckling and insulting sarcasm. This was black comedy that would have been mildly humorous had it not been real. The Republican members of the committee made it clear that not only do they lack the slightest interest in addressing climate change but they are about as ignorant about the nuances of science as a stone. Leading the charge was Texas congressman Randy Weber:

Several members, for example, appeared to be trying to mock rather than engage Holdren on climate change. “I may want to get your cellphone number, Dr. Holdren,” said Representative Randy Weber (R–TX), “because, if we go through another few cycles of global warming and cooling, I may need to ask you when I should buy my long coat on sale.”

Weber, a freshman from the Galveston area, began his interrogation by asking Holdren whether “when you guys do your research, you start with a scientific postulate or theory and work forward from that? Is that right?” Holdren gamely played along, explaining that “it depends on the type of science, but the notion of posing a hypothesis and then trying to determine whether it is right is one of the tried and true approaches in science, yes.”

But Weber’s question was really just a setup for his concluding statement. “I just don’t know how you all prove those theories going back 50 or 100,000 or even millions of years,” Weber said.

Perhaps Weber also wants to discount theories in astronomy, cosmology and paleontology? After all even those theories are based on evidence going back millions of years. I don't know Weber's views on evolution but I would be hardly surprised if he turns out to be in favor of "teaching the controversy".

The farce continued with another Republican member trotting out the tired old examples of global cooling and dinosaurs:

“I remember in the ’70s, that [cooling] was the threat, the fear,” Posey recalled. Then he pivoted. “I’ve read that during the period of the dinosaurs, that the Earth’s temperature was 30° warmer. Does that seem fathomable to you?”

From the described exchange it seems that the members have zero interest in knowing the truth or understanding how science works. Sadly this rancor, ignorance and lack of respect for science and scientists is business as usual for Republican members of the House committee. After all, the subcommittee responsible for climate change is, quite appropriately enough, led by a climate change denier (this literally sounds like something out of Orwell). 17 out of 22 members of the larger committee either deny that climate change is happening or question that human activities are responsible for it; the chairman of the committee himself is skeptical about global warming. And of course, let's not forget committee member Paul Broun who thinks evolution is a "lie from the pit of hell".

No wonder that scientists like me find it refreshing when we hear about billionaires appreciating and funding basic research. Pretty much all politicians in this country seem to have lost respect not just for the findings of science but for the basic nature of the scientific method, but let's be clear: one party disproportionately more than the other is holding science back. It's a little surreal to see people like Weber, Broun and Smith on the science committee but such is the age we live in. Nonetheless, the prevarications, ignorance and feet-dragging in that party reflect poorly on the entire political establishment. When none other than the House Committee on Science is stacked with people who literally live in the Middle Ages in their ignorance of science, hearing a kind word about science coming from any direction is a breath of fresh air.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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