Recently, Newt Gingrich was a keynote speaker at the National Council for Science and the Environment conference in DC. The Council “advances informed environmental policy and decisionmakingthrough science. Our work and programs include interdisciplinary research, scientific assessment, information dissemination, training and curriculum development. We engage scientists, educators, policymakers, business leaders and officials at all levels of government.” Gingrich was a strange choice. A lot of people didn’t go to protest Gingrich. It was a gruesome opportunity.
I wrote to the NCSE leadership that I thought it was an opportunity because I “hope that [Gingrich] is pressed on his collusion with anti-scientific forces over the last few decades. His self-serving opportunism should greatly trouble all those present, made manifest by the variety of positions he’s held on climate change and other issues. It’s a great chance for folks in our field(s) to learn and to push.” That is the only recourse available to those who attend and must listen to a Keynote speaker. It is an opportunity to make clear what’s at stake. This isn’t a conversation. This is no time to wear rose-tinted glasses about Gingrich.
With all due respect to those who tried to pose his presence as an opportunity for conversation, they were fooling themselves. Judith “I’m a climate change denying climate scientist” Curry’s thoughts aside, reports from those who attended haven’t disconfirmed my hypothesis, one person calling him a “shallow self-serving narcissist.” NCSE’s members weren’t meeting with a reasonable staffer in a congressional office who knows what’s really going on and might try to find a way to work sensible policy into an otherwise resistant legislator. They weren’t dealing with William Reilly who worked on cap and trade for the George H.W. Bush. As a number of people argued, the NCSE are dealing with one of the most oily political chimeras in American politics.
If we worked with this man in our own universities we would be appalled by his utter lack of scruples. Take a look at Gingrich’s Politifact file. While it’s not as bad as Donald Trump’s or Ben Carson’s it is appalling. A full 53% of his statements are Mostly False, False, or Pants on Fire. He said he “Never favored cap and trade.” He did. He sat in front of a camera with Nancy Pelosi to say that climate change is a real threat and then turns around to undercut all sensible climate action
Usually, it’s a good idea to engage in diplomacy. Count me a fan of the Iran nuclear deal and bilateral agreements. Count me as a fan of those quiet behind-closed-doors between CEOs or governors or presidents who meet with the underdog. I think when we are invited to be representatives in a dialogue where there’s a commitment to parity, we always should. Gingrich isn’t coming to have a conversation or engage in negotiations. We have every reason to believe he’s here to make people committed to reason, to evidence, and to rational decision making look stupid. The sooner we understand that, the better we will do at dealing with miscreants, thieves, and crooks who don’t hold the values of science, transparency, and freedom at heart. Gingrich talks freedom but it’s his freedom. He’s using our commitment to tolerance and openness against us, making us look like we will acquiesce and accept that he’s an honest broker. If we let him.
I started this by saying it’s a great opportunity that Gingrich was speaking at NCSE. Maybe that’s hyperbole. It was, though, an opportunity for truth and courage. I’d hope that those who attended NCSE would play the role we want our press to play. Treat it like a press conference with someone you have every reason to believe is lying. Because the chances were that he would lie, misdirect, cherry pick, and try to turn everything into a political advantage. We have a choice to hold his and everyone else’s feet to the fire as well as we can. Give our friends in the actual press something to write about that pulls out the truth and broadcasts it. [Has anyone contacted Living On Earth and invited them? NPR? Grist?]
Don’t be fooled.