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Sierra Daily

Feb 28, 2011

"Facts are stupid things."

Books Who would have guessed back in 1988 that Ronald Reagan's humorous slip of the tongue (he meant to say "stubborn") would blossom into a political movement? It has taken some time, but by now the cord connecting millions of people to the fact-based world has been severed. One of our first inklings that this was happening was in Ron Suskind's famous 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine, "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush." A then-anonymous Bush aide (now widely believed to have been Karl Rove) dismissed the author as being stuck in the "reality-based community."

''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.'' 

Rove comes to mind after reading Dave Roberts in Grist on "What we have and haven't learned from 'Climategate.'" Roberts reviews the five independent inquiries into the much-ballyhooed theft of climate-science emails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, each one of which completely exonerated the researchers.

It's a numbingly familiar pattern in media coverage. The conservative movement that's been attacking climate science for 20 years has a storied history of demonstrable fabrications, distortions, personal attacks, and nothingburger faux-scandals -- not only on climate science, but going back to asbestos, ozone, leaded gasoline, tobacco, you name it. They don't follow the rigorous standards of professional science; they follow no intellectual or ethical standards whatsoever. Yet no matter how long their record of viciousness and farce, every time the skeptic blogosphere coughs up a new "ZOMG!" it's as though we start from zero again, like no one has a memory longer than five minutes.

The reason is that a very large sector of the American public no longer cares what careful, reality-based, independent inquiries have to say; they prefer their own version, created by Beck, Limbaugh, and Fox. In the latest New York Times Magazine,Judith Warner addresses this "a troubling new reality: the rise of the Tea Party and its anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, anti-elite worldview has brought both a mainstreaming and a radicalization of antiscientific thought."

[S]ince taking over the House of Representatives, the Republicans have packed science-related committees with lawmakers who refute such basic findings as the reality of global warming and the threats of climate change. Fred Upton, the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has said outright that he does not believe that global warming is man-made. John Shimkus of Illinois, who also sits on the committee — as well as on the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment — has said that the government doesn’t need to make a priority of regulating greenhouse-gas emissions, because as he put it late last year, “God said the earth would not be destroyed by a flood.”

That's the mainstreaming part. The radicalizing part is described by Roberts:

In effect, the modern right has created is a closed epistemic loop containing millions of people. Within that loop, the implausibility or extremity of a claim itself counts as evidence. The more liberal elites reject it, the more it entrenches itself. Standards of evidence have nothing to do with it. The notion that there is a global conspiracy by professional scientists to falsify results in order to get more research money is . . ."a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe." Once you have accepted that shibboleth, anything offered to you as evidence of its truth, no matter how ludicrous, will serve as affirmation. (Even a few context-free lines cherry-picked from thousands of private emails.) . . . .American society now contains within it a large, well-funded, tightly networked, and highly amplified tribe that defines itself through rejection of that society's "lamestream" truth claims and standards of evidence. How should society relate to that tribe?

Reasoning with them doesn't work. Lord knows making fun of them doesn't work. Maybe you've got an idea? Leave it in the comments.

--Paul Rauber

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