It goes without saying that when Americans consider the history of this young nation, one area in which we take special pride is the way we've been a global leader in scientific discovery and technological advancement. In some of our finest hours, the United States has undertaken the pursuit of knowledge as a national mission -- the famed "space race" against the Soviet Union was, if anything, an urgent battle between competing ideologies, with our national security at stake. And even in our worst moments -- like the aftermath of the financial crisis -- we still dreamed of big solutions, like clean energy and bullet trains, as essential components of economic recovery and a restoration of national pride.
Unfortunately for those who think big, the path to lucrative tax breaks and federal grant funding run through legislative committees chaired by old men who tend to be a little bit afraid of clouds and who never learned to set the clocks on their VCRs correctly.
Still, it's not everyday where one of the nation's representatives fumbles the ball on the whole question of "Where do babies come from?" But that's what Todd Akin did this week, when he advanced an odd theory -- sadly, one promulgated by an actual medical doctor -- that posited that women could not get pregnant from a rapist's seed because their bodies had some sort of elaborate, hormonal fail-safe system that had never, ever, ever been observed in the natural world but it sure sounds awesome so, why not?
Well, Akin's outburst ended up completely roiling the 2012 race, as his party's presidential standard-bearer was forced to "distance" himself from the peculiarity of Akin's remarks without completely blowing up the pro-life platform plank Akin was arguing in favor of when he spit his weird theory about female hormones. Meanwhile, the right's ideological army was torn asunder by those who wanted Akin to quit his Senate race so that someone else could take on the Democratic incumbent, and others who stood firm behind Akin and his right to believe whatever he likes.
But all that 2012 stuff? That's really the only thing that made Akin's junk-science enunciation unique. The truth is, in the halls of power, the crackpots have always served alongside the sane, peddling bad science and taking a wall-eyed view of technology. Akin is just the latest and, perhaps, greatest from the former camp. Those who came before him are the subject of this week's Huff Post List.
THIS OTHER EDEN, THIS DEMI-PARADISE, THIS MASSIVE OIL SPILL: Everyone remember that Deepwater Horizon disaster? Massive explosion, unending oil spill, widespread environmental degradation and sea life death? All the various corporate scofflaws getting off scot-free, because that's America now? Yeah, it's probably ringing a bell by now. But while its peal probably resonates a discordant note in your memory, that wasn't the case for newly minted House Science and Technology Committee Chair Ralph Hall (R-Texas). No, no! The oil industry enthusiast took one look at all the devastation and found his heart swelling with pride, as he told the Dallas Morning News: "As we saw that thing bubbling out, blossoming out – all that energy, every minute of every hour of every day of every week – that was tremendous to me. That we could deliver that kind of energy out there -– even on an explosion." Yes. Even on an explosion that killed 11 people, who basically died as the side-effect of other people's incompetence.
IS OUR CHILDREN LEARNING SCIENCE STUFF? Every parent harbors understandable concerns about the kinds of things their children could be exposed to on the Internet. And let's face it -- there's troubling stuff out there. Graphic violence. Pornography. Coldplay videos. But Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), who sits on the House Science and Technology Committee, took things a step further when she introduced an amendment to the (already howlingly stupid) "Better Use Of Light Bulbs Act" that would "prohibit the use of funds for maintaining, developing or creating any Web site which disseminates information regarding energy efficiency and educational programs on energy efficiency specifically to children under 18 years of age." Children by the millions are, obviously, already experimenting with energy efficiency, a clear gateway to other, more advanced vices, like cheaper home heating bills and maybe providing a planet for their own children to live on. (See also: The efforts of one Virginia legislator to attach a partisan definition to "sea level rise.")
