Point Austin: Rick Perry, Boy Scientist

When it comes to science, the Inquisition's got nothing on the guv

Point Austin
I'm sure there will be plenty more to choose from, but my favorite moment of the Republican presidential campaign thus far was Rick Perry's suggestion that in matters of scientific understanding, he and Galileo Galilei have something in common. Amid the discussion of global warming ("discussion" is probably too generous, as only also-running Jon Huntsman has conceded he's "crazy" enough to believe the current science on man-made climate change), Perry responded to a reference to the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists by saying folksily, "Galileo got outvoted for a spell." In other words, Perry considers his dismissal of man-made global warming as akin to Galileo's defiance of the Pope and the Inquisition on the question of a sun-centered solar system.

Just on a level of hubris, this is roughly like a whorehouse piano player saying he understands what it was like to be J.S. Bach. But more to the point, had Perry been around in 17th century Italy, he would have been firmly on the side of Pope Urban VIII and his inquisitors, perfectly happy to sentence the impertinent scientist to lifelong house arrest for "heresy." Perry has regularly expressed his contempt for science and scientific knowledge, most recently dismissing evolution as "a theory that's out there" and claiming (incorrectly) that both evolution and creationism are taught in the Texas public schools. Although Perry and his reactionary-packed State Board of Education have done their best to undermine the accurate teaching of biology in Texas, they've been somewhat stymied by the fact that the federal courts have repeatedly ruled that teaching sectarian religion (i.e., creationism under its many guises) is unconstitutional.

I frankly doubt that the governor – unlike, say, Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum – has convictions one way or another on evolution, or even believes that Texas students should be taught religion instead of science in their biology classes. But he certainly knows what sells to the GOP's hard-right voting base, and that's all that's necessary to understand why the Republican field enthusiastically panders to ignorance on the campaign trail.

No Forensic Science Neither

Although Perry's thoughts on evolution are nationally embarrassing, the governor has little direct say over what happens in the public school curriculum. More profoundly, given a chance to actually improve the use of scientific knowledge in criminal justice matters, Perry has done his best to prevent that from happening. As Jordan Smith has regularly reported and documents again this week in "Texas Forensics: Politics vs. Justice," via his handpicked chairman, Williamson County District Attor­ney John Bradley (who couldn't win confirmation even from a Republican-dominated state Senate), Perry has aggressively undermined the work of the Forensic Science Commission, whose legislated purpose is to help apply rigorous scientific review to criminal prosecutions. Most recently, Attor­ney General Greg Abbott supplied a made-to-order legal opinion severely limiting the commission's jurisdiction over previous convictions – i.e., precisely what it was intended to do.

Most notoriously, Bradley maneuvered to undermine the work of the FSC in the Cameron Todd Willingham capital case, for which the best fire science reflects that Willingham had been executed, on Rick Perry's watch, for a homicide-by-arson that was almost certainly an accident. Perry personally dismissed that scientific investigation without any substantive review, choosing instead to grandstand the case by denouncing Willingham as a "monster" – a conclusion he could come to only by entirely ignoring the post-conviction evidence that was examined by subsequent investigators.

Although prosecution-biased justice is a longtime Texas tradition, it's difficult to avoid the suspicion that Bradley and Abbott were doing their level best to protect potential presidential candidate Perry from even more national embarrassment over the Texas process of capital punishment.

The Less We Know ...

As Smith reports this week in "Perry the Executioner," the governor's general approach to capital punishment has the same cursory and highly politicized style as his treatment of the FSC. He has maintained the gubernatorial practice of relying on superficial summary memos of capital cases that do little more than confirm the conviction and history of appeals. He's taken that one step further than his predecessors, however, in eliciting an Abbott opinion that the memos are confidential legal advice – thereby sidestepping the embarrassment suffered by Gov. George W. Bush when his counsel's memos were released and shown to be little more than pro forma summations that consistently failed to address any substantive issues affecting potential clemency.

The Texas "clemency" process, of course, is largely a sham designed to provide the appearance of constitutionally required review of mitigating circumstances while shielding the governor from direct responsibility for the decisions, shifting it instead to the governor-approved-and-appointed Board of Pardons and Paroles. It's a convenient fiction, allowing everybody to wash their hands of the blood of the condemned.

However, it bears noting that on the presidential campaign trail, Democratic as well as Republican, it's only helpful for a candidate to declare that "justice" and "capital punishment" are synonymous – although our Texas historical experience should have long since taught us that the death penalty is neither pragmatic (a deterrent) nor just (a proportionate use of state power). Such arguments are lost before a televised electorate that enthusiastically cheers the sheer number of Texas executions (two more this week) under Perry. Ours is an unapologetically bloodthirsty American culture, and until we can begin truly to learn the difference between justice and vengeance – and that vengeance belongs solely to God – we'll continue to elect politicians like Rick Perry.

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Rick Perry, science, creationism, death penalty

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