The ReThink Blog

Starting from scratch in politics and science

The Candidates 2008

The Candidates and Science

I haven’t been following the presidential race this election season. Now that the presidential election is approaching, however, it is my civic duty to at least pay a little bit more attention.

I’ve decided not to make any knee-jerk assumptions about the candidates, their parties, and where they stand on particular issues. I’d rather look into each issue one at a time, take an honest look at where I stand, and then compare it to where the two main candidates stand (I’m also going to look into Bob Barr, the Libertarian candidate, but he’ll be relegated to info boxes since most people aren’t interested in voting third-party). Before I really get started, though, I’m going to announce my controversial approach.

John McCain
John McCain
I’m going to assume that, unless they contradict themselves, the candidates are actually telling the truth. Politicians do lie, of course, and both McCain and Obama are probably big-time practiced liars, but it isn’t helpful in the public discourse to distrust everything being said in the public arena. This is going to be about the issues and not the people, and unless I can find justifiable reason to believe that a candidate is lying, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

My plan is to write seven different essays (one every three weeks) covering the following issues: Science, Domestic Issues, the Economy, Civil Rights, Energy, and Foreign Policy. I won’t announce my final vote until the last essay, in which I will summarize the entire spectrum and make a conclusion based on what I’ve found. With each issue-related essay, however, I will make a choice, under the assumption that the particular issue in question is the only relevant issue (and that I’m choosing between just McCain and Obama).

So today I start with science. As a bonafide skeptic, a sci-fi writer, and a follower of scientific matters, this is an important issue for me. Politicians should have a good and educated understanding of scientific issues, but they shouldn’t dictate policy based on bad science or pseudoscience, two pernitious problems in modern American society. Nor should policy be dictated by religion, science’s occasional foil. With those basic principles in mind, let’s take a look at where the candidates stand on science.

Vaccines and Autism

Two weeks ago, I discussed the facts behind the alleged link between autism and vaccines. Without looking into where the presidential candidates stood on the subject, I expressed my hope that the government would not be fooled by paranoia or start pandering to the ignorant. But where do the candidates stand?

Barack Obama
Barack Obama
According to his own website, “John McCain is very concerned about the rising incidence of autism among America's children and has continually supported research into its causes and treatment”[1]. The latter half of the statement seems true based on his record, as he cosponsored the Combating Autism Act of 2006[2], along with a wide range of fellow Senators that includes Hillary Clinton (but not Barack Obama). However, on February 29, McCain publicly stated, “It's indisputable that [autism] is on the rise among children, the question is what's causing it. And we go back and forth and there's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines”[3]. This is clearly a misunderstanding of the science.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, seems to get it right on his website, which states, “As diagnostic criteria broaden and awareness increases, more cases of autism have been recognized across the country”[4]. Unfortunately, he too made a public statement containing scientific inaccuracies about the alleged link. On April 21, he stated, “We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it”[3]. He’s not quite as firm about it as McCain, but when he states that the science is inconclusive, he is simply wrong.

Clearly, both candidates fail at this issue. Even though Obama seems to go in the right direction on his website, his more recently made public statements contradict it. Therefore, I will not give him a pass. Additionally, McCain appears more genuine on paper when it comes to fighting autism and raising awareness, but his understanding of the science is woefully incorrect, given that the preservative in question was already phased out of vaccines a few years ago.


I’m man enough to admit when I’ve been duped, and I was once duped by the Intelligent Design crowd. The general stated premise of Intelligent Design—that there is a design to the universe that implies a higher power—is one I don’t disagree with. However, it is clear to me now that the real and unstated premise of Intelligent Design is to eliminate the teaching of evolution in public schools and turn scientific education to dogmatism. Even Ben Stein—a highly intelligent man I once respected—crossed the line with his recent propaganda film in which he blatantly announces that believing in evolution will turn you into Adolf Hitler. The theory of evolution is pretty rock-solid (it’s up there with theories like Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity), and I see no inherent disparity between it and the idea of an intelligent design. The fact that such a debate rages in American politics almost a hundred years since the Scopes Monkey Trial is sickening, and while I am willing to allow public leaders to have religious beliefs, I would sincerely hope that neither candidate would denounce evolution in favor of a God-of-the-Gaps-style creationism, especially if that candidate has a hand in public education.

