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July 16, 2007

Will Fred Thompson Lead the Party of Quacks and Crackpots?


Back in March, Fred Thompson did something entirely predictable. He blamed global warming on the sun.


Silly, I know, but I wonder what all those planets, dwarf planets and moons in our Solar System have in common?” Thompson wrote. “Hmmmm. Solar system. Hmmmm. Solar? I wonder. Nah, I guess we shouldn’t even be talking about this. The science is absolutely decided. There’s a consensus.”

The implication was that only those who think too much believe that people are responsible. To the plain speaking, the answer didn’t require any acts of egg-headery. One need only point to the burning yellow ball in the sky, and scream, “Aieeeee!”


A paper issued last week by a British solar physicist found what they’ve pretty much said for the last four decades – that there is no evidence that the sun is driving global warming.


The paper was issued the same week as testimony given before a House committee investigating the abuses of science by the Bush Administration. The former Surgeon General, Dr. Richard Carmona, who served until last year, was the latest in what has become an endless parade who’ve testified that presidential appointees have corrupted the use of science. In particular, he told the committee that he was invited to a meeting about global warming and concluded that public health wasn’t the reason for his presence.


“And I said to myself, ‘I realize why I’ve been invited. They want me to discuss the science because they obviously don’t understand the science,’” he said. “I was never invited back.”


Scientific quackery is certainly not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited solely to conservatives. Homeopaths and herbalists, whose political tendencies drift toward New Agey liberalism, today tout the powers of shark cartilage for cures to ailments as wide ranging as glaucoma to cancer. There is no evidence for this, naturally, except for the least reliable kind – anecdotal. What available evidence does support is that sharks, which fill an important niche in every ecosystem in which they are found, are growing fewer in number thanks in part to pressure to promote quack cures.


But, while these people remain on the fringes of the Democratic Party – put there a few decades ago – Thompson’s op-ed piece and Carmona’s testimony remind us that they are today the face of the Republican Party.


The start was when Ronald Reagan came to power. Before the Reagan years, the Republican Party could have made a credible case for the nation’s most green-friendly party, but that was swept aside in the tide of anti-government, anti-regulation thinking that followed the Reaganites to power.


During the 1980s, the Republicans began to distance themselves from environmental issues, and the same period gave us the rise of the think tank, politically motivated and privately funded to begin questioning science, scientists and those agencies that represented them.


Environmentalists and the environmental movement began to take fire from talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, who mocked and derided them and their goals (as if the desire to breath clean air and drink clean water is something worth mocking). The apex came in 1995, when the new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, helped eliminate the Office for Technology Assessment, a Congressional body that helped keep Congress apprised of new scientific developments and how they might intertwine themselves with society at large. As a result, the quality of experts testifying before Congress on scientific issues declined, reaching a low point when Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, who calls global warming the “greatest hoax” ever, brought before the Senate a science fiction author.


There are signs that this could be changing. Gingrich, who can be blamed for some of the state of science and the Republican Party today because of this, earlier this year said that liberals were right on global warming (of course they were . . . they were following the evidence) and called for a rise in green conservatism. Whether this was genuine is debatable. Gingrich’s record on this kind of stuff isn’t as bad as some of his colleagues, but rumors that he is eyeing a presidential run suggest that he could be trying to tap into what has been advertised as a new awareness of the environment.


What isn’t debatable is that, if leading Republicans continue to talk like Fred Thompson did earlier this year, they’ll solidify the GOP’s reputation that it has become a home to quacks and crackpots.


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