GLOBAL WARMING IS A LITERAL HERESY: It's hard to imagine, but just four years ago, presidential candidate John McCain was the prevailing voice of his party on the issue of climate change, constantly suggesting that even if Al Gore's worst fears never came to pass, it would be beneficial for the nation and its economy to invest in green technology and energy efficiency. Four years later, climate crackpots once again rule the roost, with only the lonely voice of presidential campaign surrealist Jon Huntsman providing support to scientists. Still, most climate deniers can't hold a candle to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who claims that God himself has declared the whole global warming scare to be a "hoax": "Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that “as long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.” My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous." (As Brad Johnson reported, the voice of "God," in this case, sounds suspiciously like a stack of "$1,352,523 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry.")
BOBBY JINDAL VS. THE VOLCANO MONITORS: Who can forget that time Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal staggered out in front of a television camera to deliver the first GOP rebuttal to an Obama State of the Union address? Ol' Bobby, he hated him some stimulus package. T'weren't nothin' in that heap a mess worth nothin'. And what's this? "Something called 'volcano monitoring," Jindal said, vocally inflecting the necessary air quotes. Well, one month later, in a far off land known only as "Alaska," Mount Redoubt blew its top, "sending potentially deadly ash clouds north of Anchorage." Per CBS News: "'Without instruments in the ground, we would not have been able to tell you this was coming,' said John Power, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the Alaska Volcano Observatory." "Better luck next time, Bobby," is the same thing people told Jindal after that time he tried to perform an exorcism on a female co-ed in his dorm room.
MICHELE BACHMANN'S GARDASILLINESS: The human papillomavirus is a very common, sexually transmitted disease that is known to cause deadly cancers. Gardasil is a vaccine that easily immunizes against the disease and its deadly outcomes. Public health officials would like the vaccine to be in widespread use among teenagers. Social conservatives typically oppose it on the grounds that lessening the punitive effects of recreational sex encourages it further. Michele Bachmann, however, took things further than most who oppose using the vaccine when she claimed that a woman she met after a debate in Tampa, Fla., approached her with a story that the HPV vaccine had caused her child to "suffer from mental retardation." This contradicted all known science, as the Centers For Disease Control pointed out, and was a needless scare that threatened public health. As Dr. Rodney E. Willoughby of the Medical College of Wisconsin told ThinkProgress, "these types of false scares have caused vaccination rates to drop for three or four years."
DARWIN AWARD WINNER: Social conservatives think they've caught science giving away the game when they refer to the "theory of evolution," believing that this is an admission that Darwin's greatest contribution to the modern understanding of biology is actually entirely speculative, and not merely termed a "theory" because the process -- while backed up to the nines with hard data -- cannot actually be observed in real time. Bill Nye, who correctly points out that evolution is "the fundamental idea in all of life science, in all of biology," recently begged America's Creationists to not inculcate their kids against evolution, because "we need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future." Unfortunately for Nye, Texas Gov. Rick Perry doesn't see things the same way. At a campaign stop in the early primary season, he told a child, "In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution. I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right." Tough news for Nye. But the Texas GOP recently declared, in the 2012 party platform, that it is opposed to teaching critical thinking skills to children on the grounds that it undermines "parental authority," so everything will probably turn out fine.
SIDE NOTE: Yes, Democrats, when it comes to promulgating scientific and technological illiteracy, your recent history has been, by any comparative measure, superior. Take a bow. But don't get too cocky! After all, we still remember that time when Tipper Gore got so worked up over the lyrics to Prince's "Darling Nikki" that she led a crusade against rock music that would shamed all of the prudish scolds that were always bedeviling the protagonists of John Waters' films. At its most wracked and wretched extreme, Gore's efforts looped in beard-innovator and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop for a symposium that posited "that explicit sexual and violent imagery in music videos exerts a dangerous influence on children and adolescents, and could lead to suicide, satanism, and drug and alcohol abuse." Obviously, as the vast majority of Americans are navigating the world of rock music without succumbing in large majorities to these maladies, we can decree that Gore has well-earned her perpetual status as the butt of rock-enthusiasts' jokes. (Though Nickelback does push one close to the edge.)