Thursday, October 14, 2010

Feingold's challenger backs theories that blew up in Bush’s face

Ron Johnson, the Republican who may oust Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold, expresses the belief that sunspots, not car tailpipes or factory smokestacks, are melting the polar ice caps. Not a bad hunch, actually.

The rising sun plays with the Di Suvero sculpture
The Calling
in Milwaukee
The sun, after all, is Earth’s furnace. When the planet warms, a natural question is: Did somebody turn the furnace up? Sunspots indicate that somebody or some process did. Thus, many scientists have looked into the issue of whether a hotter sun means a hotter planet.
The overwhelming conclusion: Not really. Here’s the way Scientific American put it last year: “Many climate scientists agree that sunspots and solar wind could be playing a role in climate change, but the vast majority view it as very minimal and attribute Earth’s warming primarily to emissions from industrial activity — and they have thousands of peer-reviewed studies available to back up that claim.”

Yet, in his debates with Feingold, Johnson persists in his convenient belief that sunspots are the global warming culprit, rather than accept the inconvenient truth that, by emitting gasses that trap the sun’s heat, human activity is the actual villain. His persistence suggests a mind hostile to the scientific process – a suggestion reinforced by some of his other political notions.

Ron Johnson
The scientific mind does formulate theories to explain what’s happening, as Johnson did. But the next step is to submit the theories to rigorous scrutiny and then – and here’s the stumbling block for Johnson – to go where the facts lead.

Take this tax-and-spend thing. Johnson expresses the belief that extending President Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy would spur the economy. Again, not a bad hunch. The more of their dough billionaires keep, the more they can spend to create jobs. Common sense, right? Trouble is, this theory has actually been tested in practice, and with miserable results.
Despite the tax cuts, private-sector job growth was painfully slow during the Bush years and the economy ultimately crashed. And there was this other little thing: The budget surpluses Bush inherited from President Clinton turned into deficits. These pesky facts don’t deter Johnson, though. Note that the Oshkosh businessman is toeing the Republican Party line on taxes – an indication that the preference for theory over contrary facts is party-wide.

Johnson voices the bedrock Republican notion that government regulation is bad. Again, the theory that governmental red tape jams economic gears makes some sense on its face. A business has to take time out from producing goods or services to fill out governmental paperwork and to clear bureaucratic hurdles. But over the last several decades, government has in fact loosened regulations. Two recent calamities – America’s financial meltdown and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – demonstrate spectacularly what happens when government rules or their enforcement are too lax. Johnson ignores these developments, which fail to back up his theory about the intrinsic evil of regulation.

Johnson set the tone at the start of his senatorial campaign by telling a whopper that has made it into the realm of The Big Lie, a falsehood repeated so many times that it eventually sounds true. The millionaire ran an ad in which he said government doesn’t create jobs – a statement that makes no sense whatever on its face, but that sounds legit nonetheless due to constant repetition on the political right. Were government merely to create a post of paper shuffler, it’s creating a job – real in the sense that the person who holds it gets real money, which would support a family, who would spend the money on goods and services and thereby help keep the economy humming.

Typical government workers do more than shuffle papers, of course. The services they perform boost the economy, providing the law and order that commerce needs to thrive, moving the mail and the parcels on which business depends, schooling the next generation of business leaders and workers, keeping contagious diseases at bay, maintaining licensing systems to help keep automobile traffic orderly, helping shops get back on their feet after natural disasters.

Also, government creates jobs though contracting out services and through economic development initiatives, which, as it turns out, have benefitted Johnson’s plastics firm.

The Big Lie supports the theory that government is of little use – a theory to which the Bush administration subscribed to its detriment. Remember Katrina, the beginning of the end for the Bush White House? That administration’s disdain for government – anybody can run an emergency management agency, you don’t need an expert – helps explain its inept response to the disaster.

Wisconsin seems on the verge of electing a senator who gives pet theories more weight than facts – specifically, the facts that made lies of the theories during the Bush years.


