Despite my best efforts to steer clear of debates between presidential hopefuls at this point in the calendar (because I have important job-related stuff to do with those waking hours, and also, I have been cautioned that the budget will not provide a replacement for my existing desk should my head eventually break it), bits of information from these debates do manage to get my attention. For example, in the September 7 Republican debate at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, Texas Governor Rick Perry (with an "E") made some comments on science and the state of scientific agreement, especially as relates to what we know about climate change. The following exchange began with a question from John Harris of Politico:
HARRIS: Governor Perry -- Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?
PERRY: Well, I do agree that there is -- the science is -- is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans' economy at -- at -- at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet, to me, is just -- is nonsense. I mean, it -- I mean -- and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell.
But the fact is, to put America's economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country is not good economics and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.
HARRIS: Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you've done that.
Are there specific -- specific scientists or specific theories that you've found especially compelling, as you...
PERRY: Let me tell you what I find compelling, is what we've done in the state of Texas, using our ability to regulate our clean air. We cleaned up our air in the state of Texas, more than any other state in the nation during the decade. Nitrous oxide levels, down by 57 percent. Ozone levels down by 27 percent.
That's the way you need to do it, not by some scientist somewhere saying, "Here is what we think is happening out there." The fact of the matter is, the science is not settled on whether or not the climate change is being impacted by man to the point where we're going to put America's economics in jeopardy.
(Bold emphasis added.)
In less than 500 words, we get some insight into Gov. Perry's attitudes towards science.
He thinks it would be a mistake to be guided by "some scientist somewhere saying, 'Here is what we think is happening out there,' " although, presumably, he can bolster Texas's success in cleaning its air with empirical measurements of nitrous oxide and ozone taken by some scientist somewhere.
He's aware that weekly, maybe even daily, scientists are bravely coming forward to question the idea of anthropogenic global warming, but when asked to identify the scientists that he has found most credible on the subject of climate change, Perry either cannot name any of these scientists, or won't identify them as credible ... or maybe is keeping their names to himself to protect them? (From whom is he protecting them? Does this mean that these scientists have not "come forward" to state their views within their scientific communities -- or to the public -- but that they have "come forward" to Gov. Perry in private?)
Perry also references Galileo, stating that this hero of scientific progress also "got outvoted for a spell." I leave it to full-time historians of science to explicate the problems with Perry's understanding of Galileo, but I will note that there is a difference between having one's theory accepted by one's fellow working scientists and having one's theory accepted by the Roman Inquisition of the Catholic Church -- and I'm pretty sure Galileo himself did not have a vote in the latter.
But, here's the piece of Perry's position that really struck me: He states that climate science is not settled enough that it ought to guide policy which, by Perry's lights, would jeopardize the American economy. But this turns on an assumption that economics is a more settled (and more reliable) science than is climate science.
I suppose, then, we have the awesome predictive power of economic theory (about which there is strong consensus) to thank for warning us about the great recession before it happened, and for laying out a set of effective interventions that, once implemented, will save the economy and put millions of people back to work!
The economists, I'm sure, will be holding a press conference to explain their theory, describe the interventions that are needed, and call on our political leaders to implement them, just as soon as they've gotten their academic terms off to a good start. I'll be here (with my unicorn) waiting for that press conference.