Legislating Scientific Truth

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Scientific statements rely on uncertainty and error bars. If our understanding changes, the scientific consensus changes accordingly, in a more or less implicit manner. There’s no official process that needs to be followed to update our knowledge.

Laws passed by governments work in the opposite way. Official technicalities are paramount, and acknowledgements that the government’s understanding could be wrong are rare.

Why, then, are attempts to legislate scientific truth – an archaic practice to any reasonable person – becoming far more common in the United States?

One of the most early, and infamous, incidents of this manner occurred in 1897, when the government of Indiana attempted to legislate the value of pi (∏). The text of the bill, describing a circle, clearly says “the ratio of the diameter and circumference is as five-fourths to four”. If you do a bit of simple fractional algebra, this comes out to ∏ = 3.2, rather than 3.1415952…and so on. The scary part is that this bill passed the House without a single nay vote. Luckily, it was postponed in the Senate indefinitely.

More recently – in fact, just last month – Joe Read, a member of the Montana House of Representatives, penned a bill that is equally disturbing. Let’s take a look at what he is planning to turn into state law:

“The legislature finds:

(a) global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana;

(b) reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; and

(c) global warming is a natural occurrence and human activity has not accelerated it.”

At least ∏ = 3.2 was moderately close to the correct value. This bill, however, proclaims exactly the opposite of what the scientific consensus tells us. I would argue that it is even more dangerous. A fundamental constant that is 0.1 or so inaccurate could cause a couple buildings to fall down in Indiana, but a law that orders the government to believe the opposite of what the scientific community says – a law that outright denies any possibility of a problem which, if not addressed, will likely harm the citizens of Montana for generations to come – could cause political ripples leading to mass destruction.

It looks like a case of government officials burying their heads in the sand, refusing to acknowledge a problem because the solutions are politically problematic. The physical world, though, does not obey the Thomas Theorem, a sociological theory of self-fulfilling prophecies. No matter how passionately people like Joe Read believe that climate change is natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy, the problem won’t go away. In fact, it’s more of an inverse prophecy: if enough politicians refuse to acknowledge the reality of climate change, no action will be taken to address it, and the problem will get worse. It doesn’t seem like Joe Read et al have thought through this line of logic, though. Peter Sinclair wittily describes their mindset as “[s]o simple. Just pass a law. Command the seas to stop rising.”

Dana Nuccitelli goes one step further, claiming “Republicans have decided that they can repeal the laws of physics with the laws of the USA”. In this instance, he is referring to a second, similar, bill that the Republican Party is attempting to pass, this time at the federal level. Basically, Republicans are desperate to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating  greenhouse gas emissions – which they have the authority to do, under the Clean Air Act, as they can “reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”.

There are two ways to take away this responsibility of the EPA. First, Congress could create a system of their own to control emissions, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax – both more capitalist than standard regulation. Republicans aren’t too chuffed about this option, as they don’t want to have to control emissions at all. So they are invoking desperate measures by choosing the second option: if greenhouse gases were found to no longer pose a danger, regulation by the EPA would be unnecessary.

Legitimately reaching this conclusion would call over a century’s worth of physics and chemistry into question. If they could actually do it, the Republicans would probably win a Nobel Prize. Apparently, though, they aren’t interested in legitimacy. The “Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011”, by Members of Congress Fred Upton and James Inhofe, claims to overturn the EPA’s endangerment finding and, therefore, takes away their authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The justification for such an unusual scientific finding consisted of a couple of testimonies from climate change deniers, spouting out the usual long-debunked myths that scientists thought of, considered, and ruled out long before you and I even knew what global warming was. They offered no new information.

Ed Markey, the Representative from Massachusetts, took the opportunity to openly wonder what field of science Republicans will “excommunicate” next: will it be gravity, the heliocentric solar system, or special relativity? Watch and listen to his brief remarks. (Aside: I am amazed at how quiet and civil the House of Congress is. In Canada, Members of Parliament from opposing parties like to shout and pound their desks when others make speeches.)


The Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee invoked amendments to this bill that, instead of repealing the scientific consensus, acknowledged it:

Congress accepts the scientific finding … that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal”; that the scientific evidence regarding climate change “is compelling”; and that “human-caused climate change is a threat to public health and welfare.”

Zero Republicans on the committee voted in favour of these amendments. Why am I not surprised?

I wouldn’t place these words of legislation in the same category as the others. Instead of saying “this is how the physical world works”, the amendments state, “we, as politicians, accept what our scientists tell us.” Most importantly, the Members of Congress aren’t trying to outsmart experts in a field in which they have no experience.

However, I agree with Henry Waxman, the Representative from California, who says that such amendments shouldn’t be necessary – not because they’re wrong, but because the “finding is so obviously correct”. To me, governments accepting what their scientists tell them is the null hypothesis. The idea of politicians stamping down ideas that they don’t like, by attempting to legislate scientific truth, seems unspeakably bizarre. How did the most powerful and developed nation in the world reach this point?


