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.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHVrE1NTgxI&feature=player_embedded

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?