CHU WASN’T THE ‘BAFFLED’ ONE…. Arrogance is almost always unseemly, but I think there’s an important distinction to be made between conceit and misplaced arrogance. The prior is merely unseemly; the latter is humiliating.

Yesterday, at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Exxon), the committee’s ranking member and former chairman, asked Energy Secretary Steven Chu how Alaska got oil and gas. Presumably, he meant geologically. Chu paused briefly, laughed, and tried to explain the science to the confused lawmaker.

Shortly thereafter, Barton tweeted, “I seem to have baffled the Energy Sec with basic question – Where does oil come from?” Indeed, when Barton’s office posted the clip to YouTube, they included a message at the start of the video: “Where does oil come from? Question leaves Energy Secretary puzzled.”

This is what I meant by “misplaced arrogance.” Barton seems awfully pleased with himself for having asked a foolish question and not understanding the answer. Chu paused before answering the question, not because the Nobel Prize winning scientist was “baffled” and “puzzled” by the Republican’s inquiry, but because Chu quickly realized he was responding to a lawmaker with the sophistication of a junior high-school student.

This isn’t something Barton should be proud of; it’s something he should be embarrassed by. Barton’s confusion is predictable. It’s his smug pride, driven entirely by ignorance, that’s annoying.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.