Sep 19 2014

How To Be a Science Denier

This Week Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal gave an excellent lesson on how to be a science denier. Unfortunately, this was not a faux demonstration, he was sincere.

If you recall, in 2012, Jindal advised Republicans to stop being “the stupid party.” This was a provocative statement. I wondered at the time if this signaled a shift in the party away from having anti-science on their platform. Had party insiders finally realized they can’t hang their political future on denying undeniable science, that they need to embrace reality and stop fighting against it?

Alas, it seems that a more cynical interpretation is closer to the truth – that Jindal was simply worried about damage to the Republican brand caused by Republicans saying “offensive, bizarre” comments, but not by the substance of their positions on scientific issues.

At a recent breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Jindal was introduced as a Brown graduate at the age of 20 with a biology major, then a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and having a 2 year stint as the president of the University of Louisiana, along with many other accomplishments. So he is a scholar and, to some extent, an academic, with advanced study in biology specifically.

During the breakfast, which included journalists, Jindal was asked about global warming. In response to this issue, Jindal performed a very deft dance. He said, “Let the scientists decide,” referring to whether or not global warming is happening. This, of course, is a clever denialist tactic. The hidden premise here is that the scientists have not already spoken with a unified and loud voice. They have decided – it is clear that human activity is increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and warming the climate.

Jindal does go on to endorse taking steps to reduce emissions and increase efficiency, and notes that you don’t have to be a believer or denier to accept such policies. He says “let’s listen to scientists” but missed a huge opportunity to show that he actually has listened to scientists. I’m trying not to get too political here – but Jindal could have used this question as an opportunity to actually lead his party by example to a more overtly scientific position, rather than dancing around the issue.

Not content with his overtly political responses, Jindal was asked directly if he personally believes the climate is changing by human activity. His response was pure denial. He said (to paraphrase), of course the climate is changing, the climate is always changing, the question is by how much and what are the consequences. He also says, sure human activity is contributing to some degree, the question is how much. Let the scientists decide.

This is the ultimate denialist position. Climate change deniers have backpeddled from, the globe is not warming, to it’s warming but not caused by humans, to it is caused by humans but not by much, to it is mostly caused by humans but who knows what the consequences are and if we can do anything about it. Jindal is somewhere between the last two positions, a very precisely calibrated political position.

Again, he goes on to say, let’s focus on which policies will work. Great – that is where the debate should be, but he missed an opportunity to help his party stop being the “stupid party.”

The next question was also a direct question about what Jindal personally believes, this time whether evolution is responsible for complex life on earth. Amazingly, Jindal responds that he was not “an evolutionary biologist.” Let’s unpack that for a moment. He is implying that unless one has post-graduate training specifically in evolutionary biology one cannot be expected to have an opinion on whether or not evolution is accepted science.

Jindal has a university degree in biology. If that is not sufficient to convince him that evolution is the organizing theory of biology, over the next 2 plus decades of his life he could have cracked a book or two on evolution.

When pressed on the point of his personal belief, he retreated to, “I think local schools should decide for themselves what to teach.”

This is a clear dodge. He is applying a very common political tactic to these issues – when asked a specific question, answer the question you want to answer, rather than the one you were actually asked.

With both climate change and evolution, Jindal was asked about his personal beliefs. He deflected the question by saying, well, listen to the scientists, and here is the policy I favor. With regard to teaching evolution, saying he favors local school control is a clear pro-creationist and anti-science position (given the context of the question). Sure, there is a legitimate debate to be had over the optimal balance of local, state, and federal control of public school curricula. We can talk about standards vs flexibility, and giving teachers some breathing room.

But the issue of evolution is quite clear – teaching evolution denial or singling out evolution for unfair treatment is an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. The Supreme Court has spoken quite clearly on this issue, which means the local school districts don’t get to decide. Local governments cannot decide to violate the US Constitution. I suspect that Jindal probably understands this.


Jindal, as a Republican celebrity and likely presidential candidate, has powerful influence over the tone and policies of the Republican party. He is a scholar and gives every indication of being an intelligent and accomplished individual. I understand the political calculus, but I can’t help being disappointed that Jindal decided to take the precisely calibrated path of least resistance, effectively denying evolution and climate change but with plausible deniability of his denial.

Rather, he could have used the opportunity to follow up on his prior comment that the Republican party should stop being the “stupid party.” They should also stop being the party that denies evolution and climate change. He could have said – there is a clear scientific consensus that evolution is the accepted theory of life origins, and man-made activity is warming the climate. As a party, Republicans should stop denying these realities. Let’s focus on policies that will improve education, and that will improve our energy infrastructure and help the environment without wrecking our economy.

As I have discussed before – it is always best to advocate for one’s personal or political values within a framework that acknowledges the scientific consensus. It is an ultimately failed strategy to tie one’s values to specific scientific conclusions that may turn out to be wrong, or that have already been demonstrated to be wrong.

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