Rationally Speaking

In Pursuit of Positive Skepticism

When Republicans don’t know squat about science, and proud of it

When politicians don't know what they are talking about.

If you are even a teensy little bit into reason and rationality, then you are likely to wince every time you open a newspaper, surf the web or watch tv. The wince of the week definitely came from an interview that ABC’s George Stephanopoulos conducted with GOP House opposition leader John Boehner (see the story as recounted by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum on their blog, and while you are it, pre-order their forthcoming book, Unscientific America).

The topic was global warming and what the Republican’s “plan” to deal with it might look like (don’t laugh! Not yet). I prepared myself for the usual denial mixed with narrow minded statements to the effect that we cannot afford to save the planet during a recession, and I was not disappointed. But the real kicker came when Stephanopoulos asked Boehner: “What is the Republican plan to deal with carbon emissions, which every major scientific organization has said is contributing to climate change?”

Here is the answer, in full: “George, the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen that is harmful to our environment is almost comical. Every time we exhale, we exhale carbon dioxide. Every cow in the world, you know, when they do what they do, you’ve got more carbon dioxide.”

Ok, let us analyze this piece of politico-scientific flim-flammery on Boehner’s part. First, he is saying that the idea that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen is comical. It would be, if anyone had actually made that claim. Boehner is confusing cancer with global warming, an astounding example of non sequitur that he can quickly fix by checking out the definition of greenhouse gas on Wikipedia. (Don’t these people have science advisors?) Second, Boehner claims that farting cows emit carbon dioxide. They don’t, they produce methane (which is a greenhouse gas!). Again, Mr. Boehner, please at least check Wikipedia if you can’t bother with a more highbrow source, the entry is “methane.”

The interview then concludes with an unwitting bit of humor on Boehner’s part (at least, I think it was unwitting...), when he said to Stephanopoulos: “I think you’ll see a plan from us. Just like you’ve seen a plan from us on the stimulus bill and a better plan on the budget.” Hmm, you mean like the very thin budget without numbersyou came up with? Wanna go see what Wiki says about budgets? They typically include numbers.

This would be very funny if it weren’t for the fact that Boehner isn’t an irrelevant country bumpkin, he is the minority leader of a party that has been in control of the fate of this nation and of much of the world for the past eight years, a party that could regain control at any time because of the fickleness of the electorate and the vagaries of things like economies, wars and terrorist attacks.

There is absolutely no excuse for this level of ignorance by a prominent elected official. It is of course natural to disagree on political issues; it is even ok to be skeptical of a scientific consensus on the basis of one’s own honest understanding of the situation. But to say that cows discharge CO2 and that environmentalists claim that CO2 is a carcinogen is not just bizarre, it is a flagrant case of unethical and willful ignorance. Boehner should be ashamed of himself and resign his post in disgrace. Alas, that won’t happen until the cows come home. I mean, fart CO2.

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Massimo Pigliucci is a Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York-Lehman College. more...

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