Tonawanda News

February 24, 2013

DuVall: Rand Paul's goldfish-like memory a sign for GOP

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The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal grabbed some headlines a few weeks ago when he made a speech wherein he proclaimed Republicans had to “stop being the stupid party.”

He was likely referencing the Tea Party candidates whose outlandish and sometimes simply weird proclamations had made the Big Tent Party seem more like the Tin-Foil Hat Brigade.

Jindal is right, of course. If they want to win more elections, Republicans absolutely have to stop saying whacky stuff about things like rape, pregnancy, gay people, women, Hispanics, poor people and global warming.

Add to that list: goldfish.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a Tea Party scion, took to the airwaves to blast an Ivy League research project that’s received some federal funding. The topic of the study — at least in Paul’s mind — was the democratic tendencies of goldfish.

“In the military they have $5.2 million they spent on goldfish — studying goldfish to see how democratic they were and if we could learn about democracy from goldfish,” Paul said on Fox News Thursday. “I would give the president the authority to go ahead and cut all $5 million in goldfish studies.”

Surely, we don’t need to spend $5 million on goldfish, right? This is just another example of wasteful federal spending — a 21st century equivalent to the Pentagon’s $75 hammer or the Transportation Department’s Bridge to Nowhere.

Republicans love holding up these examples of wasteful spending (even though everyone knows wasting money is one of the last truly bipartisan issues remaining in Congress.)

Except that Politico took the opportunity to offer the scientist, Princeton professor Iain Couzin, a rebuttal.

Raise your hand if you think Paul was being completely honest in his portrayal of the study. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Just how far off was he?

Well, for startes he’s got the wrong fish. The scientists are studying golden shiner fish, not goldfish (they’re in an entirely different genus, Wikipedia informs me.) And they’ve been doing it for at least four years. They’re funded by a multitude of sources, a mix of private funds augmenting the federal dollars. The entire research program (resulting in several published studies) cost $5 million. Couzin couldn’t say precisely how much of that figure is taxpayer-supported.

Oh, and they’re not trying to study the democratic values of golden shiner fish. They’re studying behavioral habits among schools of the fish because they’ve proven adept at adapting to environmental changes (read: water pollution).

These little fishies, it seems, are far better than human technology at sensing changes in their environment and altering their behavior to compensate. So it would stand to reason if we can figure out how the fish are doing it we might be able to replicate it.

And make robots do it. At least that’s what Couzin said. 

I’ll be honest, he lost me with the robot thing.

But that’s just the point. I have no clue how golden shiner fish can help improve robot technology. No one does. I also had no idea that lightning could literally be caught in a bottle or what the practical application of it might be. But I’m sitting here tapping keys on a laptop computer that, when I open it, gives me access to all the information in the world.

How’s that for lightning in a bottle?

Are there examples of research grants gone awry? Of course. NASA spent thousands of dollars developing a pen that would write in space, where no gravity exists to pull the ink to the tip. The Russians brought pencils.

But 40 years later, the technology that helped win us the space race also served as the grandfather of the Internet. Which we now use to look at videos of kittens falling off things and guys accidentally getting hit in the groin with humorous objects like oversized whiffle bats.

So what’s the lesson here? For starters, if you want to stop being the stupid party don’t be so outwardly hostile to science. 

Oh, and before you go on TV criticizing something, have at least half a clue what you’re talking about — lest you wind up looking like that guy whose kid just picked up a whiffle bat.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. His column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Contact him at eric.duvall@tonawanda-news.com.