The ReThink Blog

Starting from scratch in politics and science

The Candidates 2012

The Candidates and Science 2012

Four years ago, I took an insane approach to deciding which presidential candidate to vote for: I took each man at his word. I recorded my findings on this blog, being fully open with my own opinions and biases, and ultimately chose to vote for John McCain, who as we all know lost. Unexpectedly, the seven articles I wrote on the subject remain among my most popular efforts, even among people who disagree with my conclusions (though I cannot help but point out that my assumptions about what an Obama presidency would look like were surprisingly accurate). It would be foolish, therefore, for me to not do the same thing this year.

President Obama
Last time, I didn't have to contend with that presidential seal affixed to one of the candidates
It was easier four years ago, however, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I hadn't been following the race at all in 2008--hadn't been keeping up with the political news and the ins and outs of the nominating process--so with my skeptical outlook, I had a built-in immunity to the talking points and misperceptions out there. The second is that there was no incumbent, the presidential race in 2008 was between two men who had never been president before. It was easy, then, to ignore precedent. This year, though, I have been following the political news like a junkie and solidifying my bias at the hammer and anvil of pundit commentaries and editorials. And, as any election with an incumbent is bound to be a referendum on the person in office and whether he or she deserves to be re-elected, I cannot simply ignore the last four years of our national experience.

So how can I be fair? I will approach the 2012 candidates much as I did in 2008, as though I'd never even heard of them. I will take each of them at their word when it comes to the big issues and what's important to them--doing my best to ignore the slanders and cynicisms of the other side--but with the current president, I will also look into what he has done over the last four years in pursuit of his stated agenda. Wherever possible, I will give him the benefit of the doubt, but I will also be completely up-front with my own preconceptions and hang-ups, because I acknowledge the complete impossibility of true impartiality. I will also avoid marrying either candidate with his party's platform--only defaulting to it if a candidate is overly ambiguous on a subject or if the candidates are "tied" on the point at issue--because God knows neither man (or, indeed, any man) is in full, one-hundred percent agreement with his party.

So, since the first convention has begun (and we all know who the nominees will be), it is time for me to get rolling. For simplicity's sake, I will tackle the big issues this year in the same order I did in 2008, starting once again with science. The intersection of politics and science is a volatile place, full of heated opinions, divisive rhetoric, and far-reaching consequences. As a science-fiction writer, an amateur science blogger, and a fan of skepticism, science is near and dear to my heart, so where a political candidate stands on scientific matters is pretty high on my list of priorities.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

When it comes to medicine, I believe there are only two forms it can take: scientific medicine or foolish nonsense. If scientific studies can demonstrate the benefit of any medical modality, then that modality becomes integrated into modern medicine. There is no alternative or complement to this process, and treating other modalities--things like homeopathy, fringe chiropractic, herbal aromatherapy, chelation therapy for autism, etc.--using a separate standard is dangerous and wrong. My ideal candidate is a man or woman who believes in standing up to the complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) lobbyists, defending medical science, and treating all forms of medicine with a equal standard of evidence. To date, I don't believe either political party has done a very good job in this regard, because they ultimately wind up pandering to the peddlers of pseudoscientific snake oils and allowing things like sustained federal funding and support for the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an agency dedicated to subverting the scientific process.

Dr. Josephine Briggs
Current director and actual doctor Josephine Briggs is certainly a step in the right direction, but NCCAM is still an embarassing waste of taxpayer dollars
This doesn't even appear to be on Mitt Romney's radar. There are no references to it on his official campaign website, and I can find no public statements from him dealing with it. However, his wife, Ann Romney, who has multiple sclerosis, admitted in a 2002 interview to recieving reflexology and acupuncture treatments, in addition to standard medicine [1], but has since declined to comment on them, instead publically crediting her recovery to scientific medicine [2]. Therefore, given the dearth of information, we'll have to resort to the greater Republican policy position. The 2012 national party platform won't be ratified until later this week, but the 2008 platform is clear in its language: "Taxpayer-funded medical research must be based on sound science, with a focus on both prevention and treatment, and in accordance with the humane ethics of the Hippocratic Oath" [3]. Though the Romney campaign is unusually silent on this issue, the stated desire to reduce frivolous government spending, in combination with the 2008 GOP platform, offers a tiny hint that NCCAM might receive the defunding it deserves.

