Bobby Jindal: Exorcising Science

Meet Bobby Jindal, the new face of the Republican party. Currently the Governor of the state of Louisiana, he was picked to do the official Republican response to President Obama’s address to congress, yesterday.

Now, depending on your politics, different things will have leapt out at you in what he said. The thing that stuck out most for me though, was this line:

“While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a “magnetic levitation” line from Las Vegas to Disneyland, and $140 million for something called “volcano monitoring.” Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.”

The US has the third highest number of active volcanoes in the world. The $140 million is earmarked for “U.S. Geological Survey facilities and equipment, including stream gages, seismic and volcano monitoring systems and national map activities.”, so is actually for earthquake as well as volcano monitoring. Does anyone, of any politicial persuasion, truly believe that keeping an eye on volcanoes and earthquakes is a waste of money?

1906, the “Great San Francisco Quake” kills 3000 people, through both the direct tremors, and the subsequent fires that raged through the unprepared city.

1980, Mount St Helens in Washington state erupts, killing 57 people.

1989, the Loma Prieta quake kills 63 people and does an estimated 13 billion dollars of damage to the state of California.

It is true that Louisiana does not have any active volcanoes to speak of, so on a very simplistic level it might seem reasonable for the Governor of Louisiana to be against having to pay towards mitigating against their destructive potential. Of course, all US states pay towards things that do not necessarily directly benefit themselves. Reconstruction of hurricane-ravaged Louisianan cities, for instance. In any case, if the Yellowstone caldera were to blow (unlikely in the near-term, but on the whole I’d like to know someone is keeping an eye on it), it would most certainly be noticed in Baton Rouge.

Mr Jindal has no real chance of stopping seismic detection programmes, thankfully, but the way that he, and those like him, find science to be a source of punchlines, is just one reason why his party is often considered to be incapable of real change. Intellectually incurious, like the line John McCain overused in the Presidential campaign about studying bear DNA “”I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or criminal, but it was a waste of money”. They think that science is a waste of money, because they do not understand that research, be it about bears or volcanoes, is the first step to creating real-world applications that use that knowledge to make a difference to our lives and the world around us. Understanding volcanoes helps saves lives and property, and also grants us a little peace of mind if we live in an area prone to such things. Understanding bear DNA might help us to protect them from population decline (if you happen to care about that), but can also lead to advances in medicine. Maybe bear genes holds the secret to solving male pattern baldness, the fight against which is no doubt dear to many elder statesmen. The point is, you do not know until you look. That’s rather the point. Science tries to find things out, instead of taking things on faith. It will take many years to repair the government watchdogs, who had their science and reality based staff replaced by ideologues over the course of the Bush administration, and as it has turned out, these agencies work a lot better when science, rather than blind conviction, is their guide.

In 1996, Bobby Jindal wrote an article about an exorcism he took part in, called “Physical Dimensions of Spiritual Warfare”. Not only did he believe that a demon possessed his friend, and was banished through the power of exorcism, he also credits the intervention with curing his friend’s cancer. Now, I am the last person to discount the possibility of extreme weirdness taking place. I do, however, also acknowledge that if faith-healing does exist, it is extremely unreliable, and thus would make a very poor foundation for a health-system. Neither would I recommend a prayer-based defense strategy (though that would at least be quite cheap). I am sure that Mr Jindal would be against relying on god to defend nation’s shores, if only because it would financially inconvenience many of his campaign contributors, but he is a strong proponent of teaching creationism in schools, and a passionate foe of evolution. If, like many of his associates , he views natural disasters as manifestations of god’s wrath, it would follow that there is little point in monitoring them, as they will occur according to god’s will, and will kill whoever he wants them to. Is this why he does not want us to monitor them? Someone ought to ask him directly.

The Republican party needs to find a leader who can appeal to the mainstream. They need to find someone within their ranks that will not come across as either deceitful, deluded, or wilfully ignorant. Neither Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, nor Michael Steele is up to that task.

27th of February Update:

Seems it’s worse than we thought. The story he told in his address about the sheriff and the boats turns out to have been a total lie.

Jindal had described being in the office of Sheriff Harry Lee “during Katrina,” and hearing him yelling into the phone at a government bureaucrat who was refusing to let him send volunteer boats out to rescue stranded storm victims, because they didn’t have the necessary permits. Jindal said he told Lee, “that’s ridiculous,” prompting Lee to tell the bureaucrat that the rescue effort would go ahead and he or she could arrest both Lee and Jindal.

But now, a Jindal spokeswoman has admitted to Politico that in reality, Jindal overheard Lee talking about the episode to someone else by phone “days later.” The spokeswoman said she thought Lee, who died in 2007, was being interviewed about the incident at the time.

This is no minor difference. Jindal’s presence in Lee’s office during the crisis itself was a key element of the story’s intended appeal, putting him at the center of the action during the maelstrom. Just as important, Jindal implied that his support for the sheriff helped ensure the rescue went ahead. But it turns out Jindal wasn’t there at the key moment, and played no role in making the rescue happen.

Given how badly Governor Jindal was panned by conservative commentators when they thought his speech was true, I suspect his time as de-facto leader of his party is over. That lasted, what, 4 days? Who’s up next?

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