Rep. Joe Barton: Not Smarter Than A 6th Grader

Apr 22 2009 Published by under Accidental

Representative Joe Barton is feeling very good about himself right now. He's convinced that he "baffled" a Nobel Laureate with a "basic question." During a congressional hearing earlier today, he asked Energy Secretary Stephen Chu how the oil got to Alaska. Here's the YouTube clip of the exchange. For your convenience, I've done a quick transcript.

Barton: Dr. Chu, I don't wanna leave you out, you're our... you're our scientist. I have one simple question for you in the last six seconds. How did all the oil and gas get to Alaska and under the Arctic Ocean?

Chu: [Nervous-sounding laughter] This is... this is a complicated story, but, but oil and gas is the result of hundreds of millions of years of geology, and in that time also the plates have moved around, and so it's the combination of where the sources of the oil and gas are...

Barton (interrupting): Well, I mean, isn't it obvious that at one time it was a lot warmer in Alaska and on the north pole? It wasn't a big pipeline that we created in Texas and shipped it up there and put it underground so we could now pump it out and ship it back.

Chu: No. There are... there's continental plates that have been drifting around throughout the geological ages...

Barton (interrupting): So it just drifted up there?

Chu: That's certainly what happened. And so it's the result of things like that.

Here's what Rep Barton took from that exchange, as eloquently expressed in his two Tweets:

Tweet 1:

Participating n climate change hearing. I asked energy secretary where oil in alaska came from. answer puzzles-from continental plate shift

Tweet 2:

I seemed to have baffled the Energy Sec with basic question - Where does oil come from? Check out the video: #tcot

I'm have no way of knowing for sure what the poor Energy Secretary took from the exchange, but I can make a few guesses. I suspect that the laughter was coming from hearing yet another person disprove the old classroom saying that there's no such thing as a stupid question. He moved from there to attempting to provide the sort of explanation that he'd give an adult, then after the first interruption he clearly shifted mental gears, and downgraded to the 6th grade level explanation.

Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.

So let me try.

Yes, Representative Barton, you are correct in thinking that the presence of oil and gas indicates that Alaska was warmer when the fossils were deposited. What Secretary Chu was trying to point out to you is that this is not because the North Pole had tropical temperatures back then. It's because Alaska was a lot closer to the equator back then.

By the way, that's pretty close to the explanation my 6th grader gave me when I asked her that question at dinner.

14 responses so far

  • slpage says:

    Pardon my political incorrectness, but what a f#$%ing retard....

  • Right Joe, you really baffled the Secretary of Energy Secretary with that one. Why not brag that you baffled a Nobel Prize winning scientist too? Did you not know that or did you think that you'd look like less of an idiot if you just called him the Energy Secretary.
    I'm also puzzled by what Barton thinks he is was trying to accomplish here. Was he trying to show that Chu was ignorant? Was he trying to imply that the conventional geology is wrong and so we aren't going to run out of oil? And if Barton intended this as a sincere question why is he wasting Chu's time when he could have just asked any of his staff members?
    Chu must be so annoyed right now that he aggreed to go into the administration and be subject to this sort of nonsense.

  • Umlud says:

    What I'm baffled about is why Barton is a plate tectonics denier!

  • Kim Hannula says:

    I've worked on Alaskan tectonics, and, you know... there's no way I could have answered that question with a soundbite. (For one thing, there's genuine scientific debate about the way the section of the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska formed.)
    But Barton's so far off that he's not even wrong. It's not just plate tectonics; it's the whole "the Earth was warmer in the past and that was natural; therefore all climate change is natural" fallacy. (And oil needs marine organisms plus the right temperatures after burial, but I can't think of any common rules of thumb about needing warm climates for oil to form.)
    And... well, I have no idea where Rep. Barton got the idea that oil requires a warm climate to form. Does he have it mixed up with coal? Or does he have some kind of odd correlation = causation thing going on (Texas and Saudi Arabia are hot; Texas and Saudi Arabia have oil; therefore heat causes oil...?)?

  • Ben says:

    I was under the impression that our age was rather unusual in having icecaps at both poles.
    Of course the current warming was still caused by humans and could be disastrous even though dinosaurs got along well without polar icecaps.
    It's more like Barton is so dumb as to not know that isn't even asking the right questions.

  • anders says:

    Bravo, Mr. Barton. Now let's get to the business of shutting down those universities, because it's high time this "tectonic plates" business be put to bed for good.

  • rlplant says:

    It's just painful to see the arrogant idiocy of these politicians. If they don't get this (i.e. climate change) how can they even begin to grasp some of our more complex problems?

  • Captain Obvious says:

    Kim: "...odd correlation = causation thing going on (Texas and Saudi Arabia are hot; Texas and Saudi Arabia have oil; therefore heat causes oil...?)?"
    I think so. 🙂
    You can further reinforce it as burning oil gives off heat. That heat had to come from somewhere, whihc means oil can only be formed in warm places (such as Texa and the Saudi Arabia) where it can absorb the heat energy.
    I could go further and suggest that the reason why oil tend to be harder to exploit in colder areas is because of the ambient cold energy disrupting the oil formation and driving it deeper, but thats enough sillyness for one day.

  • Pineyman says:

    The real scary thing (other than him being a Texas Repub) is that he worked for Atlantic Richfield before being elected, according to his official bio.

  • eric says:

    I think Chu could've easily answered the way your kid did, even with the interruptions. I don't think it was "switching gears" on his part that made him stumble. I think what was probably going through his mind was "I have to work with this guy for the next four years. How do I not make him look like a complete idiot on national TV?"

  • Steven L. says:

    Actually, the worst thing that Joe Barton did, was when he attempted to have his committee investigate the *personal backgrounds* of scientists who assert the reality of anthropogenic global warming.
    An obvious attempt to discredit the scientists personally in the eyes of the general public.
    So he may not be stupid. He's being deliberately obtuse, obfuscating the science while he finds ways to smear the scientists.

  • BaldApe says:

    Well, what is now Alaska might not have been near the pole, or it might have been near the pole, but we're talking about hundreds of millions of years ago. Yes, the Earth was warmer then. And it would have been a pretty inhospitable place for us too.

  • Jonsi says:

    In truth, most of what comprises Alaska (and especially the North Slope) was still in the polar regime, > 60 degrees North for the past 150 Ma. [You can do your own plate reconstructions, including projection, at
    The Representative is absolutely correct in that it required a more warm climate in the polar region. However, Chu's answer was in no way wrong. He certainly was not stumped and he answered Barton correctly: "it depends on the source material and then on how those sediments were carried on the underlying plates."
    His answer, given the time and the fact he was being baited, was 100% correct.

  • Lab Rat says:

    I'm a little confused why Barton seems to think that "i asked a question and got a correct answer" counts as 'stumped'.
    And it's easy to explain the laughter and slight stutterness as well. Suddenly being asked to explain several thousand years of a complex geological process to someone you know is going to want it in one snappy sentance is enough to make anyone nervously laugh.
    @Ben: yeah, they used to be warmer, but not quite tropical. And at the time when they *were* warmer most of england was considerably more soggy than it is right now, which is not a particularly desirable affect...