Zimmerman: When candidates won't face facts

Photo Credit: TMS illustration / M. Ryder

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Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University, is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."

Is the GOP becoming the "anti-science party"?

That's what Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman warned last week, and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that he's right. Example A is Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who recently suggested that man-made climate change was a vehicle for scientists to aggrandize themselves rather than an accurate way of describing the world.

Listen closely, however, and you'll hear echoes of the "postmodern" attack on science that was popular in certain precincts of the academic left two decades ago. In grad school, I was told science was simply one way of looking at the world. But its practitioners cloaked it in the universalistic dogma of "objectivity" -- note the inevitable air quotes -- and successfully imposed their dogma on the rest of us.

That's pretty much what Perry maintains today. "I think there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects," he said earlier this month, during a discussion of climate change. He also claimed that other scientists were "questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change."

The day after that, in response to a question from a young boy, Perry cast doubt on the idea of human evolution. "It's a theory that's out there," he said, putting both hands on the boy's shoulders. "It's got some gaps in it."

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In other words, "science" doesn't have any independent validity or accuracy; it's just something that some people believe, and other people don't.

Perry doesn't come right out and say that either evolution or climate change is false. Instead, he expresses misgivings about the theories and the people propounding them. Why do they get to tell us what's real and imaginary, what's true and false?

That, too, was a hip left-wing line of inquiry back when I was in graduate school. And it continued until the hoax perpetuated by Alan Sokal, which marked its 15th anniversary this spring.

A professor of physics at New York University, Sokal submitted a lengthy article to the journal "Social Text." Laden with impenetrable jargon and dense footnotes, the essay claimed that scientists had no special purchase on reality. Indeed, "reality" (airquotes again!) didn't exist. "Physical 'reality,' no less than social 'reality,' is at bottom a social and linguistic construct," Sokal wrote, tongue firmly in cheek. "Scientific 'knowledge,' far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it."

The journal editors published Sokal's rant in 1996, mistaking it for serious scholarship. When it ran, he outed himself in another journal, explaining how and why he perpetuated the hoax. His prime goal was to expose the intellectual laziness that lurked beneath so much "postmodern" mumbo-jumbo on the left. As a devout left-winger himself, however, he also worried that postmodern attacks on science would harm the causes he held dear.

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"There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter," Sokal explained. "Theorizing about 'the social construction of reality' won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming."

And make no mistake about it: The globe is warming. Perry's jibe about "manipulated data" seemed to refer to emails stolen from climate researchers at the University of East Anglia, one of which referred to a "trick" in the data. But five subsequent investigations confirmed that none of the scientists had misrepresented or skewed their findings.

Nor is there any evidence for Perry's assertion about mounting dissent among scientists writ large. Last year, a National Academy of Sciences survey of more than 1,300 climate scientists confirmed that 97 percent to 98 percent of them believed in man-made climate change.

Yet among the Republican aspirants for president, only Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Huntsman have even acknowledged that human beings are making the world warmer. The rest of the field accords to a different reality. Or, should I say, "reality"?

Unlike the lefty professors who used to spout such drivel, the new right-wing postmodernists have actual power. That's not a theory or a belief; it's a fact. And it's time we woke up to that reality.


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