The Republican war on intelligence

Back in 2004, I had the pleasure of hearing Hillary Clinton speak at the Optical Society of America Annual Meeting in Rochester, NY.  After her prepared remarks, she took questions from the audience.  One questioner asked about some Bush administration policy — I can’t remember which one — and Hillary demurred from giving too much criticism, saying something to the effect of, “I know this is a non-partisan audience.”

The response?  Uproarious laughter, including from me.  Hillary didn’t quite understand the humor of her statement, but the reality is that only a handful of people in that room at that time could probably think of anything good to say about President Bush or the Republican party.  (I personally know only two scientists who have supported Bush over the past eight years — and one of them now vocally condemns the man.)

That isn’t to say that there weren’t conservatives in the audience, or among scientists in general.  Any scientist who is paying the least amount of attention to the actions of the Republicans over the last decade, however, cannot in good faith support them.  The Republicans have turned their party into the party of ignorance, and I fear that, regardless of the outcome of the current Presidential election, their shameless anti-education — and anti-knowledge — demagoguery will continue to hurt the United States for years to come.

The damage done was highlighted by a recent study done by political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler and reported on in the Washington Post.  In their study, they compared the views of people who were peddled only a false claim (e.g. Iraq had weapons of mass destruction) with people who were given the false claim and a refutation of it (e.g. the 2004 Duelfer report).  Astonishingly, they found that the refutation made conservatives more likely to believe the false claim.  The authors of the study suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

I can’t, of course, vouch for the soundness of the study, though its conclusions strike me as having a ring of truth.  As a personal example, I once tried to have a political discussion with my sister, who is a dittohead.  She dismissed my arguments with a statement to the effect of, “You liberals have your facts, and we have ours.”

For at least the last eight years (though certainly for much longer), the Republicans have gotten a lot of political mileage out of emphasizing the role of ‘bias’ in news and academic sources and downplaying the value of education and knowledge in general.  Bush is infamously known for denigrating and mocking the educated people who are in his employ.  At a 2007 political event, for instance, he said,

“I delegate to good people. I always tell Condi Rice, `I want to remind you, Madam Secretary, who has the Ph.D. and who was the C student. And I want to remind you who the adviser is and who the president is.'”

Or there’s this gem of a quote, from 2005,

THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate the Secretary of Energy joining me today. He’s a good man, he knows a lot about the subject, you’ll be pleased to hear. I was teasing him — he taught at MIT, and — do you have a PhD?

SECRETARY BODMAN: Yes.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, a PhD. (Laughter.) Now I want you to pay careful attention to this — he’s the PhD, and I’m the C student, but notice who is the advisor and who is the President.

Reveling in ignorance has helped the Republicans avoid a number of scientific debates that they’ve been on the losing side of: stem cell research, global warming, evolution.  Although the scientific consensus in each case is overwhelmingly against the Republicans’ views, they’ve managed to muddy the waters by treating education, and intelligence in general, as topics of derision.

One would hope that this was symptomatic of having an ignoramus like George Bush in the White House, but with McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as VP, the bar of knowledge and experience has been dropped even lower.  Palin, of course, is a relatively inexperienced Governor and former mayor in Alaska, and serious questions have been raised by plenty of politicos concerning her qualifications for the job.  The trouble isn’t even her lack of experience in public office as much as it is her complete ignorance of all issues of importance at the Federal level.  She has demonstrated complete ignorance of Bush’s guiding contribution to foreign policy, “The Bush Doctrine“, and has stated on the record, and quite recently, that she doesn’t know what a VP does and gives almost no thought to the Iraq War.

Here’s where it gets really scary, in my view: faced with criticisms of her inexperience, the Republicans have decided to simultaneously redefine what “experience” means and to suggest that having experience is actually a hindrance to doing a good job.  Looking at the first response, McCain himself has laughingly suggested that Sarah Palin has foreign policy experience simply by virtue of living in a state next to Russia:

Alaska is right next to Russia. She understands that. Look, Sen. Obama’s never visited south of our border. I mean, please.

There are many smart-ass responses to this (“Gov. Palin is knowlegeable about foreign policy because she can see Russia from her home. That means I’m an astronaut because I can see the moon from my home. NASA here I come! “).  In the new Republican world-view, unfortunately, experience is now simply a matter of proximity.  By that argument, everyone in Alaska is apparently a foreign policy expert — and everyone in Texas is an expert on immigration policy.  I myself am an expert on all things NASCAR, because I lived for four years within miles of one of the major NASCAR tracks (not).

Perhaps even more shocking is the second response: the idea that actual training or experience in a field is a hinderance.  From McCain advisor Robert Kagan,

“I don’t take this elite foreign policy view that only this anointed class knows everything about the world,” he said. “I’m not generally impressed that they are better judges of American foreign policy experience than those who have Palin’s experience.”

Get that?  Traveling internationally, studying the history and the politics of other countries apparently makes you less skilled at foreign policy than complete ignorance.

I wonder if the Republicans realize what sort of damage they might be doing to society in general.  By conditioning a large percentage of the population to resent knowledge and ignore everything that lies outside a narrow and flawed ideology, they are setting up the country for what can only be called a massive FAIL.  The book “Corrupted Science” by John Grant illustrates well the rapid collapse of countries that fall into this pattern: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union both set themselves back for decades because of their belief in a ‘national’ science.  (There is also a chapter on Bush’s America.)

Then again, looking at the McCain campaign’s actions over the past few weeks, they may know exactly what they are doing.  Their continuous repetition of lies, even after those lies have been debunked, seems to arise from the belief that people will believe them, regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

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5 Responses to The Republican war on intelligence

  1. Babs67 aka the fiancee says:

    I think that there is a group of people out there that don’t trust their own judgement anymore. They are confused by all the rhetoric and can’t make a decision about who or what to believe. These are the people that end up voting for an independent or for whichever candidate they think is most like them – making it a popularity contest. The Republicans have a good game going to just throw out as much misinformation as possible and hope that they confuse enough people to make them not want to look at the issues but take the easy way out. The Democratic party is the thinking-man’s and woman’s party.

  2. Blake: Thanks!

    Babs67: Well put. You’ve hit upon the R’s strategy pretty well, I think: completely muddy the actual issues, which forces people to rely on ‘character’. Then: character assassinate the hell out of your opponent.

  3. IronMonkey says:

    Not everyone has time or takes the effort of reading (between the lines!) about politics in newspapers and TV. I agree that the Sports section is often much more easier and fun to follow… Then, as Babs67 said, each election becomes a popularity/name-throwing contest in which Republicans have been very comfortable with in recent years ( I still recall clearly the “Dean Scream” playing in a loop on CNN. Now, that’s relevant!). Deviating from the pressing real issues and misinformation is the name of the game… This is sad.

    I just hope the next administration will better grasp the importance of fundamental and applied research for the future and well-being of people in the country. Basic research has acted in the last century as a privileged channel through which cultural and economic prosperity have flourished. It is more than ever needed in this century which will determine whether our planet remains inhabitable or not, for us at least.

    We too in Canada have an election going on. Let’s vote to let them show who runs the show.

  4. Unfortunately, ignorance pays….BIG!
    So, like Reagan, expect Mitt to use survivor benefits as a congressional slush fund again to pimp another bloodlusty arms race to cash in on even MORE human misery.

    Why build affordable housing when a barracks will do?

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