Speaking of science…

9 07 2007

It’s odd that I was just contemplating the overall neglect/bad press evolutionary biology often gets after reading Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World last night; today Bora has posted an e-mail interview with senator (and presidential hopeful) John Edwards that is somewhat revealing about the problems with science and politics. In response to the first question, (essentially about whether Edwards has taken any interest in science in the past and where he gets his information about science today), Edwards says;

However, I do believe that science is the key to innovation in the American economy, the key to improving our standard of living. We see the impact of science everyday–from biotechnology to smart bombs, from satellite Global Positioning Systems to the Internet.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy will play a central role when I’m president. We need to encourage science, and do it honestly and openly. It’s unfortunate the Bush administration hasn’t shared that view. The censorship and suppression of science on climate change, on air pollution, on stem cell research–all to advance a political agenda–is wrong. Policy should be science driven; science shouldn’t be politics driven.

As I noted yesterday, science essentially = technology in this view. Science is viewed as something to improve the “standard of living” and the economy, not as something that should be valued and encouraged for it’s own sake. This is a mistake, and while researching new technologies, medical treatments, etc. are important, they are hardly the whole of science. Like Sagan mentioned in his book, I worry about government support of only the sciences that seem to have an economic or technological goal in mind (Sagan’s example was the Queen of England commissioning what equated to television in the 19th century), support for sciences not deemed especially economically fruitful being diminished. This has happened before, and although I do not have the reference with me to go into the detail I would like to, one of the great results of the great American “Bone Wars” between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh was that paleontology and geology were considered frivolous by Congress, government funding to surveys being lost for a time.

Mind you, Edwards does not answer the actual (and important) question of where he gets his science information from. I would be a bit surprised if he read Nature or Science on a regular basis, but he essentially gave the political answer without illuminating why I should trust him when it comes to science. I don’t care so much about whether he agrees with me about global climate change as much as I care about where, exactly, is he getting his information on the subject and whether he is scientifically literate (or just gives the impression of being so).

On a similar note is Edwards’ response to this question;

3. If elected President, how would you balance the scientific research at NASA with the manned spaceflight program which, arguably, has dubious scientific value?

I am a strong supporter of our space program. It reflects the best of the American spirit of optimism, discovery and progress.

We need a balanced space and aeronautics program. We need to support solar system exploration as an important goal for our human and robotic programs, but only as one goal among several. And we need to invite other countries to share in a meaningful way in both the adventure and the cost of space exploration.

I myself have found it hard at times to justify the time, energy, and money spent on certain space programs, especially when over $125,000,000 is flushed down the toilet because someone didn’t do the proper conversions, but I do feel that the overall exploration of our solar system, detecting of nearby asteroids/comets, exploration of Mars, etc. are important for us to continue if we are to understand the universe and our place in it. Edwards, however, doesn’t do much here other than say “I support space exploration.”

Likewise, Edwards acknowledges that we have a huge problem when it comes to science education and critical thinking skills in this country, but the only potential plan he mentions is a one year of college tuition free for about 2,000,000 students. That’s good, definitely an encouragement, but we need to start much, much earlier. I feel that much of the science education battle is being lost at the elementary school level, and merely hiring more teachers or throwing more money at schools does not necessarily equal a better science education.

I also have to agree with what PZ mentions in reaction to the interview on Pharyngula;

He also supports one major boondoggle: ethanol. It’s a farm subsidy, not an answer to our energy problems.

“Biofuels” seems to be a pretty popular political buzzword, but I hardly see it being an answer to our pressing needs (and it will likely be a source of even more problems). When any candidate starts talking about the virtues of biofuels or hydrogen fuel cells, I distinctly come away with the impression that they actually have no commitment to researching claims or understanding science. You can’t merely say “Big oil bad, biofuels good” and have that be the end of it; endorsing “alternative” technologies that do little to reduce our overall energy uptake are not the answer. Doesn’t anyone else find it odd that in the oil vs. biofuel “debate” we’re really choosing between the products of fossil plant deposits and living plants? Even on top of that, I find it unsettling that we would devote dwindling farm space to fueling vehicles rather than creating food crops, in the process probably helping out the same huge factory farms that Edwards claims to be against. I see nothing but trouble coming from the pursuit of biofuel technology.

