In Miriam-Webster, belief is “a state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” I’ve been mulling the grip of belief on public policy, prompted by reports of state legislators trying to block students from taking a certain history course because, they say, it emphasizes the wrong things.
Then came Jim Inhofe, the point man in Congress on environmental policy, who tossed a snowball on the Senate floor as evidence that global warming is a sham. In 2012 Inhofe published a book called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Asking his reader why the book was necessary, the Oklahoma senator answers, “Very simple: the environmental activists extremists are not going away.”
Inhofe writes that his goal, from mayor of Tulsa to House member to senator, has been to “rein in the kinds of regulations that stifle entrepreneurship and job growth.” As a state legislator in 1967, he testified before the Senate committee he now chairs, Environment and Public Works, and decided he wanted to serve on it because it oversees EPA [established in 1970] – “an agency that puts forth some of the most job-destroying regulations in the country.”
“From farm dust to puddles of water on the road, there are very few aspects of American life that the Obama EPA is not planning to regulate. And it is businesses and working families who will pay the price.”
Devoutly religious, Inhofe quotes Genesis 8:22: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” In a radio interview, Inhofe explained his inclusion of the passage in the book. “My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”
Early in the book, Inhofe explains his motive in running for mayor. He had gone to the city engineer’s office for a permit to move a fire escape on an abandoned historic building he had bought. In Inhofe’s telling, the city engineer rejected the proposal. “So I told him I was going to run for mayor and fire him. And I ran for mayor and fired him.”
Many people, particularly scientists, find a politician like Inhofe easy to scorn (though not dismiss – he holds power). He does not set out to discover but to confirm: that the Bible is literally true, that entrepreneurs are virtuous, that bureaucrats seek self-aggrandizement, that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an agent of one-world government. I’m out to neither scorn nor dismiss, but to understand. After all, he has been elected over and over, in 2014 with 68 percent of 791,000 votes cast. He represents 3.9 million Oklahomans and a lot more elsewhere.
Inhofe’s hold on beliefs (if not the beliefs themselves) is not so different from the way most of us operate. We all have beliefs born of experience, and every day we employ them to make decisions, some in a split second, others with deliberation.
Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post wrote recently about why science is so hard to believe, from the safety of vaccines to the dangers of Ebola to the risks of GMO crops. This month, a government nutrition panel reversed a decades-long advisory against eating high-cholesterol foods, concluding that dietary cholesterol has nothing to do with the kind in our blood.
“The scientific method leads us to truths that are less than self-evident, often mind-blowing and sometimes hard to swallow,” Achenbach wrote. But our political divide, which is well outlined by the global warming debate, is not defined by whether we reject the scientific method. According to a study led by Dan Kahan at Yale, our division over climate change stems not from scientific illiteracy but because those who are literate understand the issue’s implications for their respective values.
Kahan and his colleagues found that people of a “hierarchical, individualistic” worldview, who tie authority to conspicuous social rankings and deplore collective interference with individuals holding authority – basically contemporary Republicans – “tend to be skeptical of environmental risks” because they understand the implications: restrictions on commerce and industry. On the other hand, egalitarian/communitarians (Democrats) “tend to be morally suspicious of commerce and industry, to which they attribute social inequity.” Thus they accept – if not embrace – restrictions on industry that would accompany an acknowledgement of climate change.
That is to say, our political inclinations have us prewired for our view on global warming. Then, in the age of the Internet and narrowcast media, we seek information that confirms those inclinations.
Science, on the other hand, is constantly challenging itself, as the cholesterol advisory shows. Concludes Achenbach, “Scientists can be as dogmatic as anyone else – but their dogma is always wilting in the hot glare of new research.” For many who appear positioned on the science of climate change or the implications of high school history, the dogma is unshaken.