The most stressful moment of my life was my doctoral dissertation defense. For two hours, a committee of people who already hold PhDs in the subject do their level best to make you screw up, to reveal gaping holes in your knowledge of the field. Their tone is often contemptuous — more Weakest Link than Who Wants to Be A Ph.D. — and always with an eye to protecting their field from poseurs. The trick is to uncover any serious deficits before you walk out the door with a degree they’ve signed off on, only to show you slept through some key fundamental. If they decide you aren’t ready, you can be denied both the degree and a second chance. You can, in theory, toss away five years of effort with a single…gaffe.
Once in a while the process fails, and we get a stealth creationist who managed to fake his way through the last gate in a biology program without revealing that he thinks evolution is “just one guy’s idea,” or a law grad who thinks Marbury vs. Madison was a football game. But the whole purpose of the grueling, humiliating dissertation defense is to find these people out and show them the door.
Political campaigns at their best serve the same purpose, ferreting out candidates who are clueless not just on this or that item of knowledge, but on the absolutely non-negotiable fundamentals of the office they seek.
There are mere gaffes — Howard Dean saying the Book of Job is in the New Testament, McCain referring to the ambassador of Czechoslovakia (which no longer exists), Obama saying he’d been to 57 states, Biden putting Roosevelt on TV in 1929. These are amusing, but all honest people know they are sideshows of little real import. Thirty seconds later, the candidate usually self-corrects, because he or she simply misspoke.
And then there are GASPERS, statements that reveal such a breathtaking deficit on the part of the candidate that all the oxygen goes out of the room, and a bug-eyed, oh-shit silence hangs like a shroud. These don’t deserve to be called gaffes because the candidate didn’t misspeak. If asked to clarify, he or she would say the same thing, over and over, because it is what s/he actually believes.
For examples of such epic, terrifying moments of revealed ignorance, we need look no further in this election cycle than the governor of Alaska.
I’m not talking about dinosaurs living 4,000 years ago. That’s bad enough, but it is at least conceivable that she could get her cladistic timescales just that wrong and still function as a head of state without doing too much damage. Not a desirable thing, but conceivable.
However…when I first read about her book banning efforts in Wasilla and the subsequent firing of the town librarian (who refused to consider such a request), I had one of those genuinely oh-shitting moments. We differ on energy policy, foreign policy, blah blah blah. Those we can argue about. But someone who doesn’t even understand why censorship is bad, inherently bad, no-matter-who-is-doing-it-or-why-or-what-books-are-involved bad, has instantly outed herself as the Weakest Link and needs a gentle shove to the exit.
When she showed for the third time that she hasn’t taken the 90 seconds required to read the description of the job she seeks, she earned a somewhat rougher shove to the door by inventing a startling new power for the VP — being “in charge of the United States Senate”:
Thank you for coming. And don’t let the door hit you on your way out.
If the camel’s back weren’t already busted enough, the last straw came over the weekend when during a speech advocating increased funding for research benefiting special needs kids, Governor Palin said:
She kids us not! Fruit flies! What kind of stupid science is that?
The, uh…scientific kind. The smart and useful kind.
It’s hard to get through eighth grade science without learning that a huge portion of what we know about genetics comes from fruit fly research. Thanks to their rapid regeneration, huge fecundity, and simple genome, fruit flies are the single most studied organism on the planet. It’s okay for Jane Sixpack to not know that. It’s not okay for a potential policymaker to state an intention to foist breathtaking ignorance of the most basic science on the rest of us. Again.
There is irony as well, of course: While urging greater funding of research to benefit special needs children, she mocks and derides the funding of research that directly benefits special needs children. Among other things, the fruit fly research she derides has recently provided breakthroughs in understanding autism. By shooting off her mouth about things she knows little about, she achieves the opposite of her intended result.
This fits into a larger pattern — a world and worldview in which this kind of inside-out thinking is a way of life.
In the religiously conservative world Palin inhabits, you can be opposed to teen pregnancy, then advocate abstinence-only sex ed, which increases rates of teen pregnancy.
You can oppose antisocial behaviors in children, then advocate corporal punishment, which has been shown to increase antisocial behaviors in children.
You can decry immorality in children, then advocate a commandment-based authoritarian moral education, which reseach has shown to “actually interfere with moral development” (Nucci, et al.) more than any other approach.
Now imagine instead a person who wants all the same things — meaningful and useful science, a reduction in teen pregnancy, and kids who are well-behaved and moral — but goes beyond what “seems” right to find out what we’ve actually learned, through careful research, about genetics, teen pregnancy, and moral development.
Then vote for that person.