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    Congress's Science Committee Doesn't Get Science

    Written by

    Brian Merchant and Alex Pasternack

    Todd Akin, a Republican Representative from Missouri, says that a woman who is “legitimately raped” cannot become pregnant – according to science. “First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

    It should go without saying that there is precisely no scientific basis for this idea. There are estimated to be over 32,000 pregnancies that result from rape every year; one scientific study seemed to show that rape actually increases the chance of conception. (Akin has recanted his quote, saying he misspoke, and is now being asked to resign.)

    But hey, science is complicated—there’s just so much information out there, and one time a doctor said that getting raped makes it difficult for women to have successful pregnancies, because of all the emotional trauma. There’s tons of garbage like that floating around masquerading as truth.

    The crucial difference here is that this clueless gentleman is a member of the committee in Congress that addresses America’s scientific goals. Mr. Akin, who has demonstrated a failed understanding of the human reproductive process, is a prominent member of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee. It’s a committee that holds some serious power, too—the Science committee has jurisdiction over NASA, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

    It would be one thing if Akin were the lone anti-science science expert on the committee. But he’s not alone. The governing body in charge of many of our most important scientific institutions currently includes a cadre of ideologues with views that disregard actual science as violently as Akin’s, at a time when science funding, the public’s understanding of science, and Congressional popularity are hitting new lows.

    According to its charter, the Science committee holds “Legislative jurisdiction and general oversight and investigative authority on all matters relating to science policy and science education.” Created in 1958, after the launch of Sputnik, the committee was responsible for launching NASA and laying the foundation for the U.S. space program. While science-related legislation can come from anywhere, whether it’s the president or a congressman under the sway of drug company lobbying, the science committee, like other committees, is meant to filter and rule on that legislation.

    Its credentials wouldn’t bowl over many scientists. Rep. Akin has a degree from Worcester Polytech in Engineering Management and worked for IBM as an engineer, while Rep. Paul Broun is an M.D., with a background in chemistry. On the Democrat side, Rep. Paul Tonko is a mechanical engineer by training and helped lead New York’s energy R&D authority. Roscoe Barlett of Maryland was once director of a Space Life Sciences research group at the John Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and Donna Edwards of Maryland once worked for Lockheed Corporation at the Goddard Space Flight Center during the Spacelab program. But many have no scientific expertise at all.

    Today the committee oversees the entire spectrum of national science interests, from energy, the environment and the atmosphere, civil aviation and nuclear R&D, and space. NASA and commercial spaceflight have become a special focus of the current committee, for reasons arguably more political and economic than scientific. Last year, Chairman Ralph Hall noted that “the American people made it clear that they want Washington to work more efficiently… we will uphold the American people’s expectations and make science and technology a driver of innovation for our economy.”

    A poor appreciation for science presumably effects more than just scientific research and the economy. It pollutes a political process built, one hopes, on argumentation and reasoned debate. It’s no surprise then that the 112th Congress seems so far from that ideal. As celebrated Congressional historians Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein have written, “We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional.” Their new book, largely about the current members of government’s “First Branch,” is titled “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.” America doesn’t think it looks very good: Congress’ approval rating, as measured in February, ranks alongside Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

    The debacle over SOPA proved that Congressmen – many of them with debts to Hollywood – already has trouble respecting an open and neutral Internet. A look at the views of the men and women steering the science committee also reveals a body comprised of climate change naysayers, evolution deniers, and ideologues like Akin who buck reproductive science to support their radical views.

    Graphic by Lara Heintz. Click for a larger version

    Ralph Hall (R – TX)

    Ralph Hall, the chairman of the science committee, doesn’t believe 97% of climate scientists when their research suggests that human activity is warming the globe. According to Politico, before taking the reins as committee head, he said that “reasonable people have serious questions” about the science connecting manmade greenhouse gas emissions to global warming. “I’ve had people tell me if we had all the money in the world, put it in Texas Stadium, people couldn’t change nature’s future one iota.”

    Just to underscore the extent of his grasp on climate science, he also dropped this little nugget when discussing his committee: “We have some real challenges; we have the global warming or global freezing and then we have the space, the NASA program, that’s enough for any one committee.”

    So he’s either flippantly disregarding global warming or is sincerely confused as to which of the two phenomena is actually taking place. Either way, he’s aptly demonstrated that he has next to no grasp on one of the most important scientific subjects of our time. He’s not been shy in his support for the oil industry. In 2010, he said that not even the BP oil spill could "dampen his enthusiasm for offshore drilling.” The devastating oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico was a “tremendous,” “blossoming” flower of energy:

    As we saw that thing bubbling out, blossoming out – all that energy, every minute of every hour of every day of every week – that was tremendous to me. That we could deliver that kind of energy out there – even on an explosion.