Returning to the issue of just how Edwards is going to tell the “good eggs” from the “bad eggs” when it comes to science, he again sidesteps the issue;

7. If elected President, what do you intend to do to make sure that you receive trustworthy scientific information and that your policies are based on the best available empirical knowledge about the world?

This is a good question. As I said before, the disregard of science by the Bush administration — the censorship of data and analysis of global warming, the treatment of stem cell research, mercury emissions and other subjects – has been shameful.

As president, I will ensure that government professionals charged with the collection and analysis of scientific data–from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to the EPA–are insulated from political influence. Period.

Yes, we understand Bush is a fool, but what are you going to do that’s better, Senator Edwards? All he’s really said here is “I’ll do better, I promise” and seems to have no actual plan. Given this is an e-mail interview and he actually had some amount of time to think about/edit his answers (rather than just spit out the first thing that came to his mind), I see no reason to put faith in empty promises about understanding science or even conducting sound science when he doesn’t have any sort of plan to do so. I’m not buying it.

Continuing in the same vein Edwards is asked about the overall decline of research and scientific prowess in the U.S. Edwards, unsurprisingly, concludes this way;

We need to strengthen scientific education in this country. We need to send more kids to college and invest in graduate programs to create a new generation of scientists who will continue to make America stronger and lead the way for the rest of the world.

Simply sending more high school graduates to college is not the solution; it barely even addresses the problem that our public schools are in a state of disarray. Even if we assume that they are not, merely sending a greater number of students to college does not mean you’ll automatically gain a greater proportion of scientists; Edwards apparently has no clue where to get good scientific information or how to foster it in America. Sure, he’ll pontificate about biofuels, global climate change, how little science the president knows, but he doesn’t seem to be very different from the Republicans he despises; the politics of the science seem of greater influence than the truth of science.

As has been pointed out by others, evolution was not mentioned anywhere in this interview either, which I found rather surprising. Again, this ties into my concerns about sciences that are not deemed profitable will gain little support and little will be done to foster science for the sake of understanding the universe and how we got here. I’m not suggesting that evolution has no technological or medical applications, but rather it seems that Edwards is caught up in the trivial and political realms of science, where the public face of “science” is welcomed but not actually understood. The continuation of this trend, essentially settling for politicians being willing to be influenced by the public face of science based upon their personal political affiliation, is not acceptable and will further undermine science education in this country.

Overall, I was not impressed (and even became a bit more wary of Edwards). It’s absolutely wonderful that Bora was able to interview Edwards and post the reactions of a prominent political figure to questions about the dire need for better science education and understanding in America, but I feel that Edwards did not effectively answer the questions posed to him in the least. Science should not be a system of belief tied to a political affiliation, but the impression I got from this interview was that Edwards harbors exactly that.

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4 responses

9 07 2007
Zach Miller

Politicians will always speak to the lowest common denominator. Listening to a politician give an interview is like reading an interview from a video game developer about their most recent video game. They don’t want to piss anyone off, so they more often than not evade the question or answer it, but in the wrong way.

Edwards says little beyond “I support science” in his interview, but his more critical thoughts are kept under wraps. Sure, he bashes the Bush administration, but that’s not difficult. But I kind of feel for the guy. If he says “I support stem-cell research,” he instantly loses an enormous slice of the voting population pie, which is in itself ridiculous. If he says “I think NASA is a money pit,” the same thing happens. It’s too far from election day for Edwards or other presidential hopeful to actually make a stand on an issue, especially one as misunderstood in the public as science.

God, doesn’t that just make you sad? People don’t question electricity, gravity, telephones, structural engineering…all these things based on sound science. But they don’t want to give up their SUV’s, cigarettes, dead fetuses, and Bibles. The rampant cherry-picking of science by the blissfully uneducated masses infuriates me. I’m angry right now, just typing this post.

10 07 2007
laelaps

Zach, I agree, and I doubt that any of the candidates have any idea where to get their information on science other than what their particularly party tells them they should do. I always get uppity when people tell me science isn’t important, or that only the economically profitable sciences should be supported, especially when people say things like “Why can’t we just not think about these things?” It utterly amazes me how little people want to actually know about the universe, whether on a large or small scale. I know I’ll be devouring books for the rest of my life and I still will not have scratched the surface of everything I will have wanted to understand about nature. The trivial model of science seems alive and well, despite our wishes that it would promptly drop dead.

11 03 2008
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