The Triumph of Ignorance

By Keith Kloor | November 18, 2010 4:39 pm

That’s what David Rothkopf is bemoaning here in Foreign Policy and it’s what outgoing Republican congressman Bob Ingliss is warning about in his comments yesterday at the House Subcommittee hearing on climate change.

Rothkopf, perhaps reminded of this movie (that was awful but also dead-on), offers his own metaphor for the virus overtaking parts of the Republican party :

In just the past couple of weeks since the election we have seen half a dozen examples of this next generation know-nothingism, this translation of a dumbed-down zeitgeist into a new movement that might be called Snookiism.

Go ahead and have a read of his examples. You might then ask yourself what it’ll take to burn out this strain of Snookism.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: politics
MORE ABOUT: culture, politics
  • John Mashey

    Well, let us consider South Carolina, which akin  with many other states from VA to TX, at least by its votes:
    1)  Wants small Federal govt (although many of  these states, including SC get more money from Federal govt than they send, or lat least, did as of last numbers I’ve got from~2001).
    2) Certainly doesn’t buy this AGW idea, no matter science says.
    But:
    Here’s a +1meter flood map, dark blue means below sea level (not necessarily below water, of course).  Figure 2100AD: +1-2meter, more in 2200AD.  In the real world, the worst places for SLR are those with dense populations on river-mouths along low-lying coasts, since it is not enough to put up a few dikes on short coastlines.
    Here’s a SC population map:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:South_Carolina_population_map.png
    But since they don’t accept AGW, I’m sure they won’t want Federal tax money from elsewhere to help with the imaginary effects.

     

  • LCarey

    I am no follower of “Jersey Shore”, but in all seriousness, I think that Rothkopf’s article is unfair to Snooki.  At least she’s just a young aspiring reality TV star – she is not charged with making decisions that directly affect the lives of millions of Americans, very few (if any!) people look to her for p0litical analysis, and she doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an entertainer.  The “new” Republican Party is definitely involved in making huge decisions that affect all of us and our kids, does try to influence public opinion and does want people to follow them.  Hence, silliness or bizarre statements from Snooki are simply part of the Jersey Shore experience.

    Silliness and bizarre statements from key folks in one of the two maj0r parties charged with running the country are something else entirely — “very frightening” comes to mind.  I’m a pretty middle of the road, make up my own mind kind of guy, but the increasing degree of what sure looks like disconnection from reality on the part of key Republicans is very scary.  Arguing over what is the best economic, energy or foreign policy is one thing (reasonable opinions differ, and they should, in order to have an active public discussion of crucial issues) – BUT arguing over, say, whether CO2 is a greenhouse gas or whether the health care bill provided for Death Panels or whether Obama is really Kenyan, is something much more disturbing.  If the folks in that portion of the Republican party thought they could get the public to believe that Obama is a cactus, I suspect that they’d try -
    http://tinyurl.com/2e77r32

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    LCarey,

    You make a lot of good points. What was interesting to me about the climate hearing yesterday is Chairman Baird’s line of questioning. It seemed at one juncture that he was trying to establish the basic facts for the record. As if to restore some sanity to the debate.

  • Gene

    John (1)

    1)  Wants small Federal govt (although many of  these states, including SC get more money from Federal govt than they send, or lat least, did as of last numbers I’ve got from~2001).

    I’d think this indicates a position of principle (certainly more than the reverse would).

  • http://www.hopkinson.net Simon Hopkinson

    LCarey, nobody is arguing over whether CO2 is a greenhouse gas. This is a point that was made at least 2x during the committee hearing alone – both Lindzen and Michaels made it – so to read that in a paragraph of yours, complaining about silly claims being made (about which I otherwise agree with you) makes for a cracking bit of irony.

