On to the substance of the Palin pick
Update 9/1/08: Ta-Nehisi Coates puts a spin on the same idea developed below shorter and stronger: We aren’t saying that Palin is dumb, but that she’s either ignorant or playing on the ignorance of the rest of us. Either way, not good.
I realize that there is probably something of Palin fatigue already weighing in; my tours of the blogosphere and the MSM have been all Sarah, all the time for the last thirty hours or so.
So this is something of a placeholder for a longer, more considered post sometime next week. But the topline I want to put out onto the intertubes is that the Republican ticket is now the most anti-science put out there by any national party since William Jennings Bryan headlined the Dems more than century ago. (And, for all kinds of reasons, I fear I being unfair to the old bi-metallist, but that’s a post for a very different day.)
The troubles for science begin at the top. I wrote about McCain as a hazard to the national science enterprise a few months ago in this post. Short form: after eight years of a range of assaults on science from the Bush led GOP — attacks in which McCain either acquiesced or participated — McCain’s budget priorities as laid out in his speeches and his issue statements would hit the American science in the gut, with its funding at great risk.
At the same time, this danger comes in the context of McCain himself appearing to be much more disinterested in than actively hostile to the actual content of science. That is, he has a disdain for expertise — just see his repeatedly willed ignorance on such technically informed subjects as the gas tax holiday and energy policy. But beyond that “don’t bug me with the facts” reflex, McCain himself has not said anything that suggests he thinks the law of gravity was passed in the 81st Congress or anything like that
So the prognosis as I saw it in May was that a GOP win in November was for an ongoing cash decline of a thousand cuts, and neither rhetorical support or attack on the underlying ideas of science.
Then came Palin. My first reaction was like that of a lot of people: whaaat? And then — this is an embarassment to the idea or brand of John McCain. After a week in which Democrats rag on his judgment he confirms his loose cannon label with this?
But the risk of such reactions is the Dan Quayle problem. We’ve seen some very unlikey people get within a flat EKG of the Oval Office. Palin is not just a reflection on McCain; she’s a suddenly potentially very powerful person whose own views, beliefs, and judgment matter.
There will be a lot of folks concentrating on filling in the Palin blank state, and early reports on the conventional political fronts are not promising — from her abuse of power scandal/investigation to stories of managerial incompetence as mayor of a small town; to the shock and dismay of those who politically know her best at the thought of her in the White House.
I’ll leave all that to the kind of folks linked to above. Here, I just want to remind folks that her creationism and her global warming denialism are not just isolated oddball beliefs. They are windows into the qualities of her mind, how she thinks and reasons.
And in the shortest form, what it tells me is that she is not someone who eagerly confronts harder truths. It is certainly possible to have deep faith and understand the overwhelming explanatory (and useful) power of modern evolutionary biology and all its related fields. But doing so requires hard thinking, and a willingness to sacrifice the simple comfort of Biblical literalism. Simply saying saying that a creator did it is not the answer.
It is equally possible to have all kinds of doubts about the actual risks involved in global climate change, the scale of probable changes, and the appropriate policy response to the problem. But all but the flat-earth rump of the scientific community agree that anthropogenic emission of greenhouse gases does/will produce some impact on the global climate system — even so well known a skeptic as my MIT colleague Dick Lindzen says so, while dismissing the problem as both too uncertain and too minor to merit a policy response. (I disagree — and have for a long time — but that’s not the point here.)
By contrast, Palin’s bald denial of the role of human actions in climate change just gives her an easy way out of confronting the complex and hard arguments about the scale, dangers, and responses to global warming.
And yet, the fact that a President Palin wouldn’t take global warming seriously doesn’t bother me as much as the thought that the easy way out would be her preferred route on all the issues the occupant of the Oval Office has to confront.
This is tooth fairy thinking — if I want something to be true badly enough; if it is convenient or useful or comfortable for something to be true, then true it must be.
That is: lots in the blogosphere and the mainstream media have questioned Palin as a candidate because her experience does not make her a plausible President on day one. But on day two of the Palin era, what scares me much more is not the fact that she hasn’t done very much, nor even that she doesn’t know very much, but that the handful of data on the record that gives insight to her thinking about science tells us that her capacity for judgment is poor.
Which is, of course, exactly the same argument the Democratic National Convention made against her much more experienced, fully formally qualified running mate, John McCain. McCain/Palin: the Tooth Fairy ticket.
Oy. More to come on this theme as the shock wears off.