    It was a markedly different take than that of the Times, Think Progress noted then: “Dazed and battered survivors, half-naked and dripping in highly combustible gas… [and] certain they were about to be cooked alive, scrambled into enclosed lifeboats for shelter, only to find them like smoke-filled ovens.”

    Jim Sensenbrenner (R- WI)

    The vice chair of the science committee is even more disappointing. Rep. James Sensenbrenner is actually a spokesman for a fringe movement that vocally denies the established scientific research on climate change.

    He fanned the flames of the Climate-Gate non-scandal at congressional hearings, compared climate scientists to fascists, and even served as a speaker at the Heartland Institute’s annual conference, which is aimed at propagating the idea that global warming is a hoax—the same conference that advertised itself with widely criticized billboards that compared those who believe in climate change to serial killers.

    The committee’s most anti-science blowhard also offered this gem of non-truth last year: “I personally believe that the solar flares are more responsible for climatic cycles than anything that human beings do and our lunar, our rovers on Mars have indicated that there has been a slight warming in the atmosphere of Mars and that certainly was not caused by the internal combustion engine.” There is, of course, not a shred of scientific truth anywhere to be found in that statement.

    Sandy Adams (R – FL)

    Not content with just trying to kill energy-efficient lightbulbs, last year Sandy Adams introduced an amendment “to prohibit the use of funds for maintaining, developing, or creating any Web site which disseminates information regarding energy efficiency and educational programs on energy efficiency specifically to children under 18 years of age.” The amendment, targeting sites like the Dept. of Energy’s Energy Kids site was intended to reduce spending, failed by a large margin. Adams, who has taken funds from Exxon Mobil, Sunoco and Progress Energy, continues to urge her colleagues in Congress to “increase domestic exploration for oil and natural gas reserves here in the United States.” She also called for Congress to re-up its investment in NASA’s manned spaceflight programs, which many scientists are quick to point out carry little direct scientific value — while canceling the agency’s ground-breaking climate change research.

    Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)

    Rohrabacher is another vocal climate science critic who has no science background. But he pretty clearly demonstrates that he has next to no idea what’s actually causing climate change. At a Congressional hearing, he suggested it was trees:

    “Is there some thought being given to subsidizing the clearing of rainforests in order for some countries to eliminate that production of greenhouse gases? … Or would people be supportive of cutting down older trees in order to plant younger trees as a means to prevent this disaster from happening?”

    He has also made this statement: “I do not believe that CO2 is a cause of global warming.” That itself is at odds with the most current scientific research. Strangely, he was once noted as a “strident advocate for supremacy in space” and for NASA.

    Rohrabacher also seems to display a curious habit of thinking himself smarter than top climate experts working in the field. Watch him try to hurl a ‘gotcha’ question at Richard Alley and Ben Sanders, two of the most respected climate scientists in the nation.

    This man is influencing climate policy decisions, yet he refuses to listen to esteemed scientists.

    Paul Broun (R-GA)

    Paul Broun, Tea Party favorite, has taken on “secular humanists,” attacked evolutionary theory, and acted as an advocate of intelligent design. The Malton Tribune describes a typical Broun campaign stop: "Broun’s attacks on “secular humanists,” abortion and evolutionary theory won him acclaim from the crowd, but he said one group of tea party supporters was not enough, urging everyone to spread the word about the dangers of expanding government."

    He seeks to pass something called the Sanctity of Human Life act, which, in his words, “gives the right of personhood to that one-celled human being. If you look at Roe vs. Wade, the whole decision was predicated on no definition of the beginning of life being ever established legislatively. [But] this [bill] would define life beginning at fertilization. It would give the right of personhood to that one-celled human being — thus that person should be protected under the law as we are today.”

    Broun also holds extremely radical views on climate change. At a gala for the John Birch Society (!), he said, “They used to talk about global warming — y’all might remember a few years ago they were talking about an ice age was coming. It’s the same folks, the folks who want to change America, want to rule America. They want to change us to a New World Order.”

    Woops. And he doesn’t limit his comments to meetings of fringy rightwing groups, either. Here’s what he says on the floor of the House : “scientists all over this world say that the idea of human induced global climate change is one of the greatest hoaxes perpetrated out of the scientific community. It is a hoax. There is no scientific consensus.”

    Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. Here’s Broun he is right before Obama’s inauguration, anointing a presidential doorway with sacred oil while a pair of reverends give a sermon:

    So he rails against evolution, thinks climate change is a hoax, attacks “secular humanists,” and wants US law to pertain to one-celled organisms. He also sits on the nation’s top science committee.

    Mo Brooks (R-AL)

    Rep. Mo Brooks presides over the Alabama district that’s home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, and has quickly acquired power in the science committee. Science Insider reports that last year, he “leapt over more senior members of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology to head the panel that oversees research activities at the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Commerce.” And he says, “I haven’t seen anything that convinces me” global warming is real, “much less caused by human activity.”

    And in an interview with Science magazine, he said, “with respect to carbon dioxide emissions, there’s some good associated with that, to the extent that we have higher levels of carbon dioxide. That means that plant life grows better, because it is an essential gas for all forms of plant life. Does that mean I want more of it? I don’t know about the adverse effects of carbon dioxide on human beings. I’m not familiar with any, at present levels.”

    Lamar Smith (R – TX)

    If he didn’t understand the Internet before, he should by now: he became one of its favorite enemies when he introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) earlier this year. We know how that turned out.

    The web is well-trodden ground for Smith. In 2011, he introduced the Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 (PCIP), which was intended to change sentencing rules, and to mandate ISPs to keep personal and financial information for each customer a year after they leave the service. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, (D-California), who said the bill would allow use of the information for purposes entirely unrelated to fighting child pornography, had another title for the law: “Keep Every Americans’ Digital Data for Submission to the Federal Government Without a Warrant Act.”

    As the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Smith has also fought proposals from both sides of the aisle that would allow more foreign-born students with U.S. graduate degrees in science and engineering, as well as foreign high-tech, job-creating entrepreneurs, to stay in the United States. “We want skilled foreign workers who want to remain in the U.S. to basically stay and contribute to our economic growth and our job creation,” Keith Grzelak, vice president of government relations for IEEE, said last year. “It always seemed crazy to me that we trained these people here and then they have to leave.”

    After SOPA died, Smith continued to press on the copyright point by trying to rush through another unsuccessful bill called the Intellectual Property Attaché Act (IPAA), which would would enforce U.S. copyright law abroad through specially assigned diplomats or attachés. For all the grandstanding against copyright infringers, it was easy to miss that Smith was also a pirate himself.

    Chuck Fleischmann (R – TN)

    Last year, Rep. Fleischmann – who has pushed to make “In God We Trust” a required slogan at public buildings and schools – filed a bill called the “Stop Green Initiative Abuse Act of 2011” which sought to repeal the Department of Energy’s “Weatherization Assistance Program,” an initiative to assist low-income families in lowering their energy bills by adding energy efficient caulking and insulation to homes.

    So what gives? Why are there so many congressmen so blind to science, as it were? These Congressmen aren’t necessarily dumb people—in fact, most of them aren’t. But they, like everyone, are prone to confirmation bias, wherein our pre-existing ideologies (something this Congress has no shortage of) trumps our ability to gather information in an objective manner. We’ll discard good info if it doesn’t support our more deeply felt beliefs. It doesn’t help that those deeply held beliefs are massaged by moneyed interests in Congress—family values groups reward pols for anti-abortion stances, the massive fossil fuel industry gives them a pretty good reason to vocalize anti-climate change views, and so on.

    In fact, a number of recent studies have shown, for instance, that better-educated conservatives are even less likely to believe in climate change, and that obtaining more data does little to sway their views. In other words, it’s not an inability to read complicated science journals that lands these folks at a point where they disregard science. It’s because the science in question doesn’t seem to make room for their beliefs: in lower taxes, in eliminating pollution regulations on business, being opposed to abortion, and pro-Intelligent Design ed, etc.

    Scientific illiteracy is of course not limited to the House’s science committee, though it is remarkable how thoroughly one of the primary bodies in charge of governing national science policy has succumbed to it. According to the Congressional Research Service, the 435 members of the House include one physicist, 22 people with medical training (including 2 psychologists and a veterinarian—and one is Broun, a physician famous for only making house calls), a chemist, a microbiologist and 6 engineers.

    There are now efforts afoot to inject more science into politics, an important idea at a time when, as Barbara A. Schaal, a biologist and vice president of the National Academy of Sciences says, “there is a disconnect between what science says and how people perceive what science says.” A stronger cast of science-based politicians would also, presumably, help a political system that appears to be increasingly ruled not by not by evidence and reason, but by the crazy things people say and believe.

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