West Virginia’s anti-science gubernatorial candidates

September 14, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Well, given their earlier answers to similar questions during the primary campaign (see here, here and here), none of this should have come as much of a shock.

But it’s still something to see when the anti-science attitudes of West Virginia political leaders and candidates are put out there so clearly …

At last night’s debate between the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates (the broadcasters group that sponsored the event refused to allow third-party candidates to take part), Hoppy Kercheval of  West Virginia MetroNews asked:

Do you believe man’s actions are causing the world to warm?

Republican Bill Maloney replied simply:

We’re in a cooling cycle.

Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin said:

Once again, there are differences of opinion as to whether we’re in global warming now.

OK … where to start here? What can you say about answers like these, except that they are extreme views — they are out on the fringe of what the science tells us. That they’re simply wrong?

Let’s just review very quickly here:  The world is clearly warming, according to repeated analysis by all sorts of scientific agencies and scientific bodies, from NOAA to the National Academy of Sciences to the World Meteorological Association.

So to just answer Hoppy’s question, well — the science clearly shows Tomblin and Maloney are just both wrong.  And to get to that you don’t even have to get into the issue of what’s causing the warming (though it’s clearly human activity like burning coal) or what should be done about it (most experts say we need to move quickly to reduce these emissions).

Now, I credit Hoppy for asking about global warming — and in the interest of full disclosure, he asked me for some suggested questions on issues I write about. Here’s the global warming question I suggested:

What is your reading of the current science about global warming? Do you believe the climate is changing, that those changes are caused by human activities such as the burning of coal? What specifically would you have our state do about climate change?

Both candidates answered Hoppy’s version differently than they answered a similar Gazette question during the primary. We asked:

Do you accept the science that global warming is occurring, and is largely caused by the emissions from coal-fired power plants? If so, what specifically would you have our state do about it?

Tomblin said at that time:

I recognize that there is significant evidence that our planet is warming, and that some of that warming is caused by carbon emissions. I fundamentally disagree, however, with the current approach taken by the Federal Government to resolve this problem, and I will work to protect our coal economy.

And Maloney said:

When I’m governor, West Virginia will mine coal. The EPA and the OSM are out of control. I’ll continue the fight and the lawsuits against the EPA, and I’ll also assert the primacy of West Virginia laws, so that our coal miners can make a living.

During last night’s debate, Hoppy spent a lot of time following up on questions about Tomblin’s family business, but he didn’t ask one single follow-up question about what is arguably the most pressing issue facing the planet — and also one of the biggest challenges facing West Virginia.

I suggested two other coal-related questions that didn’t make the cut:

— If coal is so good for West Virginia, why is the state — especially its coal-producing counties — so poor?

— Most projections indicate that — even without any new environmental restrictions on mining or air emissions — coal production in Central Appalachian is expected to decline dramatically over the course of this decade. Given that, what would you do to move the state’s coalfield counties — especially in southern West Virginia — toward a more stable and diverse economy that isn’t so dependent on coal?

To his credit, Hoppy also tried to raise the level of discussion of coal issues by taking my advice and asking the candidates about the growing science indicating associations between illnesses such as cancer and birth defects and living near mountaintop removal mines.

Unfortunately, he phrased the question as is there has been only one peer-reviewed study about this issue —  not 18 studies and counting:

A peer-reviewed study recently suggested that there are negative health effects for those who live near mountaintop removal sites. Do you believe that’s true, and, if so, should something be done about it?

Maloney simply said:

That science is not proven to me. I’ve looked at it briefly and I don’t see it.

Tomlin said:

I think that was one report that was done. Before I would believe it, there would have to be additional studies done to prove that fact.

Maloney didn’t offer — and Hoppy didn’t ask for — any explanation from Maloney about what in the studies he questions, why he thinks they’re not accurate. He didn’t ask him which ones he had read. He didn’t follow up at all.

And of course, Hoppy gave Tomblin his out on the issue, by asking about only one study when, in fact there have been at least 18 studies in the last few years on this issue.

Science apparently has no place in West Virginia politics.

13 Responses to “West Virginia’s anti-science gubernatorial candidates”

  1. Soyedina says:

    Rhetorical question here”

    What if the candidates were to issue some sort of joint statement asserting “No matter what the subject, we don’t care what scientific data are available. We act from principle not facts.”

    Do you think this would harm them at the polls?

    I am beginning to accept that it might actually help them. After all, some candidates seem to relish this faux populist contrarianism, as if it were some badge of honor to deny scientific knowledge.

    It seems, among a field dominated by a general disdain for scientific knowledge, that the voter-imposed penalty for science denial approaches zero. I don’t think people vote for candidates based on how well they purport to grok the latest research findings on some particular issue, instead it could be that identity politics are far more relevant to the median voter. I hope that I am wrong.

  2. Ted Boettner says:

    Although I sometimes do not agree with the Breakthrough Institute dudes (Ted N and Michael S), I think they are on the right track about framing the climate change issue. Namely, that you will never motivate action with crisis climate stats or predictions of doom. You must attach the problem to public health, job creation, energy innovation, pollution reductions, and extreme weather. I think this might be especially true in a state like WV, but I could be wrong.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Perhaps … but the question was simply: Do you believe man’s actions are causing the world to warm.

    That’s different than discussion through what political construct the issue gets traction — it’s a question of basically, do you believe that science should have a role in public policy or not.

    The two candidates here obviously don’t.