After McCain said he believes in evolution, the three men you see with raised hands--Sen. Sam Brownback, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Rep. Tom Tancredo--admitted that they do not
After McCain said he believes in evolution, the three men you see with raised hands--Sen. Sam Brownback, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Rep. Tom Tancredo--admitted that they do not
John McCain was asked point-blank, yes-or-no, if he believed in evolution during a GOP presidential candidates debate before he was named the presumptive Republican nominee. He answered yes, even though three of his fellows proudly admitted they did not[5]. McCain’s line on this is fairly clear over the last few years. In his 2005 book, Character is Destiny, he states that he has faith in God, but that Darwin and evolution are the indisputable foundations of many modern sciences. He writes that there is no faith-changing disparity between the biblical God and the theories of Darwin[6]. This coincides with his later public proclaimation, “I believe in evolution, but I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also”[7]. Where education is concerned, he carefully admits that he thinks creationism and evolution should be taught side-by-side, but also that God probably shouldn’t be taught in science class. He does spend some time with the Discovery Institute, the right-wing think tank devoted to Intelligent Design, but he is far from a board member. Still, I’d be wary of the influence the hardcore religious right could have on McCain.

Not too surprisingly, Obama’s stated opinions on the matter aren’t that different from McCain’s. He is open about his Christian faith, but tends to avoid or expertly dodge questions about Intelligent Design and evolution (there are some fake quotes out there that twist some things he’s said, so be careful if you’re going to go looking). One widely circulated quote that seems to address the issue directly reportedly comes from the York Daily Record, although the article has apparently been archived and cannot be retrieved online without registering. The quote goes something like this:
I'm a Christian, and I believe in parents being able to provide children with religious instruction without interference from the state. But I also believe our schools are there to teach worldly knowledge and science. I believe in evolution, and I believe there's a difference between science and faith. That doesn't make faith any less important than science. It just means they're two different things. And I think it's a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don't hold up to scientific inquiry.
He has also said, “Intelligent design is not science. We should teach our children theology to get them to think about the meaning of life. But that's separate from how atoms or photons work”[8].

All in all, it seems that both candidates are on the right page here. If all the quotes above are genuine (and I think they are), then I’d probably stick with Obama, just because I agree with the bit about keeping religious instruction at home. Public schools can teach things like creationism and theology, but shouldn’t require them as mandatory aspects of the curriculum. Besides, when it comes to the separation of church and state, the Democrats are almost always the side to err on.

Global Warming

This isn’t to say that the Democrats are free of their own politicized gospels. I’ve made my opinion of anthropogenic global warming extremely clear in the past, and things like the lack of demonstrable temperature variation over the last ten years (note how slyly they try to alter the phraseology by saying “climate change” now) only reaffirms my beliefs that the whole thing is a crock of paranoid bullshit fueled by politics and misdirection. It’s an environmentalist religion. Still, though the global warming phenomenon was initially embraced by the extreme left side of the political spectrum, there is a growing chorus on the right talking about it too, including President Bush. My hope is that one of the two candidates would denounce this unprecedented use of bad science and propaganda, but realistically, I know they’d both probably rather pander to the frightened masses.

McCain states on his website:
I believe climate change is real. I think it's devastating. I think we have to act and I agree with most experts that we may at some point reach a tipping point where we cannot save our climate. I don't think we're there yet, but the overwhelming evidence is that greenhouse gases are contributing to warming of our earth and we have an obligation to take action to fix it. I believe that America did the right thing by not joining the Kyoto Treaty. But I believe that if we could get China and India into it, then the United States should seriously consider -- on our terms -- joining with every other nation in the world to try to reduce greenhouse gases. It's got to be a global effort.[9]
I can swim, I kill baby seals, and my brothers in colder climates are freezing to death!
"I can swim, I kill baby seals, and my brothers in colder climates are freezing to death!"
There is a serious danger here, and I’m not talking about the ice caps melting. Making this kind of thought a springboard for policy puts an enormous amount of power in the hands of both the government and the international community. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and unfortunately, McCain has apparently been duped into believing that the extraordinary evidence is there. If it were, and if the world really were blazing into an inferno of death as we speak, the government wouldn’t need to strongarm people into doing something about it. Capitalism is already opening the doorways for alternative energy, without the unnecessary enforcement of government or an economically inviable cap-and-trade system, and I find McCain’s take on it reprehensible. Granted, he might be using the global warming banner to help encourage independence from foreign oil (more on that in a future blog), but I for one can’t stand beneath it.

