Sen. Ron Johnson spoke at an April 11 private fundraising event in Sheboygan, WI, hosted by the local Rotary club and the county chamber of commerce. He spoke for 15 minutes about the state of affairs in the Senate and then opened the microphone for questions. Johnson is a member of the Senate Committee on Technology, Science, and Transportation. A representative from the March for Science – Milwaukee took the opportunity to ask the senator about the role of scientific research and data in our public policy, the national budget, and his own personal decisions. His reply was as follows:
“There is no such thing as a scientific consensus. There are basically theories that have been proven. But from the standpoint of science, people ought to be always asking questions. We need to rely on science but also on information.” – Sen. Ron Johnson
Of course, scientific consensus is absolutely real and common. Johnson may have meant that 100% of scientists never agree on anything, and there are always skeptics or deniers for any scientific idea. However a few dissenters does not affect scientific consensus. A consensus simply means an overwhelming majority of experts agree in the reliability of certain data. For example, some small group of people may doubt gravity, the roundness of the Earth, or the existence of germs, but there is a strong scientific consensus that all these facts are true. Climate change is similar: 97% of scientists agree on the data of climate change. Also it is unclear how Johnson determines the difference between “science” and “information,” as he did not clarify his personal definitions of these terms.
Johnson went on to discuss the role of information (as opposed to science) in the recently failed GOP health care bill, and also what has caused premiums to “skyrocket” under the Affordable Healthcare Act. He asserted that there is a lack of good information surrounding the healthcare system, which is holding back potentially good legislation. His choice of the word “skyrocket” to describe premiums does not necessarily map onto reality, however. While growth of family premiums did initially jump in 2011 after the AHA was made law, it has since returned to pre-AHA inflation and has stagnated for the last 5 years. Current premiums are also rising at a lower rate than any time in the last 20 years, although there is some uncertainty for this trend in 2017.
“Let’s get that information [about healthcare] on the table so that it will actually guide policy, but what happens so much in the political realm is demagoguery, and you got demagogues on all sides of the political spectrum. I hate that, I come from manufacturing. I know how to solve problems. It starts with reality. It starts with information, it starts with cost analysis. What you end up with in Washington D.C., in that alternate universe, is just somebody takes a policy position, argues it… okay back it up, give me the data show me the proof of what you’re talking about.” – Sen. Ron Johnson
Hopefully the senator is evaluating the reality and the data of climate change, to which he stated in a 2016 interview that “the jury is out,” on the truth of climate change and “they [climate scientists] were predicting much higher temperatures, and that hasn’t panned out yet.” While it’s true that climate models are not 100% perfect, models are only a tool. The data behind them are concrete. The planet is still warming significantly and in the direction scientists predict: in fact, 2016 was the warmest year on record for our planet, followed by 2015 and 2014. If Johnson could see the proof behind climate change and it’s effects, no doubt his self-proclaimed problem-solving skills would be a great asset towards correcting our planet’s climate situation.
Sen. Johnson also explained how he sees data in evaluating social issues such as poverty:
“I talked about the war on poverty. I don’t know anybody else who’s really provided the type of graph I have showing just how much we’ve spent [related to] the number of people in poverty [which has] increased, from 29 million to 47 million… Not a real good metric.”
An important fact to note about this statement: there are actually approximately 43 million people currently in poverty in the United States; the 29 million comparison Johnson gave occurred at the end of the Clinton Presidency in the year 2000. Poverty then abruptly rose over the Bush presidency and into Obama’s term, peaking at 47 million people 2 years after the recession of 2008. Since 2010, the number of U.S. citizens in poverty has been slowly declining.
He ended on a note that the science community can probably all agree on,
“Let’s start looking at information; let’s be honest enough with ourselves and courageous enough to look at reality and react to it. That also includes scientific facts.” – Sen. Ron Johnson
It is encouraging to hear Johnson value the importance of fact-based policy. Hopefully his voting record will shift to reflect that value. To learn how Sen. Tammy Baldwin replied to a similar question during a town hall meeting in March, click here.
Written by Brandon Gross for Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA)