Back in February, it snowed in Statesboro and, briefly, the snow stuck. It was the first time in 16 years that snow had fallen out of the sky and not perished immediately upon meeting the ground in our part of South Georgia. I used the burst of winter weather as an excuse to take to Facebook and poke a little fun at the global warming people.
The ones who don’t believe in it.
The prod spurred a few Facebook friends to, frankly, embarrass themselves by lining up behind the anti-global warming community. This wasn’t so surprising, really. What was surprising, I discovered, was the number of “experts” cited by the deniers. Never mind that the NASA expert held up by one Facebooker was not only an expert in sound wave mechanics rather than any discipline even vaguely associated with weather or climate; that same NASA expert was at odds with another NASA scientist, who just happens to be the resident expert for the space agency on planetary climatology. This is like having a guy who installs car stereos try to tell a transmission guy how to do his job.
In trying to be sly or funny, I had opened the door to Idiot America.
At this point, it’s important to point out the term Idiot America is not intended to infer that everyone who lashes out at, you know, science is an idiot. It is a nod toward the eponymously-titled book by Charles P. Pierce, the most recent book I’ve wrapped up in the Summer Reading Crusade. The gist of Pierce’s book is that the public discourse on issues with clear-cut facts has been hijacked by politics and politics has been hijacked by entertainment and entertainment doesn’t care who is right, they care about who looks good and sounds good. Solid rhetoric is optional.
Idiot America posits the Three Great Premises:
(1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise moves units.
(2) Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
(3) Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
In the book, Pierce pretty ably takes on Idiot America by focusing on a few key issues. His favorite, evidenced by the introduction and a later chapter, is Intelligent Design. Pierce begins with a jab at the Creation Museum, a place that maintains the Biblical belief that the Earth is 6,000 years old and reconciles it with the fossil record (which tells a slightly different story). Pierce opens up the discussion into the realm of public policy by wading into the battle that unfolded in Delaware with the battle of Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School Board.
I could write a 5,000 blog on the complexities of reconciling religious belief with science and why religion should be barred from public schools. I would only scratch the surface of the topic.
But when Pierce wrote about tiny Arctic village of Shishmaref on the Chukchi Sea, he was speaking to a debate I’d watched unwind on my own Facebook page with a mixture of amusement and horror. The villagers of Shishmaref don’t care whether or not Statesboro, Georgia, had its first noticeable snow accumulation in 16 years. From where they are in the Arctic, the (mostly very poor) folks of the small village have watched the ice pack around them steadily diminish and the warm seasons gradually expand. In the wake of these changes, the land upon which Shishmaref actually sits has begun to quite literally fall into the sea.
None of this is a big surprise to legitimate climate scientists, who issued a report in 1995 warning that the planet was warming up and the scientific evidence “suggests there is a discernable human influence on global climate.”
Admittedly, scientists use words like “suggest,” which to us English majors seem a little tepid. But science is a discipline of observation and a lot of interdisciplinary science was at play in the 1995 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Scientists hate to be wrong. They hate to insert “X” in the place of data. They don’t spend a lot of time out on a limb (except for the cranks and the ones getting paid by someone to stand on said limb). Getting so many scientists from so many disciplines to issue a joint statement with a sentence like the one above included under “conclusions” is tantamount to any rational person in the world walking outside on a clear day, looking up at the sky and saying, “yep, it’s blue.”
In Idiot America, however, we have talk radio, the Internet and politics. There is precious little fact-checking involved in any of these endeavors.
So when an Oklahoma senator practically reeking of crude oil and campaign donations issued his rebuttal to the UN report, all three of the Great Premises (as well as the three institutions: talk radio, the Internet and politics) swung into play. The senator’s report, produced by 400 scientists of his own choosing (or of the choosing of a similarly well-funded, oil-drenched consortium), accused the UN scientists of being full of bunkum.
“Upon closer inspection,” Idiot America points out, “the four hundred ‘scientists’ [Sen. James] Inhofe cited included a couple of local television weathermen… one short evolutionary step from the days when they got their forecasts from cat puppets and talking clams. Others were economists, and specialists in fields as distant from climatology as sociology is from astrophysics.”
It reminded me of the two NASA experts who had been unwittingly dragged into the Facebook argument in February.
For 299 pages, Pierce does a fairly good job. He isn’t trying to win each debate. Rather, he’d like to reframe each one in the realm of common sense. When Arctic denizens, for example, begin to point out the shrinking landmass in their neighborhoods (and decent scientists nod gravely in understanding), it might be a better idea to listen to them than to the guy with the oil well or the coal mine who is literally unearthing his fortune and pouring it into the atmosphere for the next generation to worry about.
Pierce stands on some pretty broad shoulders as he points out the atrocity of misinformation in Idiot America. His acknowledgements include some weighty books written by solid journalists (a disappearing breed). He even uses an afterword to take a well-placed swipe at Glen Beck, a man who may cause us to rephrase a Shakespearean aphorism into “methinks the loudmouth doth point the Nazi finger too much.” There are points where the author gets an issue into the corner but doesn’t deliver a knockout blow (the global warming piece and the Intelligent Design segment are two of these) unless the reader is already predisposed to following his line of thinking. Also, there is some great irony created by reconciling the First Great Premise with the words “National Bestseller” on the cover.
In the end, Pierce makes the case that we are being forced to choose between our heads and our guts. Such a choice is not only disingenuous, it is dangerous. Because the side which believes the gut should hold sway is summed up by a local pastor in the Delaware school case to include Intelligent Design in the school curriculum. He was quoted in the book.
“We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of our culture.”
He meant that as a bad thing.