But, naturally, Obama can. Like McCain, he supports a cap-and-trade system. Also like McCain, he proudly says he believes in climate change. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, he calls it an “epochal, man-made threat to the planet”[10]. His website informs us that, as a result of global warming, “glaciers are melting faster; the polar ice caps are shrinking; trees are blooming earlier; more people are dying in heat waves; species are migrating, and eventually many will become extinct”[11]. I’m no more a climatologist than he is, but my research into the scientific debate behind the scenes tells me that none of that can be verified on a global scale, much less attributed to climate change. And it all sounds like the paranoid rantings of those environmentalists we used to call kooks, the ones spouting nonsense about mass famine, worldwide water shortages before the 21st Century, global cooling, holes in the ozone layer that will cause us all to die of skin cancer in the next decade, nuclear winters, and the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. It’s flim-flam pseudoscience, and it should never enter the arena of public policy.

When talking about climate change, there is no need to separate these two men. Both candidates believe that mankind, especially America, is responsible for the coming apocalypse and that the only cure for it is to hand over a ridiculous amount of power to the government and the international community. If climate change, a.k.a. global warming, were the only issue I cared about, I would definitely not vote for either man.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Stem cells have already proven themselves in the medical community as a source of amazing breakthroughs, both in understanding biology and in treating some of the worst diseases out there. The majority of doctors and scientists in the field of medical research agree that embryonic stem cells are the most useful kind of stem cells and could potentially give rise to a golden age of medicine. Creating new organ tissues to replace damaged ones (including lung, heart, liver, and possibly even brain tissue), having a method for human drug testing that doesn’t put people at risk, understanding how cells differentiate and grow, curing things like diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and chronic heart disease, and much more are all possible applications of embryonic stem cell research. Unfortunately, President Bush put strict barriers in place back in 2001 that has made research in this field overly restricive and slow. While I do believe that regulations on how stem cell research is undertaken are necessary, I also believe that the barriers currently in place are far too restrictive and based more on religious and superstitious objections than on scientific ethics. I will admit that my knowledge on this issue is fairly limited, but I would hope that the current candidates for president would advocate relaxing the barriers on embryonic stem cell research.

The Libertarian Perspective

Bob Barr, a former four-term congressman from Georgia, is the Libertarian party candidate for president this year. It’s tough to pin down his stances on these scientific issues, as his campaign isn’t nearly as recognized in the popular media as those of McCain and Obama. As a registered Libertarian, though, I feel it my responsibility to try and reveal his ideals to a wider audience. I will not tell you whether I’m voting for him or not until my final “candidates” blog on November 3.

On the vaccines/autism debate, he hasn’t made any public comments. On the evolution and Intelligent Design debate, he falls squarely on the rights of the parents and the free market to decide (Libertarians, in general, are against the idea of government-mandated curriculum). On global warming, he hasn’t made any specific statements addressing it, but is very clear that he is against an international agreement to curb greenhouse gases and that he is against increased government intervention into the rights of citizens or corporations. On the embryonic stem-cell research issue, he has stated that the debate should remain in the hands of private institutions and should not be regulated by the government.[14]