President Obama has been pretty quiet about CAM, too, and the few nuggets we can get from his public statements are not very enlightening. While campaigning in 2008, he penned a letter that seems to offer universal support for chiropractic medicine and a legislative agenda to help integrate it more into the mainstream of science-based medicine [4]. A year later, during a town hall meeting, he answered a question about CAM thusly: "Well, look, my attitude is that we should — we should do what works. So I think it is pretty well documented through scientific studies that acupuncture, for example, can be very helpful in relieving certain things like migraines and other ailments — or at least as effective as more intrusive interventions" [5]. On one hand, he seems to be supporting evidence-based medicine ("we should do what works"), but on the other, he is claiming that acupuncture is a "pretty well documented" scientifically proven practice, which it most definitely is not.

Having said that, though, Obama didn't make CAM a priority in his first term. Those promises he made in the chiropractic letter remain unfulfilled, and PPACA doesn't really change anything in regards to how insurance handles CAM. The healthcare law does put in place a method whereby the HHS secretary can put CAM outside the realm of "essential health services," but there is absolutely no guarantee that she will (in fact, she could explicitly insert it, thereby making it even more prevalent). It should also be noted, in fairness, that the 2008 Democratic Party Platform (again, 2012 hasn't been ratified yet) has similar language to the GOP platform: "Health care reform must also provide adequate incentives for innovation to ensure that Americans have access to evidence-based and cost-effective health care. Research should bebased on science, not ideology" [6], and though it talks about increasing funding to various health-related government agencies, NCCAM isn't among them. If Obama's first term is a preview of a potential second, it would seem that the executive's relationship to CAM will remain largely unchanged, depending on the whims of HHS.


Archaeopteryx fossil
The fact that they still ask where all the transitional fossils are causes archaeopteryx to shrug his shoulders and ask "What am I, chopped liver?"
Evolution is science. To deny that fact is to blind yourself to over a hundred years of rock-solid evidence that has done nothing but confirm Darwin's assertions about the nature of natural selection and the origin of species. Without the theory of evolution (and I use "theory" in its scientific sense, not in the more mercurial connotative one), you'd have to throw out an incalculable number of advances science has made in biology, medicine, ecology, environmental science, and more, and it is an absolute crime that evolution isn't taught in schools the way gravity is: as the closest thing science has to fact. We have had nearly a hundred years of taught ignorance in this country, all because somebody decided to make evolution a controversial subject that is easier to avoid than to explain. Creationism, intelligent design, and evolution denial is not science; it is theology, and if it must be taught in schools, it has no place whatsoever in the science classroom. This is not an issue of "academic freedom" or "balance"; it is an issue of teaching the next generation the facts they need to integrate into society instead of indoctrinating them with religion. My ideal candidate, therefore, would be unapologetic in his or her refusal to grant stature to creationists--regardless of what they choose to call themselves--and would be an advocate for teaching evolution.

Mitt Romney has adamantly opposed teaching intelligent design or creationism in the science classroom. In 2007, he told The New York Times, "In my opinion, the science class is where to teach evolution, or if there are other scientific thoughts that need to be discussed. If we’re going to talk about more philosophical matters, like why it was created, and was there an intelligent designer behind it, that’s for the religion class or philosophy class or social studies class" [7]. Though his website makes no explicit reference to the issue, Romney has not shied away from this position and has defended it every time he has been asked.

Barack Obama's position doesn't appear to have changed since 2008, when he is quoted as saying, "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" [8]. Though he hasn't, as far as I can tell, done anything policy-wise in support of this view in the last four years, it would be ludicrous to think that he would offer any support to creationists and the ID crowd. Therefore, when it comes to the science of evolution, Obama and Romney are in total agreement.

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-e. magill 8/28/2012


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