There ought to be a special place in honesty jail for people who say presposterously wrong things publicly — and know full well they’re doing so. If such a place exists, it’s time to turn down Newt Gringrich’s bed and place a mint on his pillow, because he’s headed there for a long stay.
Last week, on a tour of New Hampshire, the stumbling presidential candidate came out against — surprise! — the idea that climate change is really happening. And — surprise again! — he cited the oft-repeated trope about scientists in the 1970s who warned that the world was on its way to a big-chill era that they described as “global cooling.”
Quoted by Politico.com, Gringrich said: “Now many of those scientists are still alive, and they were absolutely convinced. I mean, if Al Gore had been able to in the 1970s, we would have been building huge furnaces to warm the planet against this inevitable coming Ice Age.”
Having cited Boogeyman #1 for the climate-change deniers (Gore), Gingrich took the next required swipe, at intellectuals and government: “Now, if you were a left-wing intellectual, climate change is the newest excuse to take control of lives, and you want a new bureaucracy to run our lives on behalf of the newest thing.”
Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that Gingrich is considered by many people — none moreso than himself — to be one of the great brainiacs of the GOP. On matters of science, that might be a little like being the skinniest guy at fat camp; still, no one wears the “intellectual” laurel more proudly than Newt, even if he doesn’t always use the word. What’s more, this “newest thing” he speaks of has been under study by climate scientists for close to two generations now, and while I haven’t followed every word of the discussion, I’m pretty sure that at no point in all of the talk about droughts and storms and melting polar caps and dying polar bears has any scientist cried out, “Forget all that, the important thing is to set up a new bureaucracy that can run our lives.”
Finally, Gingrich cited a new National Academy of Sciences report confirming, for the one-jillionth time, that yes, climate change is occurring, yes it’s human-driven and yes it’s a mortal danger. “I’m not discrediting or disputing the National Academy of Sciences,” the former Speaker said as he set about discrediting and disputing the National Academy of Sciences. “I’m saying a topic large enough to change the behavior of the entire human race is a topic that is more than science and deserves public hearings with very tough-minded public questions, and we’ve had almost none of that on either side.” Absolutely true — provided you believe that the one thing that’s been lacking in climate politics over the past 40 years is a public argument about whether or not global warming is real and what to do about it.
But back to that global cooling thing: The former Congressman (R, Tiffany’s), is absolutely right that at one point in the 1970s, some scientists did believe it was taking place. Then, as other scientists looked more deeply into the data, they discovered the findings were flawed and the theory was discarded. That, as Gingrich surely knows, is how science gets done.
If he doubts this, I’d be happy to refer him to my 2005 book, “Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio.” In it, I list some of the things that were once believed to cause poliomyelitis, among them: high groundwater, ice cream cones, flies, bedbugs, street dust, corn flakes, the subway, parasites in the water, alloys from cooking utensils, gasses from munitions factories, the bent-over position children assume at school desks, mercury poisoning, white clothing, earthquakes, volcanoes, electrical disturbances, sunburn, intestinal derangements, secondhand bedding, decayed food, excessive glare, unclean milk bottles, carrying coins in the mouth and tobacco.
As Gingrich notes about global cooling, many of the scientists behind such hooey were “absolutely convinced” of their theories. And many of them no doubt continued to be convinced until the truth was discovered — that the disease was caused by a virus. It was that discovery that led to the first vaccine. Does the fact that the earlier thinking was flawed lead Gingrich to doubt the legitimacy of what was established later? And for the record, it was the federal government and the local school districts that ultimately mobilized to administer polio vaccines to every child in the United States — a massive bureaucracy if ever there was one. Sometimes, Mr. Speaker, science and government know exactly what they’re doing.