thumbs upWhen it comes to science and medicine, Barr is definitely friendlier than McCain or Obama. Even though he is pretty quiet when it comes to scientific issues, what he has said and the kinds of things the Libertarian party stand for all prove to be more in line with a rational approach to science than the muddled and pandering approaches of the two main political parties. If science were the only relevant issue and I were choosing between all three candidates, I’d choose Barr in a heartbeat.
McCain’s website is pretty clear on where he stands on this issue, and elucidates the true meaning of his public statements when he calls for a broadening of stem cell research. On his website, he does not hide the fact that he is strongly pro-life (abortion will be covered in a future blog), and he extends his dislike for abortion towards embryonic stem cell research[12]. He is all for expanding research into adult stem cells and cord blood stem cells, but he does not want to alter President Bush’s policy on the embryonic variety. He has appeared to waffle on this subject, but in true splitting hair fashion, he supports the use of embryonic stem cells as long as they fall in line with Bush’s policy. He does not support the intentional creation of human embryos or the cloning of human tissue for research purposes, though he will say he “supports embryonic stem cell research.” He’s touting a thin line that is the same as President Bush’s, and while I sympathize with his stance, I do not agree with the science of it.

Obama talks the good talk here, but his stance is pretty much the same. His website states:
Despite recent advances pointing to alternatives like adult stem cell and cord blood, embryonic stem cells remain unmatched in their potential for treatment of a wide variety of diseases and health conditions. Barack Obama has been a long-term supporter of increased stem cell research. He introduced legislation while a member of the Illinois Senate that would allow embryonic stem cell research in Illinois. Obama has cosponsored legislation to allow greater federal government funding on a wider array of stem cell lines. Obama believes we need high ethical standards that allow for research on stem cells derived from embryos produced for in vitro fertilization, embryos that would otherwise be needlessly destroyed.[13]
Granted, he sounds a little more open to the usage of embryonic stem cells than McCain does, but he still falls in line with the popular and politically correct methodology of forbidding the creation of human embryos in a stem cell research laboratory. I simply don’t agree with this way of thinking, and find it even more shocking in a Democrat who is willing to express how important embryonic stem cells are when compared to other varieties. If it’s okay to use embryos that were created in a fertility lab, why can’t we create embryos in some other lab?

Still, like with the evolution debate, I’d err on the side of Obama on this one, though I think he still gets it wrong in an important way. Embryos created in a lab—any lab—should be fair game, as long as they are destroyed before they become fetuses. In religious terms, if God can use miscarriage to destroy billions upon billions of embryos due to genetic malformations, I think it gives humans the leeway to fertilize human eggs and then dispose of them long before the fetal stage. I don’t particularly like the idea of killing embryos, but the potential benefits far outweigh the queasiness. Still, I think Obama, given his statements and his voting record on stem cell research, would be more friendly to the science than his Republican counterpart.

My Choice if Science were the Only Relevant Issue

Going into this, I was surprised at how much the two candidates have in common. They both get it wrong on the vaccination issue and the global warming nonsense, they both get it right when it comes to the truth of evolution, and they both walk a tight-rope on the issue of embryonic stem cells. My choice, therefore, is not a clear one, and I’m tempted to say I’d vote for neither on the basis of science.

McCain thumbs down
The Candidates and Science
thumbs up Obama
Still, I’d have to admit that, if science were the only relevant issue, I’d vote Obama. It’s not so much that I think he’s right when it comes to science, but that he’d be more likely to get more scientific issues right than McCain would. In the evolution and Intelligent Design debate, I think Obama would be more likely to keep religion at home or in church where it belongs, where McCain might buckle to the pressure of the religious right and start advocating that Intelligent Design should be taught in the public classroom. Both would probably advocate teaching climate change, an indoctrination that is unfortunate, and both clearly want to put economic barriers and international pressures in place for the sake of saving a planet that I don’t think is actually in danger from carbon dioxide. Both would also waste tax payer money investigating an alleged link between vaccines and autism that has already been dismissed by the medical community. However, Obama understands the importance of embryonic stem cell research and is more likely to loosen restrictions on it than McCain, a party-line pro-lifer.

So, while Obama does fall short of my hopes when it comes to science, he is the better candidate by a thin margin.

-e. magill, 06/30/2008


Copyright ©2008 e. magill. All rights reserved.