    It would be easy, but it would be wrong, to confuse the scientific climate debate with the US political landscape, most especially in the wake of a congressional committee meeting as we are now. However, whether or not the debate is polarised along political lines in the US, there is far less confusion elsewhere about where science ends and party-politics and policy begins. Elsewhere, science is distinctly not politics, and episodes of laughable irony the likes of yours above are less likely to occur.

  • http://www.hopkinson.net Simon Hopkinson

    Keith, same point to you I feel. What Ingliss was saying was very much that it doesn’t matter if climate change is “hooey” because there is free-market profit to be made in the idea that it is. The “consensus” on global warming is NOT a scientific consensus, it’s a signatory consensus, and does NOT equate to Ingliss’s doctor analogy.

    Sorry, but that is the shittest reason to perpetuate or build on the illusion of the “consensus”. Where there is profit to be made in an illusion, it is by treading on the faces of those without the money to invest in prospecting wind or solar farms, but instead whose heating bills already comprise a disproportionately high percentage of their household income.

  • John Mashey

    4. Gene:
    I’m not sure what you are saying.  I am personally fond of *subsidiarity* as a principle of government:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subsidiarity
    I merely find it ironic that people claiming to favor small Federal government are electing people in states that are clear beneficiaries of net inward money flow from the Federal government.  Some of that makes sense, but some makes one wonder.  VA (home of Ken Cuccinelli) was the biggest beneficiary (in net $), CA (where I live) is the biggest net contributor.  Personally, I would be delighted if less money went to Washington DC to go through the sausage machine…. because we get less of it back.
    This isn’t a wish either to zero Federal taxes or even lower tax rates, merely keep a bigger fraction of whatever taxes are collected closer to home at every level  (local, country, state, Federal).  Of course, *not* doing this is one of the reasons CA has huge debt problems: too much money goes to Washington and doesn’t come back.
     

  • Pascvaks

    As is patently obvious to anyone who cares to look at and listen to a House or Senate Committee meeting for more than 2 minutes, there’s nothing ‘scientific’ about it.  Never has been.  Never will be.

  • LCarey

    I note with interest that most of the posts have managed to completely avoid the implications of a significant faction of one of the two major parties in the United States having become a vehicle for adamant assertion of “facts” that are either demonstrably false or carefully crafted with “lawyer talk” to be literally true but highly misleading.

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Oh yes, but Keith believes in balance.  A good subject for discussion is how journalism has given value to taking extreme positions based on ignorance in order to move the middle.
    Basically the journalistos feel it is unfair to call nonsense.
    Death panels for everyone.

  • Gene

    John (7)

    Definitely agreed on the principle of subsidiarity.  Government is a blunt instrument that becomes blunter the higher up the hierarchy you travel.  I’d expect managing the expenses closer to the source of the revenue to make for more accountability and less waste.

    My point was that favoring smaller government, even though that may cost you, would seem to be a position of principle. 

  • Gene

    LCarey (9)

    I note with interest that most of the posts have managed to completely avoid the implications of a significant faction of one of the two  both major parties in the United States having become a vehicle for adamant assertion of “facts” that are either demonstrably false or carefully crafted with “lawyer talk” to be literally true but highly misleading.

    There you go…fixed.

  • Gene

    of course “one of the two” above was supposed to be struck out.

  • Pascvaks

    Ref – LCarey Says:
    November 19th, 2010 at 12:06 pm
    Politics is not about science and science is, usually, not about politics.  The results of elections usually –not always– reflect how voters feel about a number of things, issues, circumstances, etc., etc..  More often than not they normally reflect how people about the political climate of the last two.  Figuring people out is like reading tea leaves — or thousands of pages of computer programing code.

  • harrywr2

    There is nothing new in Governments/Politicians accommodating ignorance. I would posit it is the historical norm.
    As  specialization has become more pronounced the gap between the ‘pinnacle’ of knowledge in a given subject and common knowledge has simply widened.

    NY Times v. Sullivan had the unintended side effect of focusing news coverage on people who could no longer sue for libel. If one is reporting on a public figure  exhaustive fact checking is no longer required in order to avoid libel suits. Hence, the cost of reporting gossip on public figures is negligible compared to real reporting.