  1. Science is not a political game. Climate is neither Conservative Republican nor is it Liberal Democratic. Why do people watch FOX news for science? The answer bifurcates into - because FOX provides a squishy non-science alternative to the squishy non-science of the main stream fear media, and, moreover, an idle mind is drawn to the house on fire. Authentic science is too conservative for the media. However, David Suzuki and Al Gore, and a host of others of the same political cohort, not FOX News, created the political popular science game.

    Let it be known once and for all that Climategate was evidence of non-science and ‘closed shop’ funding process of the ‘publish or perish’ cohort. The competition for government money by pandering to politically correct themes has outgrown the strongbox of science. The PC cohort is staffed by 100s of scientists erring into politics and politicians erring into science, but this is not the evidence based science that has led humankind out of the caves after the ice melted.

    Science moves slowly most of the time and leaps ahead with peril. Steven J. Gould used the term punctuated equilibrium to describe animal evolution. Science itself mimics that analogy. Long spans of whirlpools and eddies, fruitless experiments or blind alley dead ends are interrupted by leverage discoveries like pasteurisation or penicillin. Imagine the contrast between big laboratories doing big science of HIV Aids or cancer, and compare that to the tiny space needed to think of the theory of relativity. Big science is very inefficient; yet the world is full of genius. Einstein’s brain was really statistically no bigger than anyone else’s.

    If scientists do not understand that evidence and experiment are required, not computer models, they never should have been awarded their degrees. Real scientists know that the minute you begin to believe your own hypothesis, you are a dead duck as a scientist. Sadly, the number of careful scientists and their graduate students appears to be reaching de minimis in the modern university. Maybe intercollegiate sports are the only authentic path left.

    What is driving this political polarisation of the media? Could it be that journalists simply are not skilled enough to sift wheat from chaff? Could it be the polarisation of the educational process that separates us into artists and engineers? Artists go into service and engineers go to work. Or, could it be that the minute subdivision, the fractionation of specialisation has resulted in the old gag coming true – we know more and more about less and less.

  2. 1. I would not be so smug if I were you. Feingold must think a trace gas in the atmosphere that is plant food and has varied throughout geological time will cause the oceans to boil and the Himalayan glaciers to melt and flood New York. He learned that from some Hollywood celebrities.
    The theory of anthropogenic global warming in all its ramifications is based on a dozen or so atmospheric computer models that predict the future climate, when the weatherman is very shaky at 10 day forecasts. On the Solar side, research at the Danish National Space Center over the past 25 years supports the solar hypothesis. There is a 95% correlation between the solar cycle and global warming and cooling. When the sun is quiet our magnetic shields drop, incoming cosmic radiation seeds the clouds and the precipitation in the form of rain and snow cool the earth. When the sun is active, the magnetic shield of the earth and sun deflect cosmic radiation and less cloud forms and less precipitation occurs and less cooling occurs. Water vapour is the earth’s thermostat. It’s a bit abstract, but I’m voting for the politician who can understand that it is necessary to keep an open mind. You know what they say about computers, after all – garbage in, garbage out. Same for Washington logic I think.
    I’m surprised you hug the United Nations (UNIPCC) so willingly; it has become your enemy in so many ways. Vote Smart.

  3. I have often noticed that when a person makes a legitimate argument -- one that invites meaningful debate with facts -- they are often called "smug" or become the object of comments like, "Could it be that journalists simply are not skilled enough to sift wheat from chaff?" I submit that a Ph.D is not really necessary to apply common sense supported by the appropriate research to reach a logical conclusion. Your post presented several verifiable points that no amount of obfuscation or doublespeak can distort. And though I won't dispute the size of Einstein's brain -:), I will suggest that perhaps Al Gore's efforts to bring the issue of global warming into the national spotlight was born of a sincere desire to affect environmental policies that address the issue head-on. If we are indeed hurting our planet, that is not a Republican or Democratic, or even an American issue. It's a global one that should be addressed seriously and by all. But perhaps I'm just being smug.