zeiss1.jpgFew qualities are more dangerous in a national politician than a lack of interest in — or understanding of — science. It represents a genuine risk to the health and well-being of the nation and the world.

We get to see something close to the real John McCain only when he lets down his guard somewhat in these town hall meetings. A stunning December 2007 video revealed The real, luddite McCain, who told a New Hampshire town hall, “The truly clean technologies don’t work.”

McCain made more revealing, shudder-inducing remarks in Tuesday’s Nashville town hall debate:

[Obama] voted for nearly a billion dollars in pork barrel earmark projects, including, by the way, $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?

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And he even came back to this would-be zinger:

… I believe that we have to eliminate the earmarks. And sometimes those projects, not — not the overhead projector that Sen. Obama asked for, but some of them that are really good projects, will have — will have to be eliminated, as well.

over-head-projectors8.jpgMcCain seems to think Obama wanted “that kind of money” for some gold-plated version of an old-fangled overhead projector, the kind that were once widely used to make presentations (Note to self: You are getting old).

Well, “do we need to spend that kind of money” — $3 million — for one of those projectors? It would be outrageous, like one of those $600 toilet seats.

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But I’m sure that if you’re like me, and you loved going to planetariums as a child — in my case, the one at the Museum of Natural History in New York City — then you knew immediately what kind of “overhead projector” costs $3 million. It is the kind that excites enthusiasm for science in young children. It is the most technologically sophisticated “overhead projector” every developed, the Zeiss.

As Obama’s Senate website explains:

Obama Announces FY08 Federal Funding Requests Thursday, June 21, 2007

Adler Planetarium, to support replacement of its projector and related equipment, $3,000,000

One of its most popular attractions and teaching tools at the Adler Planetarium is the Sky Theater. The projection equipment in this theater is 40 years old, and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It has begun to fail, leaving the theater dark and groups of school students and other interested museum-goers without this very valuable and exciting learning experience.

Chicago’s Adler Planetarium is the oldest planetarium in the United States. As Josh Marshall wrote:

McCain’s “overhead projector” is the apparatus that runs the planetarium, which is a bit like calling the Palomar Observatory a new set of glasses.

I don’t have a problem with McCain’s white-whale quest to end earmarks, per se — although given the state of the economy, the budget deficit, and the national debt, having a presidential candidate constantly talking about a matter as trivial as earmarks would be the same as if you were brought into the emergency room suffering from a heart attack and your doctor said the first thing to do was remove your bunion.

But as earmarks go, this one is about as benign as you can get. More significantly is that McCain appears to be almost wholly ignorant about what he is actually saying. (At least I hope he was ignorant — if he knew this was a Zeiss and knew what a Zeiss was and talked about it the way he did anyway, then he is a far more cynical, anti-science, and anti-education politician than I had imagined.) And perhaps most significant of all, these gotcha earmark zingers don’t come out of nowhere, and you can be sure McCain doesn’t go through the list of earmarks himself. That means nobody on his staff bothered to tell him that, uhh, Senator, this overhead projector is actually one of the most sophisticated optical devices ever made and it is used for science education.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.