     

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Eli (10),

    I sometimes wonder why you bother at all.  Thanks for letting me know what I believe in.

    Best as I can tell, it’s mainly the cable news channels that give value to the extreme positions on both sides. We had that discussion on the recent Jon Stewart-related posts.

    As it happens, this post is about a major Republican party being taken over by some pretty radical insurgents, which, guess what, is important to report on and discuss.

    You got something constructive to say, for a change?

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Rabett,
    While I’m one of your biggest fans, I gotta say I’m with Keith on this one.  Isn’t this post doing exactly what you’d like to see (i.e. drawing attention to the rise of  nutjobs in u.s. politics)? While the post itself doesn’t explictly call out the republican party, neither does it suggest that the nutjobs are equally represented in both parties…

  • Steven Sullivan

    ‘Idiocracy’ *awful*?  Somewhat overrated by its fanbase, sure.  But surely not *awful*.

  • John Mashey

    Gene(11):
    “My point was that favoring smaller government, even though that may cost you, would seem to be a position of principle. ”
    Yes, I would agree … except that I haven’t seen enough data to know whether, for example, most SC citizens realize they get subsidized by CA, NY, TC, etc (although not as much as VA, for example).  I was on blogs seeing a lot of strong “big govt is bad, we should make it smaller, Democrats are expanding the govt, etc.” from VA folks.  That could be a principled position or not, so I asked: did you you know that VA is rich in part because it is the biggest beneficiary of net income from the Federal govt,  so that if you really mean Federal govt should get smaller, we should start cutting it the states that get the most money, starting with VA.  Sudden silence.  It’s like “small government … but don’t cut the military base *here*.”
    I’ve sometimes heard the same words from different people, but without further data, its’ hard to know whether they deserve to be labeled principeld or not.
    a) Some really believed in what they said, had a decent understanding of the consequences, including negative ones for themselves and others, were willing to work for it and pay the price.
    b) For some, it was a slogan to get elected, or they had no idea of the side-effects, or in fact, they were using a good-sounding slogan as a cover for some much narrower interests.
    These can go either way on the political spectrum, so for example:
    WE NEED TO INVEST IN EDUCATION, EVEN IF IT COSTS
    b): I’m counting on NEA votes, want to raise teacher salaries, hire more teachers, but no way we’ll ever do merit pay.
    a) (Personal example): I grew up on a small farm, which is hard, unending work that makes no one rich.  Dad got up @ 5AM very day and milked the cows.  At least several times/month he skipped dinner and went off to school board meetings until 11PM, where he was either President or VP for 15-20 years.   When the Board decided they’d need a bond issue to buy some well-sited land for a school they’d likely need in 5 years (and save money in long run), or needed to raise taxes so we could keep our best teachers or hire more that we needed, he’d run around and explain and sell.  People generally understood the board was frugal and thought ahead, and were generally willing to pay, even for longer-term investments.  [This was post-Sputnik, before NEA was so strong.  We did have very good schools for a comfortable, but no wealthy school district.]
    I may be biased, but I think “principled” fits pretty well.
    SMALLER GOVT
    a) That might mean dislike of bureaucracies that don’t work well  (having dealt with many agencies at various levels, having worked summer jobs for US Govt, some work very well, some not so well; the merit review approach made it clear that it was not for me) .
    It might mean a principled devotion to subsidiarity, which of course does not necessarily mean paying *less* total, just that the money is differently distributed in some ways one thinks provides more more/better services for the cost.  This  fits those who think “as small and local as possible, as big and global as necessary.”
    b) Of course, small government might mean:
    Someone must do function X.  If X is done by government, it will be civil service.  If X is done by private industry, well I know x1 and x2, and somebody should be able to make a lot of money without  annoying civil service rules.
    The George Marshall Institute founders were always talking about free-market/small government ideas … while having spent all/most of their careers paid by Federal funds, certainly never having formed and run commercial businesses, but lobbying for decades to spend huge amounts of money on antiballistic missile defenses.

