Commentary: The conservative war on science
Donald Trump tells outrageous lies with no regard for reality.
There's his claim -- never supported by any visual evidence -- that "thousands and thousands of people" in New Jersey cheered the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Or the accusation that President Obama wants to bring 250,000 Syrian refugees into this country, when the real figure is 10,000.
On Capitol Hill, some Republicans are conducting a quieter version of Trump's truth-trashing. The GOP majority is trying to quash scientific studies that could dispute party scripture on two controversial subjects: gun control and climate change.
Elections have consequences, and the Republican majority has the right to block Democratic proposals and conduct oversight inquiries. If Democrats had won, they would be asserting the same prerogatives.
But what the Republicans are doing goes far beyond the fair exercise of majority power. They are not just thwarting the minority in a legitimate debate; they are denying the ability of independent fact-finders to establish an impartial basis for that debate.
They are conducting a war on science itself.
Start with gun control. Since 1996, Congress has barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching the health impacts of gun violence.
"If there is no research, it is harder to make suggestions for policy reform," Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis told the Huffington Post. "And if you have a vested interest in stopping policy reform, what better way to do it than to choke off the research? It was brilliant and it worked. And my question is, how many people died as a result?"
Fair question. And the author of the original ban, former Republican Rep. Jay Dickey of Arkansas, now admits that his amendment throttled research and cost lives. He points to studies in auto safety that led to the installation of metal barriers along dangerous stretches of highway.
"If we had somehow gotten the research going, we could have somehow found a solution to the gun violence without there being any restrictions on the Second Amendment," he told the Huffington Post. "We could have used that (research) all these years to develop the equivalent of that little, small fence."
But even sensible arguments like Dickey's failed to sway his fellow Republicans, who are still paralyzed by the influence of the National Rifle Association. They blocked an attempt to restore federally funded research on gun violence in the omnibus spending bill recently passed by Congress.
"Once again," lamented Rep. Mike Thompson of California, the Democratic point person on guns, "Republicans simply refused to get out of the way and let our experts do what they do best -- conduct research that will save some lives."
That disdain for experts and their research also infects the GOP's attitude on climate change. Scientists working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a highly professional, peer-reviewed article last June rebutting a favorite position of climate change skeptics: that the pace of global warming has somehow "paused" in recent decades.
Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who heads the House Science Committee, launched a jihad against the NOAA researchers, accusing them of rushing their study and manipulating their data to bolster an "extreme climate agenda." He demanded thousands of their private emails and threatened reprisals against anyone who did not comply.
The counterattack has been fierce, led by President Obama, who said on NPR "that the Republican Party in the United States is perhaps literally the only major party in the developed world that is still engaging in climate denial."
As in the case of gun violence, this is not just a policy dispute. This is a blatant attempt by Republicans to stop scientists from pursuing research that could undermine their preconceived prejudices.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the ranking Democrat on the Science panel, blasted Smith for conducting an "ideological crusade" and committing "a serious misuse of Congressional oversight powers."
Scientific researchers have also rallied around their colleagues at NOAA, knowing that their own projects -- and federal grants -- could be next on the anti-expert hit list.
A typical letter from the Science Network of the Union of Concerned Scientists reads: "We urge you to stand firm against these bullying tactics in order to protect NOAA scientists' ability to pursue research and publish data and results, regardless of how contentious the issue may be."
Good advice. Bullies will only stop when opponents "stand firm" against their tactics. That's as true on Capitol Hill as it is on the campaign trail.
(Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)