FRANKFORT — There’s no proof Mark Twain ever said he wanted to be in Kentucky when he died because it’s always 20 years behind. But it has become a truism because it conveys an essential fact about our state: We’re often slow to change, and too often slow to face facts.
That’s been bad for Kentucky. The most important example is that we undervalued education for nearly a century, letting states like North Carolina leapfrog us, and it will take at least another generation for us to catch up.
Our education deficit also helps make us one of the least healthy states. Most of health literacy is basic literacy, so if Kentuckians were better educated, they would take better care of themselves and their neighbors. But old habits die hard.
We still cling to our tobacco culture, 50 years after the surgeon general said cigarettes were killers. Only a third or so of us live in jurisdictions with smoking bans, and that share dropped when the state Supreme Court overturned an appeals-court panel and said county health boards couldn’t apply the settled science of second-hand smoke and protect us from it. They said such decisions should be made by elected officials, but with 29 percent of us still smoking (the highest rate in the nation), at least some the justices seemed to have their eyes on their own elections; not a one of them dissented.
Science is also settled on another point that’s important to Kentucky but unfortunately still controversial here: 97 percent of the climate-change scientists whose work has passed muster to be published in peer-reviewed journals say humans are making the earth warmer. (Now the big question is how much.)
But when coal-friendly state legislators get a chance to vent on the subject in front of television cameras and campaign contributors, they often get wound up and look silly. I doubt any ever went as far as Brandon Smith did this month.
“We all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars, there’s no factories on Mars that I’m aware of,” said Smith, a state senator from Hazard, at a meeting of the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. A video of his remarks has been around the world, making us look ignorant again.
Smith is a Republican, and members of his party are the leading deniers of science. Yes, some environmentalists are too quick to seize on studies that aren’t conclusive, and there are goofy liberals, presumably Democrats, who deny the solid science that supports vaccination – and some people in other states seem to be getting sick because too many have kept their children from being immunized. But in American politics, denial of science is a largely Republican phenomenon.
Part of that stems from the GOP’s base of religious conservatives, who reject the theory of evolution (as do some Democrats) and have become more influential in the party in recent decades. An even more recent phenomenon is the massive political spending for Republicans by Kansas brothers Charles and David Koch, oil-and-chemical billionaires who have also financed much misinformation about climate change. Republicans fearing primary challenges from the right have taken notice.
Another factor is Fox News, which serves as a Republican messaging device and echo chamber. A 2011 American University study found that Fox viewers are much less likely to believe in global warming and its human cause.
Today’s more partisan media environment (MSNBC was more unfair than Fox in the last weeks of the 2012 presidential election) worsens our political polarization. Scientific research has shown that people prefer information sources that confirm their beliefs, and that when some are confronted with information that challenges those beliefs, their views often harden. Less definitive studies have suggested that these phenomena are more prevalent among conservatives.
Thankfully, there are Republican voices of reason. “I worry when Republicans say global warming is a hoax. That’s just not true,” former George W. Bush aide Pete Wehner told John Harwood of CNBC and The New York Times. Wehner is among Republicans who worry that such views, while perhaps helping them make Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell Senate majority leader this fall, will marginalize the party in 2016, when the electorate is likely to be more moderate.
Eli Lehrer, a former Heritage Foundation fellow who split from the libertarian-conservative Heartland Institute when it went off the deep end on climate change, wrote this month in National Review magazine: “While many on the environmental left tend to overstate their case, there’s little doubt that the climate is changing and that human activity plays a major role in this shift… . Conservatives should address climate change. And they can do it without giving up a single conservative principle.”
Lehrer opposes President Obama’s proposed limits on greenhouse gases, but he would reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by eliminating all energy subsidies, except for research the private sector won’t do.
More broadly, Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana said soon after the 2012 election that the GOP brand had been damaged by “offensive and bizarre comments” by candidates who were then rejected by voters. “We’ve got to stop being the stupid party,” Jindal said. “It’s time for a new Republican Party that talks like adults.”
So, some Republicans are facing the facts and accepting science. It’s time for such Republican voices of reason to speak up in Kentucky.
Al Cross, former C-J political reporter, is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column previously appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal.