GOP’s “inane” war on science: Plasma physicist congressman takes on the denialists

From Salon:

Retiring Rep. Rush Holt tells us why “millions will die” due to climate change — but why the solution is a bargain

Monday, Mar 3, 2014

“Millions are already dying, or have died, as a result of changes in the climate,” Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., told Salon.

Holt, a plasma physicist and eight-term congressman (and five-time “Jeopardy!” champion), last month announced he’ll leave the House in January. For “future generations, who will pay an even greater price than the current generation from climate change,” Holt told Salon late last week, “it will be hard to explain to them the inaction of America and the U.S. Congress.” A condensed version of our conversation – on climate change, the Keystone Pipeline and colleagues who “don’t really have a clue of how you sustain a productive science enterprise” – follows.

You chair the House Research and Development Caucus. Scientific studies are often among the examples of government spending that get attacked from the right. In the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin gave “fruit fly research in Paris” as an example of taxpayer dollars going to “projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good.” As a scientist and a politician, how do you respond to those kinds of critiques?

Well, for some of the more inane criticisms I just laugh …

There is, you know, the “Proxmire Effect” — referring back to Sen. Proxmire, who used to ridicule serious research that had funny-sounding titles. And you know, he was wrong much more often than he was right. It’s true that some research is unproductive. Some of it is even ultimately misleading. But the very idea of peer-reviewed research, you know, research that is guided by the conventions and the practices of the discipline — and I emphasize the word “discipline” — and that is chosen and supported by peer review, is very important to our success as a nation …

Much of our economic growth has come from the fruits of research … We need to maintain the research enterprise. We need to invest in the research infrastructure, beyond just the individual projects. And we should rarely, rarely substitute political judgments on the validity or worthwhileness of a project for the peer review, because that gets at the heart of the very process of research that we need to sustain.

You know, I find most members of Congress — like most citizens — actually value science, they understand that the payoff from science research is large, but, you know, they appreciate and enjoy the fruits of science but don’t really have a clue of how you sustain a productive science enterprise.

In 2012, you told a Princeton crowd, “I wish we could get more Americans and, hence, their representatives thinking like scientists, which means basing our conclusions on evidence.” Where do you see representatives in Congress not basing their conclusions on evidence?

Big things like climate change, and the way we produce and use energy, and … smaller things like … the energy consumption or the energy inefficiency of light bulbs …

Certainly when you have elected representatives … inventing ideas about a woman’s biology … it’s not just that they didn’t take sex education classes in school. It’s that they’re just not grounded in evidence …

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