It can be ridiculously frustrating when our Congress doesn’t understand something important, like the Internet, but the less cynical amongst us could argue that it’s impossible to be an expert on everything, even though congresspeople are often expected to be. I’m imagining a short film called “The Innocence of Congress,” about aides trolling Wikipedia while Chuck Grassley talks to the MS Word paperclip.
But there’s something far worse than ignorance or naiveté, feigned or not. It’s the type of vitriolic misinformation coming out of Republican Representative Paul Broun, who’s broken hateful new ground in the GOP’s war on facts.
Broun, a physician who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, pulled no punches with videotaped remarks, in which he said that there’s a lot of good evidence that the Earth is only 9,000 years old, and that evolution and the big bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell.” He qualified those statements, made September 27 at a sportman’s banquet at a church in Georgia, by saying that he’s a “scientist.” Here, read a transcript, and see the speech:
God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. It’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old. I believe that it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the Bible says.
And what I’ve come to learn is that it’s the manufacturer’s handbook, is what I call it. It teaches us how to run our lives individually. How to run our families, how to run our churches. But it teaches us how to run all our public policy and everything in society. And that’s the reason, as your congressman, I hold the Holy Bible as being the major directions to me of how I vote in Washington, D.C., and I’ll continue to do that.
A spokeswoman for Broun already tried to walk back the remarks, saying that “Dr. Broun was speaking off the record to a large church group about his personal beliefs regarding religious issues.”
But that’s a stinking load of hogwash. First, as everyone knows well by now (thank you Mother Jones), a speech given in public, even with no obvious video cameras present, is never off the record. More importantly, it is an absolute disgrace when a man who is tasked with helping to develop the science policy of our government spits in the face of science itself while touting his medical degree. Doctors should be embarrassed.
Of course, Broun’s comments shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that the Republicans on Congress’s science committees refuse to accept or understand basic science. And it’s already unfathomably offensive to think that my taxes go to support a group of men who think that the government is the same brawl-theater as pro-wrestling, in which facts are just another malleable tool in a character’s twisting storyline. Broun qualifies his bullshit — which is supported by exactly zero credible scientists — by saying that he’s a “scientist” who’s seen lots of science stuff. But explaining how dinosaurs lived with humans can’t be chalked up to negligence or politicking. It’s a willful, malicious attempt to make the point that facts don’t matter because there’s always another side.
This is the year of the post-truth campaign, fact checkers be damned. But it’s not a new phenomenon. The GOP figured out long ago that if you say something loud and you say it first, the onus is on the other side to prove you wrong, and even then you’ve already created enough headlines to make it sound like even basic facts are up for debate. That, combined with constant whinging about bipartisanship, has led Democrats to constantly cede ground towards the center, like Obama in the first debate.
That tactic has long been used when discussing political ephemera — you can say whatever you want about taxes, because the complications of the system make it nigh impossible to prove that what you said is wrong — and Democrats are guilty of dropping mistruths and flat-out lies as well. Politics is a dirty business where the only facts that matter are the ones that give you an advantage, and there’s a reason why Washington’s so mistrusted. But the GOP’s been pushing truthiness to new levels. It’s now moved to the point that irrefutable facts are up for debate.
As physician, Broun should be versed enough in basic science theory to know what he doesn’t know. He’s not a physicist, astronomer, or an evolutionary biologist, or a researcher — a scientist — of any kind, as far as I can tell. It’s telling, then, that he thinks he can say he’s qualified to speak on those topics: He doesn’t think his constituents are ever going to call him on it.
Any average science-minded individual — or anyone who got to the point in school where science class turned into discipline-specific courses — would understand that if you want the straight dope about the big bang, you’d talk to an astrophysicist. Hell, you’d probably want to talk to a few. But Broun assumes that those he’s speaking to are dumb enough to accept his M.D. as blanket approval to speak with authority on any topic he chooses. Say it loud and say it first, and you sow that seed of doubt. When the Internet isn’t discrediting you, it’s carrying your idea to the eyes and ears of everyone who wants to hear it.
Broun’s motives are more obscure. There are Christian scientists who are able to accept their believes along with the basic fact that the Earth wasn’t created in six days. Science is purely objective, and religion isn’t, but that doesn’t mean the two necessarily have to be at war with each other. Broun’s also running unopposed for reelection, so he has no immediate need to be whipping up his base.
But when the latest Gallup poll shows that 46 percent of Americans believe that God created humans within the last 10,000 years, it all becomes more clear. If Romney and the GOP don’t care about the 47 percent of Americans they’ll never convince to vote their way, they sure do care about the 46 percent who like to be told they’re never wrong because facts are always mutable.
The concept of evolution will always be hard to accept for some folks because the mystery of from whence we came is enduring. (Even for evolutionary biologists, there’s always the simple question of when, exactly, do we mark the human speciation event?) But when people like Broun use a topic like that to wedge doubt into folks’ minds about science in general, we’re stuck putting everything up to debate, when there isn’t any debate at all.
As boneheaded as it is to be debating the age of the Earth, it’s far more worrisome when we’re debating things that need action more than anything else. It’s overwhelmingly clear that climate change is going to negatively impact our access to basic resources, but corporate-backed deniers have repeated that decades of research is wrong for long enough that people believe it. And when you prove that facts are meaningless, and gain constituents’ support by telling them that they’re right and all the self-righteous, controlling dudes in lab coats are wrong, then it’s easy to supplant your own. In this world, green energy is robbing you, healthcare reform will kill you, and our socialist president wants us all to suffer.
It’s indeed rather hilarious that Republicans have repeatedly accused Obama of being an evil fascio-socialist. The unquestioning embracing of un-truths, and controlling a citizenry by turning facts on their head, is a hallmark of real and fictional totalitarian regimes. Science requires that you question and analyze everything; the theories and facts we have today are based on decades and centuries of objective data. But in the propaganda machine of Soviet Russia and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, whatever the party is currently telling you is truth, and all old truths are nothing but lies from whoever’s against you.
That’s not to say the GOP are the Bolsheviks, but their fights against the truth are one and the same. If the first debate is any evidence, Romney thinks he can win the election by creating a new, moderate version of himself, which refutes all the old truths of his old platform. The oil crises of the ‘70s brought forth a push to move beyond fossil fuels, one that kept momentum with disasters like the Exxon Valdez. Now, despite Deepwater Horizon and our rising CO2 levels, Obama’s apologizing for America if he doesn’t allow drilling in protected waters, and half the country expects its leaders to loudly profess that they love coal.
Facts are meaningless, so you can choose to believe in whatever facts make you more comfortable. And if those facts happen to align with the interests of big business, big oil, and big religion, then so be it. Because in Broun’s America, freedom means being free to live in whatever reality that benefits you most.
Image via the LA Times
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.