  4. Jim Sconyers says:

    I find it disturbing that these candidates rank themselves as competent and capable of deciding which science is “true” and which is false. Equally disturbing is the idea that established science is something one can choose to “believe in” or not, whether it’s global climate change, evolution, or whatever.

  5. hebintn says:

    If other questions were asked which proved that science resulted in saving millions of lives would these folks deny those results. For example: Research on the impact of smoking on human health proves it causes cancer and heart disease. Do you deny this science? (Numerous other such questions.) Science has shown that crude oil floating on water kills ocean flora and fauna. Do you deny this science? 18 scientific articles show that if you live in area where mountaintop mining is done you are at a higher risk of developing serious health effect and birth defects, and the down stream ecosystems are detrimentally impacted. Do you still deny this science? These scientist have nothing to gain by doing their research. What do you have to gain by denying their science?

  6. Ted Boettner says:

    Ken, agreed. I was just talking about the framing of climate change, not the questions asked. I think it would be a giant step forward if politicians, the media (not you), and many academics (Sobel, Kent, etc) understood the basic difference between correlation and causation. Although you learn in it your very first research 101 course, it is amazing how many academics (especially economists) prefer faith-based social science.

  7. Vernon says:

    How sane is it to keep playing Russian roulette with the planet’s climate? A “smoking gun” is too late to take action.

  8. Gordon says:

    How can we ever expect politicians to use rationality? For them, it’s all about power & money.

  9. Nanette says:

    Nowadays rationality and politicians do not mix, especially when it comes to science.

  10. PlethoDon Juan says:

    I really wonder why hearing about science denial is such a surprise in a country where the majority of the population believes in superstitious myths and reject rational thought combined with overwhelming solid evidence. I found a quote (I don’t know the original source) last week following the presidential candidate debates that I think sums up this type of denial rhetoric:

    “Listening to Presidential candidates talk about science is like listening to children talk about sex: They know it exists, they have strong opinions about what it might mean, but they don’t have a clue what it’s actually about.”

    I understand that governance by science and/or facts alone is perhaps not the best approach and a skeptical attitude towards some evidence is necessary (thats what science is), but this issue did not emerge yesterday or even last year. These kinds of politicians or beliefs will probably appear to future generations as silly as flat-earthers or astrologers appear to us today.

  11. Soyedina says:

    the majority of the population believes in superstitious myths and reject rational thought combined with overwhelming solid evidence.

    PJ, that suggests that there is a relative benefit for science denial and that the relative cost is minimized, particularly in this suite of individuals. That implies there should be a great deal of this sort of behavior, so why don’t we see more science denial among politicians? It appears to be an effective strategy for some fraction of the population but it’s not clear if there are any trends in the amount of denial proffered by a typical candidate.

    I think we should all ask “What did you expect and why?” I for one don’t expect too much out of them. Good thing KW Jr is beating this drum, because all too often the media won’t touch the real questions. I would love to see candidates asked “Why do you think you are a competent critic of the status of scientific theories and evidence?” Then we’d see tap dancing.

  12. PlethoDon Juan says:

    I know I don’t understand the relative benefit for science denial other than those benefits that would be better discussed in another type of blog. I am grateful for Ken banging the drum on the topics he does and I don’t find it all surprising to see this kind of subject once and a while. After all, Americans are pretty ignorant on many scientific topics.

    Example from a 2008 Survey of American adults:

    Over the past few months, the American government has allocated hundreds of billions of dollars for economic bailout plans. While this spending may provide a short-term solution to the country’s economic woes, most analysts agree that the long-term solution must include a transition to a more knowledge-based economy, including a focus on science, which is now widely recognized as a major driver of innovation and industry.

    Despite its importance to economic growth, environmental protection, and global health and energy issues, scientific literacy is currently low among American adults. According to the national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences:

    Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
    Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
    Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.*
    Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

    Knowledge about some key scientific issues is also low. Despite the fact that access to fresh water is likely to be one of the most pressing environmental issues over the coming years, less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet’s water is fresh (the correct answer is 3%). Nearly half didn’t even hazard a guess. Additionally, 40% of U.S. adults say they are “not at all knowledgeable” about sustainability.

    Despite this lack of knowledge, U.S. adults do believe that scientific research and education are important. About 4 in 5 adults think science education is “absolutely essential” or “very important” to the U.S. healthcare system (86%), the U.S. global reputation (79%), and the U.S. economy (77%).

    “There has never been a greater need for investment in scientific research and education,” said Academy Executive Director Dr. Gregory Farrington. “Many of the most pressing issues of our time—from global climate change to resource management and disease—can only be addressed with the help of science.”

    To test your own scientific knowledge, please visit the California Academy of Sciences’ website at http://www.calacademy.org.

    If our elected officials are a representation of their constituency then whenever we see a politician ignorant of science it does partially answer the “why” of what I expect. All we can do is strive for better understanding, science education and demand more from our government both locally and nationally. Hopefully, they know how long it takes the Earth to go around the sun.

  13. Soyedina says:

    BTW I meant, a relative benefit for a candidate not any sort of societal benefit. Can expressing science denialism benefit a candidates fitness in an election? Maybe so if the penalty for that position is minimized due to 1) minimal variation among candidates or 2) minimal preference among voters. I suspect we are seeing both 1 & 2 but that leaves open. the question of why this is not more widespread

    That’s cool stuff at the cal academy site. thanks

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