GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry is a skilled politician but he shows poor judgment when handling policy challenges using knowledge and science. When questioned about Texas's high teen birth rate -- 50% higher than the national average -- Perry chooses against addressing the question on the merits and simply reaffirms that "I'm just going to tell you from my own personal life, abstinence works" (video). On education he has appointed creationists to lead the Texas State Board of Education. And on climate change, Perry now flippantly says that the leading source of "supposedly deadly carbon dioxide" is the mouth of Al Gore, a man he once supported.
So it was surprising to some when Perry recently said that "I do believe that the issue of global warming has been politicized."
It has, like so many other science issues these days. But facts, by definition, are above partisanship. Tea Party favorite John Locke was trying to settle this very question in writing his 1689 classic An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. If every religion claimed to be the one true religion, they couldn't all be right. There had to be some way of identifying what was true knowledge, and what was "but faith, or opinion," or the argument could go on forever. Locke's Essay defined knowledge by the way it could be confirmed by physical reality, and gave birth to empircism. Thomas Jefferson considered Locke one of "the three greatest men the world had ever produced" and drew heavily on his Essay in making the argument for American independence: if all men had the innate ability to discern knowledge and truth for themselves, then they were equal, and no king or pope could claim to have a greater authority. This idea lies at the heart of America. The denial of science is thus unAmerican.
And human-caused climate change is not a theory -- it is a fact. Presidents dating back to Lyndon Johnson have been aware of it, but none have had the political fortitude to tackle it. The conservative US National Academies (chartered by Abraham Lincoln) has very clear statements on it, as have the science academies of nearly every other leading nation.
For a moment it seemed Perry was acknowledging this. But then he went on. "I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects... And I don't think, from my perspective, that I want America to be engaged in spending that much money on still a scientific theory that has not been proven, and from my perspective is more and more being put into question."
For the record, no leading climate scientists have been found to have manipulated data, and the data collected over fifty years since Charles Keeling first began to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide point to an inescapable conclusion: we can measure the increasing carbon specifically from fossil fuels, and it is at the highest levels in at least 600,000 years, and that is causing the average global temperature to rise.
Perry's words recall those of right-wing science deniers in Weimar Germany, who mounted personal attacks against Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity which, like oil state US Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) and radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, they called a "hoax," and like Rick Perry, they criticized Einstein for having economic motives. "This world is a strange madhouse," Einstein wrote a friend at the time. "Currently every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation."
In both cases, the science denier claims were totally false. That's not a partisan statement - it's a matter of knowledge, grounded in reality, and above partisan debate. But the truth or falsehood of a claim does not seem to matter to Perry who, as in other cases, seems driven not by evidence, knowledge, truth or independent thought, but by a political ideology supplied by others, to which he is a loyal team player.
Here's the (publicly posted on YouTube) video via TPM by Democratic tracking outfit American Bridge. The video includes some hard-to-hear audio of a questioner asking Perry about climate change; Perry comes in at around the :53 mark:
Perry could be an effective leader. He is able to cause people to rally behind him. But it is incumbent on the president of the United States to make decisions based on evidence. Sticking to a personal ideology when it is contradicted by evidence is a dangerous, authoritarian, and unAmerican practice, and Perry should disavow it.
Shawn Lawrence Otto is the author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. "A gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis." --Starred Kirkus Review, 9/1. Pre-order it now! Like him on Facebook.
Follow Shawn Lawrence Otto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shawnotto