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"Imagine there's no science...": The dangerous denialism of Ted Cruz

Climate science deniers like Sen. Ted Cruz are a menace to our kids' future. How should journalists -- and good citizens -- respond?

Sen. Ted Cruz' misappropriation and abuse of the late John Lennon -- in announcing his 2016 GOP White House bid -- had to be the worst since that lame Al Pacino movie about the late ex-Beatle. OK, actually the Pacino flick is just out this week, but you get the idea. The Texas Tea Party icon spent much of his announcement speech at Virginia's Liberty University with a riff on the word "Imagine," much as Lennon had done in front of a haunting piano riff 44 years ago.

Never mind that Cruz was speaking at a college founded in 1971 -- the same year Lennon's record was released -- by Religious Right icon Jerry Falwell, who'd spent his previous years running whites-only 'segregation academies" and crusading against Martin Luther King. "Imagine no religion"?...not under Cruz control.

For that matter, never mind that Cruz' wider message -- taking away health care from millions of Americans, fetishizing an never-ending "war on terror" and denying to civil right of marriage equality to LGBT couples in loving relationships -- is about as close to Lennon's timeless utopia of love and equality as the 76ers are to that last NBA playoff spot.

In fact, never mind, period -- because at this stage of the game, it would take a coordinated series of 16 or lightning strikes to make Ted Cruz the 45th president of the United States, and even if Falwell is seated at the right hand of the Father I'm not sure that could be ordered up on short notice. Still, Cruz' words matter, because although the Texas senator won't get to the Oval Office, his extreme way of thinking has polluted the Republicans who run Congress today and may have a shot at the White House tomorrow.

Cruz didn't mention his radical climate-science denialism when he spoke today at Liberty University. Maybe he thought that would be a distraction. But he's defended his view that global-warming theory is a hoax, again and again and again. Last year, Cruz said: "You know, back in the '70s — I remember the '70s, we were told there was global cooling. And everyone was told global cooling was a really big problem. … The problem with climate change is there's never been a day in the history of the world in which the climate is not changing." And you can bet that in the tea-flavored town halls of Iowa and New Hampshire, when the glare of the TV lights is dimmer than it was today, Cruz will deny, again and again and again, the truths that the world's top minds in climate research have discovered in years of work.

Never mind that global surface temperatures are hotter than ever previously recorded, that polar sea ice is rapidly shrinking, that sea level is rising and carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has spiked to unthinkable levels, or that a new paper just released today shows worrisome changes in the ocean currents. Opportunists like Ted Cruz are happy to prove that bad science is good politics, to rally the conservative base and its contempt for "pointy-headed intellectuals" on college campuses. That contempt blinds the far right to the notions that the people they cherish most on this planet, their children and grandchildren, could face a future of drought, extreme storms, and chaos caused by rising seas.

What's a journalist to do with a candidate like Ted Cruz?

One of my favorite writers on the journalism-reform front, NYU professor (yes, another pointy-headed intellectual!) Jay Rosen chose today to address that very topic. He noted that the editor who directs climate coverage at the New York Times said recently, "Claims that the entire field of climate science is some kind of giant hoax do not hold water, and we have made a conscious decision that we are not going to take that point of view seriously." But what, Rosen wonders, does that mean for political writers. How far can they go in taking campaign trail climate-denial at face value?

Rosen argues the best approach is...

Persistence: Call it what it is — a rejection of the science — and keep calling it that. "The Senator doubts that climate change is real, a position at stark odds with an overwhelming scientific consensus." Here, you take responsibility for pointing out to voters that, while the candidate has his views, the evidence does not support them. And you do this not once, but every time the issue comes up. This is the fact-checking solution. Advantage: puts the campaign press back on the side of truthtelling. A major plus! Problem: likely to result in charges of bias from the candidates so described, likely to trigger the backfire effect among some voters ("in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.")

But he also lays out a case for...

Confrontation: Try to raise the costs of denialism. Sort of like this…

Senator, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in 1990, "Emissions resulting from human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases," leading to global warming. They said it again in 1995. They said it again, but more strongly in 2001. They were even more emphatic in 2007. And in 2014 they said they were 95 percent certain that human action was the primary cause of global warming. The World Bank has come to similar conclusions. The position you have taken on this seems to suggest that you have better evidence than they do. Will you be making that evidence public? And may we have the names of your science advisors so we can ask them where they are getting their information? (Links.)

Rosen makes a strong case about what is NOT acceptable: Passivity. There are moments of danger and dishonesty where journalism must adapt to be truly in the public interest, and climate change is most certainly one of these. You'll be hearing a lot on the campaign trail about the dangers of neutrality or appeasement, but those arguments will be waged -- for better or worse -- about the Middle East, even as the greater existential threat of a warming planet is ignored. Should good, concerned citizens remain silent in 2016 about the issue of our lifetimes?

It's hard to imagine.