President Obama, in his State of the Union speech on Febru- ary 12, called for a new era of scientific discovery. “Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race,” he declared. Yet just a few weeks after this bold call to action, the notorious sequester took effect, requiring $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spend- ing cuts. According to White House estimates, the sequestra- tion would cut US science budgets by 8.2 perecnt, with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NASA among the hardest hit. “The sequestration itself was never intended to be implemented,” the report from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget notes. But here we are bracing for the impact of such austerity.
Amidst such economic hardship, the difference in the opinions of the public and our elected officials regarding scientific issues suggests a fundamental shift in our national priorities. In last year’s presidential primaries, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas claimed that greedy scientists rest on faulty data “so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.” For such claims, Dr. Kenneth Miller, Professor of Biology at Brown University, faults what he sees as the cynicism associated with science in the United States. “The easier it becomes to depict the scientific enterprise as a special interest,” writes Dr. Miller, “the easier it becomes to reject scientific findings.” However, remarks like Gov. Perry’s are not shuttered in partisan gratifi- cation; misinformation and slander emerge from every front along the political spectrum. Unfortunately for Democrats, their progressive political allies often hold blatantly anti- science beliefs. Reacting to a frenzy surrounding the swine-flu vaccine, the CDC and the White House pulled multi-dose swine flu shots because they contained thimerasol, even though there is absolutely no evidence that supports a causal link between thimerasol and autism.
Such examples illustrate the danger of scientific illiteracy. In a 2011 annual survey conducted by researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities, for example, 40 percent
of respondents agreed with the statement, “There is a lot of disagreement among scientists about whether or not global warming is happening.” This is a significant number in spite of the overwhelming consensus within the scientific commu- nity that global warming is, in fact, occurring. In a recently released study in Pediatrics, researchers examined parents’ reasons for not vaccinating their teenage daughters against HPV in 2008 through 2010. What the researchers found was a startling increase in the number of parents citing “Safety concerns/side effects” as their main factor. In 2008, it was 4.5 percent; by 2010, it had jumped to 16.4 percent.
This is not to say that science is without fault, its history brimming with missteps. Social Darwinism, for example, perverted the ideas of evolutionary science to uphold bigotry and racism. Regarding medical diagnoses, evidence-based reasoning has at times been overridden by cultural bias. There was once a time when physicians diagnosed mental illness and “idiocy” based solely on appearance. Allan Hamilton, MD in 1883’s Types of Insanity: An Illustrated Guide to the Diagnosis of Mental Disease: “When one walks through the wards of any asylum for the insane, he will be immediately impressed with the repulsiveness of the faces about him.”
Committee Chairs and Charlatans
Elected officials should make choices only after scrutiniz- ing the evidence presented. But this too is no guarantee of realistic policy. One stumbling block is the blatant ignorance shown by some politicians regarding scientific issues. Take, for example, Rep. Todd Akin, who serves on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. During his 2012 cam- paign, Akin remarked, “It seems to me, from what I under- stand from doctors, [that] if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Not only is this view biologically unsound, it is a clear indication of his lack of scientific expertise. In spite of this, Akin served on a committee that dictates the future of our national science policy.
There are also politicians who view the world in ways that will never reconcile with scientific consensus. Rep. Paul Broun is a creationist who sits on the same committee as Akin. In a speech made on behalf of the Liberty Baptist Church, Broun proclaimed, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.” The committee’s chair, Rep. Ralph Hall, lumps “global freezing” together with global warming, which he doesn’t believe humans can significantly impact. As he says, “I don’t think we can control what God controls.”
Yet even amidst such disparity in worldviews, these politi- cians return to the alleged menacing motives of science. On the same committee, Rep. Mo Brooks said of scientific findings regarding climate change,“We’re being asked to undermine America’s economy based on this guesswork specu- lation.” Rep. Brooks still trots out the same debunked no- tion that a scientific consensus existed in the 1970s on “global cooling,” which he portrays as a scare concocted by scientists “in order to generate funds for their pet projects.” Such anti- science sentiment, however, is not merely shut away in these committees. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher once suggested a ploy to cut greenhouse gas emissions by “subsidizing the clearing of rainforests.”
At the heart of such outspoken dribble is a fundamental disregard for the integrity of science. In the minds of such politicians, scientific beliefs do not turn on the weight of evi- dence, but on the clang of their coffers. It is not the search for knowledge that motivates the scientific process, but rather the aggrandizement of ivory tower charlatans. Amidst the clamor on Capitol Hill, science is merely another “lobby” vying for limited funds.
Law and Science
According to the cq roll call guide to the New Con- gress, law is the primary professional background of Senators today, followed by public service or politics, and then business or the corporate field. There is little doubt that the nine scientists in our government must strain for a voice amidst the clamor of two hundred lawyers. Although bolstered by the 32 medical professionals on Capitol Hill, the American govern- ment is markedly non-scientific. Congress is essentially a courtroom, and judging from the recent sequestration, science is not of the utmost priority.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, criticized this politi- cal polarization of law. Tyson asks, “What happens in the courtroom? It doesn’t go to what’s right, it goes to who argues best...and Congress is half that profession.” As Tyson notes, “the act of arguing, and not agreeing, seems to be fundamen- tal to that profession.” The law thus depends primarily on rhetoric, the idea that amidst a slew of opposing arguments the truth will somehow emerge.
This approach is quite opposed to the scientific method. Scientific findings are only deemed worthy with exacting protocol, rigorous testing, and and extensive peer reviews. And even then, publication invites criticism that spurs further research. Congress, however, is a body of 100 Senators and 435 Representatives. In the chambers of government, any opinion, no matter how vitriolic or uninformed, is given a platform. If we consider our ever-changing and technologi- cally sophisticated world, the United States can unquestion- ably benefit from the participation and example of more scientists in government, regardless of political affiliation.
In the creation of the Federal Reserve, Congress once acted to shield our monetary policy from the tyranny of political rhetoric and gain. It may be time to adapt the same model for scientific issues. Our policy still suffers from political equivocation in place of scientific truth, scientific illiteracy masquerading as insight. Yet it is not the outspoken blunders of Todd Akin and George Broun that endanger our national interests, but the quiet assent that allows our elected officials to disenfranchise the scientific enterprise in America. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson asserts, “Science is distrusted not because of what it can do, but because people don’t understand how it does what it can do.” Perhaps we can start with our elected officials.
JOHN AURELIO B’14 is globally cool.