22 thoughts on “Legislating Scientific Truth

  1. Great article Kate.

    I am scared for the future.. especially if the Republicans win the next election.

    The US government must take climate change seriously. If they are not regulating emissions, and denying anthropogenic causes, then what hope do we have?

    Maybe it all comes down to $$. If climate change research, regulating emissions, and developing alternative energy sources was a profitable business the republicans would be all over it.

    Is it possible that a while after peak oil begins, alternative energy will be cheaper to develop?

  2. It’s very disturbing to have one of two major political parties thinking they can simply legislate scientific and physical reality – behaving as though they can remove the threat from climate change simply by writing as much on a piece of paper. We don’t usually delve into politics on Skeptical Science, but these were such appalling moves, we felt it was important to address.

    How did we reach this point? Republican politicians have determined that this behavior is in their best political interest. The emergence of the Tea Party is a big factor, and the popularity of Fox News a big factor behind that.

    The Supreme Court decision to treat corporations as individuals in terms of campaign donations may play a role too. Perhaps Republican politicians are trying to keep the fossil fuel industries happy, knowing that they can now receive big campaign contributions from them.

    Just 2-3 years ago, almost every Republican presidential candidate acknowledged the scientific reality of man-made global warming, and many supported measures to reduce GHG emissions. Now Republican politicians can’t win a nomination unless they deny AGW. I hope this is only a temporary swing towards denial for the party. The only way to reverse it is to make them pay come election time.

  3. I’m finding it incredibly hard not to be derogatory about Politicians who seem to be so arrogant they feel they can legislate arrant nonsense into reality.

    What is about these people?
    Are they so blinded by politics that they cannot see reality?
    Have they been misled by the denialists funded by Koch, Exxon, Peabody et al.?
    Or is it that they’ve been bought?

    I believe that the Politicians who choose the lies from Monckton and Michaels are in-effect anti-American when they disregard the views of Hansen, Santer, Mann, Trenberth, etc.. They are promoting anti-science over science. The US’ dominance in science is already slipping. Because, the US needs world-class technology for which it needs world-class science. With the certain notorious Denialist websites that spout anti-science and conspiracy clap-trap and that whip their zombie armies into a frenzy over fake conspiracies that lead to death-threats. The Chinese and the Indians must be laughing at this. Surely the hatred aimed at scientists and the public vilification is hardly going to recruit the scientists of tomorrow. But that is exactly what the US needs to do now. Meanwhile, China and India are becoming much more attractive for scientists, and they have no home-grown anti-science movement.
    In-fact, as has been revealed by Sephen Chu, China has already overtaken the US in some areas of high technology manufacture, for certain types of solar cell.

    Cutting the budget for climate science. If you don’t like what the science says, stop doing the science.

    Inhofe fossil-fuel money = $1,155,306

    Upton fossil-fuel money = $516,450

    Markey fossil-fuel money = $145,000

    It seems to me that it’s very hard not to believe that some are blinded to the truth by all that money, while some keep their eyes wide open to the truth.

  4. > “the ratio of the diameter and circumference is as
    > five-fourths to four”. If you do a bit of simple fractional
    > algebra, this comes out to ∏ = 3.2, rather than
    > 3.1415952…and so on


    mv@geo9:~$ bc -l
    bc 1.06.94
    Copyright 1991-1994, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2006 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
    This is free software with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY.
    For details type `warranty’.


  5. Kate, please avoid confusing the small letter

    Minor nit: please avoid confusing the Unicode character U+220F N-ARY PRODUCT OPERATOR (∏) with the character U+03C0 GREEK SMALL LETTER PI (π) and other pi-like characters. It looks really weird. :|

    Anyway, not only do US politicians think they can pass laws on reality, they apparently also think they choose to enforce or ignore the laws selectively as and when they like. Witness the Department of Justice’s complete silence on Edward Wegman’s plagiarized and deceitful “Wegman Report” to Congress, or on Team Themis’s conspiracy to hack into computers of activists opposing the US Chamber of Commerce, or on the Bush administration’s sordid history of supporting torture.

    It’s as if the top politicians in both parties care only about how to gain power and cling onto power.

    Science, who needs it? Truth, who needs it? Give them the promise of power, and everything, even the value of π, is up for sale.


  6. Heh. And here I was using 355/113. Or, for nerd cred, pi * 13.37 = 42.

    In all seriousness, though, I wonder if snark like Markey’s really is the best approach here. (Well, his in particular, since he’s namedropping and mis-applying Schroedinger, but that’s just nitpicking.) I suspect snark only works when both the communicator and the recipient actually understand the subject matter (although snark itself may provide the understanding, if the recipient “doesn’t get it” but is smart enough to actually get it).

    A more effective kind of snark would probably be using a tale the right wing itself seems to use to attack carbon legislation, that of Cnut the Great, “Ruler of the Waves”. They use it to suggest that changes in policy can never have any effect on reality. I’m using it here to… well, you get the idea.

