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The Sciences

My New Feature Story in the American Prospect: "The Reality Gap"


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How do you explain the current factual and scientific divide that separates the two U.S. political parties today? In the latest American Prospect, I've taken a stab. The explanation isn't simple--there are many moving parts--but also some key fundamentals: 1) Democrats have vastly more Ph.D.s and experts, and seem to be more factually correct about contested issues; 2) Republicans nevertheless have enough of their own experts and aren't giving up; 3) neither Democrats nor Republicans are inherently anti-science or anti-expertise, but they rely on these for very different reasons, and do not both share the "Enlightenment ethic" of using science and reason to forge a better society; 4) all this is set against a rightward shifting political backdrop since about 1970; 5) all of the foregoing, in combination with psychology and media, leave us with a "postmodern" discourse that helps nobody. Stephen Colbert's "truthiness," writ large. Anyway, that's the very, very brief rundown. Here's how the piece opens:

In March, it was Kerry Emanuel’s turn to do what so many of his colleagues have done before: defend their knowledge and expertise against congressional Republicans. Emanuel is a meteorologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an expert not only on climate change but hurricanes. In the 1990s, he coined the term “hypercane” to describe a theoretical storm that, according to his equations, could have occurred in the wake of the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs. But as the sole Democrat-invited witness before the House Committee on Science--the GOP majority had five, one a marketing professor who testified that “global-warming alarm is an anti-scientific political movement"--Emanuel’s task was more like climate science 101. He merely had to stand up for what MIT teaches its students. As Emanuel explained in his written testimony, today’s MIT atmospheric-sciences students can do “hand calculations or use simple models” to show why global warming is a serious concern. Such calculations show that the planet will warm somewhere between 2.7 and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit if we allow carbon-dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere to double. It’s a result, Emanuel observed, that scientists have understood at least since 1979, when the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released the first in what are now shelves of studies of the subject. You don’t get an atmospheric-sciences degree at MIT--with a climate focus, anyway--if you can’t show on the back of an envelope what much of Congress now calls into question. If Emanuel’s testimony was at times cutting, it was also impassioned. Addressing the alleged “Climategate” scandal--which he’d served on a British Royal Society committee to investigate--Emanuel noted that “there is no evidence for an intent to deceive” on the part of climate researchers. He continued, his voice rising: “Efforts by some to leverage this into a sweeping condemnation of a whole scholarly endeavor should be seen for what they are.” All of which is what you’d expect to hear from a frustrated climate scientist these days--except, Emanuel is a proud, lifelong Republican. Or at least, he was until recently, when he voted for Barack Obama, the first time he’s ever backed a Democrat. In 2008, Emanuel says, he was a “single issue” voter concerned about science and climate change. “I don’t like it when ideology trumps reason, and I see that the Republicans are guilty of that in spades at the moment,” he says. “I’ve been toying with the idea of officially switching to independent status,” he adds. Kerry Emanuel’s political journey isn’t unique. Rather, it reflects a broader shift in the relationship between the U.S. political parties and America’s scientific and technical experts, over the past several decades....

You can read the full piece here.

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