05/24/2012 10:42 am ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Think Again: The Conservative War on Knowledge

The United States finds itself in an odd political predicament. One of its two major political parties is increasingly dominated by a faction of people that simply denies those aspects of reality it finds to be inconvenient and demands that any candidate who wishes to gain its support does so as well.

How else to explain the fact that while 97 percent of credentialed climate scientists concur that global warming is both extremely dangerous and caused by human activity, every one of the 21 Republican candidates who ran for Senate in 2010 denied that this could be the case?

When queried as to how it was possible that the scientific consensus could be wrong, while people with no particular knowledge of science could be right, they muttered something about a global "conspiracy," though not a shred of evidence has ever been produced to back that claim and the very idea of such a thing is comical in its ridiculousness.

As evidenced by the global warming "debate," Tea Party-style conservatives have a problem with reality. More than that, though, they have a problem with knowledge, particularly honest scholarship that leads to knowledge, as the more voters know about a given issue, the more they find the far right's purposeful ignorance inconsistent with their interests, even though it might be flattering to voters' vanity.

This conservative "war against knowledge" is not exactly a new phenomenon. Way back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration began making noise about defunding government support for social science through the National Science Foundation. As a result the scholars banded together to form the Consortium of Social Science Associations to lobby to save it.

Now conservatives have revived this effort to defund the entire National Science Foundation and, barring that, cut all government funds for political science research.

These same right-wingers saw fit to kill off the Office of Technology Assessment whose purpose, from 1972 to 1995, was to provide Congress with objective analyses of complex scientific and technical issues. The kinds of criticism of the agency could be found in a 1980 book, Fat City, by the right-wing author Donald Lambro, and so it was abolished by conservatives in Congress under the spell of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America."

Such cutting-off-one's-nose-to-spite-one's-face-ism appears to be the sin qua non of modern conservatism, and is of a piece with recent conservative efforts to try to kill off the American Community Survey -- a crucial government data collection that has existed in various manifestations since 1850.

As Catherine Rampell of the New York Times Economix blog explains, it "tells Americans how poor we are, how rich we are, who is suffering, who is thriving, where people work, what kind of training people need to get jobs, what languages people speak, who uses food stamps, who has access to health care, and so on."

The survey, which is presently attached to the census, is used to figure out how roughly $400 billion in government funds is to be sensibly spent each year. So why get rid of it? How can anyone oppose a tiny investment that ensures so large a pile of money is spent on the basis of good data?

According to one conservative legislator, Daniel Webster, the survey "intrudes on people's lives, just like the Environmental Protection Agency or the bank regulators," adding, "this is not a scientific survey. It's a random survey."

The fellow does not appear to know that a "random" survey is a scientific survey,....

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