    Anyway, the real issue is that it’s hard (for me) to tell whether a short slogan-style position is really “principled” or not.  For me at least, longer behavioral data is needed.

  • Gene

    John (19)

    Well said, sir.

  • John Mashey

    Back to the original subject: what will it take?

    1) Specific examples are always useful.  let’s take Florida.  one of my favorite resources is the US Global Climate Research Program’s 2009 book and website, well-written by experts for general audiences. I like fact that it has a separate section for each US region, since effects and problems differ.  For instance, the US SouthWest is headed towards 30-40% less precipitation,interesting times ahead for AZ and NM in particular.  Well, the US West has  seen ghost towns before.

    Here is the SouthEast, including Florida:
    http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts/regional-climate-change-impacts/southeast

    2) 2-3 feet sea level rise by 2100AD is pretty much committed, with more uncertainty above than below, depending on ice dynamics and nonlinear effects.  FL isn’t as bad off as LA, but the near-term issues are really salt-water incursion and of course storm surge.

    3) Insurance companies compete by professionally pricing risk.  They assess the cost of the risk in FL, especially along shorelines, as much higher than FL residents wish to pay or the rates that the state insurance commission will permit.   So, they have more-or-less quit insuring property in FL:

    http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/southeast/2009/01/27/97324.htm State Farm for example.
    http://www.sun-sentinel.com/business/realestate/fl-florida-insurance-prepares-0526-20100525,0,1489761.story

    4) This is handled by various FL government entities whose actuarial soundness is questioned, and where it is not at all clear that people really understand the nature of the risks.

    http://www.hillcrestinsurance.com/pdf%20attachments/House%20Committee%20on%20Insurance%20Report.pdf

    5) Underneath it all, one guesses that  if real disaster strikes, a lot of people are figuring that the Federal government will take care of things.

    6) Meanwhile, a bunch of the incoming Reps/Senator from FL have  clear views that basic physics is all wrong (in effect)  and irrelevant compared to email “scandals.”  (Some of us with reasonable physics backgrounds tend to worry a bit more.)

    http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/climate-zombie-caucus/#FL

    7) So, I’m really glad they are on record, because I think it will be good to quote them when the next really bad hurricane season wipes out the FL funds and they are looking for Federal tax money to rebuild on the shorelines.  That may well feed into the process of deciding how much, and the  first one will get sympathy.  I’m not sure about the rest, and maybe the message will eventually sink in that disbelieving in gravity does not protect against the results of throwing your grandkids out the window.

     

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    No.  Eli did not go too far.  Not far enough is more like it.  For one thing this has been obvious for ten or fifteen years and Keith** is just getting around to noticing.   And Eli is very angry that Keith** is just getting around to noticing because it may be too late.
    **Keith is not just Keith but a whole lot of journalists and bloggers who, in the words of one of Eli’s correspondent’s wrote:
    “. . . he has directed essentially all his critique at the science community, as if the science community were the basis of the problem. I take the position that the essential problem in the relationship between scientists and the political/policy process is clearly on the political side of the exchange. Say what you will about the shortcomings of scientists, by far the more significant need is for people to have a critique of politics.”

    Perhaps the worm is turning.  Perhaps not.  Better late than never is a close call.


     

  • http://www.skepticalscience.com Steven Sullivan

    The ‘original subject’ here is  Republican know-nothingism, which comes in two brands, sincere and cynical.  Hard to say which is more toxic.    The supposed ‘will of the voters’ (which is to say, the will of the the mostly older, male, white, right-wing voters who comprised the ~40%  voter turnout  in the midterm elections)   is the excuse the GOP is using now block any initiative, regardless of whether it ever had bipartisan support, that the Democrats are for.


     

  • John Mashey

    Gene(20)  Thanks.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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