    (Aside: Amoeba, is your gravatar based on Monkcton’s porticullis? I mistook it for that at first.)

    • Or, for nerd cred, pi * 13.37 = 42.

      Brian, thou art the Ownage. :) For extra nerd cred, you can read the Ars Technica article on HBGary’s black ops. Reading it won’t make you a computer security expert, but it may allow you to talk like one. :) :)

      In all seriousness, though, I wonder if snark like Markey’s really is the best approach here.

      I don’t know either, but if you consider that it’s actually one of the clearer speeches on the climate issue made by a recent US politician… (!)


    • Brian D,
      Yes, it is a mockery of Lord Munchausen’s pink portcullis.

      Stacked monkeys flanking the pink waffle surmounted by a jester’s hat. I think it’s perfect for Lord Bunkum – he’s a real flanker, jester and waffler par excellence.

      However, I cannot take credit for its creation.

      It was, I believe created by CruelClimate. But that’s only a guess.
      I quote: ‘His Lordship’s New Model Entanglement-Free Emblem
      Please feel free to copy and use at your full and complete discretion.’


  7. I thought the whole legislating pi was a joke (as in a “ha-ha” joke, not a “what a joke” joke)–I hadn’t realized there was something political attached to it and that politicians had actually undertaken to legislate the value. Wow!

  8. It never ceases to amaze me, what keeps coming out of American politics these days. The Republicans are so against the Democrats, and vise versa, that nobody is ever willing to budge on their positions, based on pride and anger if nothting else. There MUST be Republicans that see the craziness of this bill. It just makes no sense, and is so disappointing.

    The future of America just plain scares me.

  9. >The “Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011″, by Members of Congress Fred Upton and James Inhofe, claims to overturn the EPA’s endangerment finding and, therefore, takes away their authority to regulate greenhouse gases.

    You have cause and effect backwards. Just reading the text of the bill shows this to not be the case. They are taking away the authority to regulate greenhouse gases, and as an addition to that also repeal the endangerment finding.

  10. MikeN – it’s not cause and effect at all. The bill both overturns the endangerment finding and prohibits the EPA from regulating GHG emissions to address climate change.

    • Dana, I understood Kate to be saying that they are repealing the endangerment finding as a means of preventing EPA regulation, thus the ‘politics dictating science’. In fact they are repealing the regulatory authority. This is the primary text. The repeal of the specific regulations and the endangerment finding are the details that are included.

      • Mike, granted I’m not really accustomed to interpreting legislation, but here’s what the bill does:

        1) prohibits the EPA from regulating GHGs

        2) lists some exceptions, like for justifying fuel efficiency standards (which to me is bizarre – either you can regulate GHG or you can’t)

        3) some legal gibberish

        4) overturns a bunch of EPA documents, including the endangerment finding

        5) exempts states from the legislation

        In #4, Congress is effectively legislating science. I do agree that the “therefore” in Kate’s sentence isn’t accurate, but I don’t think #4 follows from #1 either. From my reading, they’re basically on equal footing in the bill.

        Not that it really matters, we’re really just quibbling over details. Congress is legislating science either way, and that’s a problem.

  11. Dana, I think we are saying the same thing.
    #4 doesn’t follow from #1, however they are not on equal footing. All the other points are ‘we really mean it, these are the only exceptions’. The fuel efficiency part I find confusing, as the original Supreme Court case about this EPA regulation, all the headlines were that the EPA could regulate auto emissions.

    • Prior to the endangerment finding, I think the only time the EPA used global warming to justify one of their determinations was with fuel efficiency standards. So there was concern that as a result of this legislation, the new fuel efficiency standards would also be overturned. Fred Upton (R, MI) was concerned about this, so he was instrumental in putting the exception in to allow the fuel efficiency standards to remain in place.

      It just doesn’t make sense from a logical standpoint – to me either you can or you can’t justify regulations based on greenhouse gases/climate change. The exception was basically put in to cover Upton’s butt. Basically Republicans don’t oppose that particular regulation, so they exempted it from their repeal efforts.

    • MikeN:

      #4 doesn’t follow from #1, however they are not on equal footing.

      What does that even mean? You can’t remove a scientific problem simply by legislating it away.

      It’s as if Congress said ‘my fellow Americans, we have removed the police’s powers to arrest people for rape, therefore from now on, rape is no longer a harmful activity!’ Such an argument is of course nonsense!

      Removing the EPA’s authority to control global warming won’t make global warming a non-problem. What’ll happen is that it’ll remain the same problem, but EPA won’t be able to do anything about it.


  12. It is funny and mildly troubling to read the Montana Republican’s comments that global warming will be good for his state when this could not be further from the truth. Warming will lead to drought in his state, partly due to the melting of all the glaciers, but also due to the reduction of precipitation predicted in the climate models. I wish politicians would stick to legislating and leave the science to the scientists.

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