My Education in Climate-Denial Jujitsu

August 15, 2016
Maryam Zaringhalam
Molecular biologist and doctoral fellow at The Rockefeller University

“If we aren’t going to listen to the experts when we craft our bills, I’m really not sure what we’re doing here,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) as I took my seat in the chambers of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Thursday, July 7th. I wasn’t surprised to hear her say it. The Republican-dominated Committee has long been hostile to expert opinion—particularly on mainstream climate science—to the frustration of the minority Democrats.

But in this case the Committee was discussing bills that would actually support research into solar energy and electricity storage—research that runs counter to the big oil interests that support many Congressional seats. Curiously, both bills were sponsored by Committee Chairman, Chief Climate Denier, and Big Oil beneficiary Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). And even more curiously, the Committee’s Democrats were mad about it.

What was going on? Climate change is a notoriously partisan issue. But here Republicans were supporting clean energy research, while Democrats were countering with allusions to expert opinions. The exact opposite picture from what I’d expected.

Now, I’ll admit I walked into the meeting late with only ten minutes left to go. But Johnson’s biting words resounded in my mind. So when I got home after a long drive back from D.C. to New York, I watched the video from the session.

Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science Committee, has issued subpoenas to several state attorneys general and nonprofits, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Representative Lamar Smith, Chair of the House Science Committee, has issued subpoenas to several state attorneys general and nonprofits, including the Union of Concerned Scientists.

As it turned out, Smith and company were deploying a textbook example of doublespeak. As written, the bill would specifically benefit basic research—that exploratory, curiosity-driven branch of research conducted without any concrete application in mind. On first blush, this sounds great. Scientists have long advocated for more governmental support for this branch of research, which is often deemed a frivolous waste of taxpayer dollars.

But research aimed at clean energy innovations lies in limbo between basic and applied research. To restrict support to basic research muddies the seemingly pure intentions of the bills and needlessly complicates their enactment. A distinction between the two does not exist. This is precisely what Johnson’s experts were arguing.

One month earlier, expert witnesses had testified that there is in fact no definitive line between basic and applied research. Chemical engineer Dr. Daniel Hallinan claimed, “The questions that we need to answer are well-defined by the applied side, and then we can approach them from a fundamental perspective.” They further asserted that to draw an artificial boundary between the two when drafting policy is counterproductive. Echoing the experts, Johnson and colleagues advocated for discarding “basic” from the bills to ensure ease of enforcement for innovative research.

I have long bought into a narrative that dismisses the intellect of those who dismiss science, favoring a caricatured view of the science illiterate politician. But here, Smith had deftly employed a superficial support of basic research to undermine scientific progress. And in the process, I, a scientist, had been bamboozled.

The good news is that there are science advocates like Johnson who are fighting against the systematic and sneaky denial of certain scientific realities. The bad news is that they are the minority party within the House, and that the pernicious corruption of jargon-ish terms like “basic” and “applied” science flies under the public radar.

Five days after my House Science Committee visit, Rep. Smith sent out significantly less subtle congressional subpoenas to a number of nonprofit advocacy groups and attorneys general to suppress their investigations of ExxonMobil. In one letter to 17 attorneys general, Smith and 16 Republicans on the House Science Committee state:

“The Committee intends to continue its vigorous oversight of the coordinated attempt to deprive companies, nonprofit organizations, and scientists of their First Amendment rights and ability to fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and threats of persecution.”

…which would sound great by any other author in any other context.

The subpoenaed parties, which include the Union of Concerned Scientists and 350.org, have uncovered documents indicating that ExxonMobil knew about the climate threat as early as 1968. They are continuing investigations into whether ExxonMobil has systematically committed fraud in favor of their own interests.

Instead of holding ExxonMobil accountable, Smith conjured up a witch-hunt invoking science-positive rhetoric in an overt overreach of power. In so doing, he and his like-minded colleagues have intimidated and persecuted the very nonprofit organizations and scientists whose First Amendment rights he purports to protect.

Those ten minutes in the Science Committee chambers primed me to understand that underestimating the anti-science elite is a rookie mistake. Big money factors calculating minds into the calculus of whom to support.

So don’t think for a minute they aren’t listening to the experts. They are listening so they can retool our words and wield them against us.

Originally appeared on ScientificAmerican.Com at http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/my-education-in-climate-denial-jujitsu/