Holding the door for a clown convention

On March 23rd, with an eagerness that I look back on fondly, I had the bright idea to write about the scientific views of each presidential candidate as they announced their campaigns. This seemed like a perfect foil for me to write about politics, with a scientific twist so that my posts were not just regurgitation of the thousands of other articles and blog posts that are written about politics every day. That day Ted Cruz had announced he was running for the highest office in the land, and I set to furiously writing down my first post in the series about what turned out to be Ted Cruz’s wildly misguided use of science. In early April, my excitement returned as I got to write another science post about Rand Paul. The next week came Hillary Clinton and Marco Rubio. Then Bernie Sanders. Then Carly Fiorina. Then Ben Carson. Then Mike Huckabee. Then Rick Santorum. Then George Pataki.

Good god! Little did I know when I started this adventure that 22 major candidates were running for president this cycle. Twenty-two candidates! I soon felt like a kind citizen holding the door open for one person only to find myself holding it open as a crowd of clowns poured through the door for the annual clown-car convention. Note that my choice of metaphor has been very carefully chosen.

On a more personal note, the past month has been especially hectic; I bought a house, adopted a puppy, had a 4th of July party, entertained multiple sets of friends and family as they came to visit, etc. I got busy. I soon found a long, daunting, overwhelming list of presidential candidates about whom I was supposed to write a blog post examining, and often excoriating, their views and statements regarding the sciences. Every other day another senator or governor crawled out of the woodworks announcing his or her intention to run for president. I got overwhelmed.

All of the above is not me making excuses for how far behind I’ve become as much as it is confessing to the crime. I’m back now; my life is more stable and I still think the idea is interesting. Amazingly, there are still twelve candidates that we need to examine. They are in alphabetical order: Jeb Bush, Lincoln Chaffee, Christ Christie, Jim Gilmore, Lindsay Graham, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, Martin O’Malley, Rick Perry, Donald Trump, Scott Walker, and Jim Webb. That’s three per week, and we’ll have them all finished by the end of August.

I hope you find these posts interesting, and I hope you’ve stuck with me. And don’t worry, I’ll be putting up some neuroscience posts up in the next month too. As always, I’m open to requests and suggestions; just email me (politicuscerebri@gmail.com).

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The scientific views of presidential candidate George Pataki

There are so many presidential candidates announcing that I’m falling behind. We recently heard that George Pataki, the former governor of New York, is officially seeking the Republican presidential nomination. He is considered a long-shot candidate, primarily because he is ranked as the most moderate of all the candidates seeking the nomination.

Below are statments and positions Pataki has made pertaining to his views on science. As I’ve said on each of these “views” posts, the point is to see if scientific evidence influences his thinking or if he rejects evidence when it doesn’t suit his previously held belief. The first three topics are not at all controversial as far as the scientific evidence is concerned, but can be among those who are not persuaded by evidence.

Climate Change

Pataki recently served as the co-chair of the Council on Foreign Relations task force on climate change. He and his colleagues released a report called Confronting Climate Change: A Strategy for US Foreign Policy. It seems clear from this report that Pataki believes that climate change is real and scientifically proven. He suggests that the best way to deal with climate change is through private initiatives, rather than governmental regulations.

The theory of evolution

It is hard to pin down a specific quote of Pataki’s regarding whether or not he accepts the science of evolution. In a recent interview with CNBC, he said “But I think it is absurd in the 21st century we’re talking about things like measles vaccines and evolution instead of things like going after ISIS before they can attack us here and reforming Washington where it’s so controlled by the special interests.” That seems to suggest that he does believe in evolution, and finds it absurd that serious presidential candidates question it. If that is what he means, I agree completely.

Vaccinations

In a taped conversation with Republican activists in New Hampshire, Pataki said “I think science has shown that vaccinations work. And to me what is really dangerous is when a parent doesn’t get their child vaccinated, a young infant who can’t be vaccinated could catch the disease. Sadly we had 50,000 whooping cough cases last year, including 20 deaths, so I think vaccination is very important and certainly appropriate that we encourage in the strongest possible terms people to make sure their children are immunized.”

Science funding

Finally when it comes to supporting and funding sciences, Pataki gave a ‘state of the state’ speech while he was governor of New York in which he said we needed to invest more in math and science education to stay competitive with the rest of the world. As governor, he provided state funding for the Energy Recovery Linac, a project designed to create the brightest source of X-rays in the world. He also provided funding to multiple institutions in New York to facilitate high-tech and biotech research. His record as governor is very pro-science!

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The scientific views of presidential candidate Rick Santorum

The Republican list of candidates grows even longer with the recent announcement that former senator Rick Santorum will seek the party’s nomination. There are so many candidates seeking to lead the GOP that those in charge of organizing debates can’t fit them all on one stage.

Santorum served as a senator from Pennsylvania for 12 years, although he lost that seat by a very wide margin in the 2006 election. Mr. Santorum also ran for president in 2012, and won 11 primaries, coming in second to Mitt Romney. Below are statments and positions Santorum has made pertaining to his views on science. As I’ve said on each of these “views” posts, the point is to see if scientific evidence influences his thinking or if he rejects evidence when it doesn’t suit his previously held belief. The first three topics are not at all controversial as far as the scientific evidence is concerned, but can be among those who are not persuaded by facts.

Climate Change

In his 2012 presidential campaign, Mr. Santorum made many statements about climate science; all of them were wrong. He has completely rejected the notion that human activity and CO2 levels contribute to recent warming patterns. He went so far as to claim that climate science is a liberal conspiracy taking advantage of natural warming patterns in an effort to regulate people’s lives more. Yikes.

The theory of evolution

Rick Santorum is avidly anti-evolution. He thinks there are many problems with evolution, although I can’t find him ever naming a problem specifically. Perhaps the “problems” are that it conflicts with his previously held beliefs. He has said that the theory of evolution is a propaganda tool for atheism. “I think there are a lot of problems with the theory of evolution, and do believe that it is used to promote to a worldview that is anti-theist, that is atheist.” Yikes. For my readers, I’ll just link to a book that does a phenomenal job showing the mountains and mountains of evidence all pointing unanimously to the fact that evolution occurs and explains the diversity of species on planet Earth.

Vaccinations

The former senator said unequivocally that he thinks children should get vaccinated and that all of his children have. In that statement he suggested there were “risks”. I suppose there are risks to anything we do ever, so I can’t say that his statement is incorrect. There are probably risks to applying sunscreen. What he should have said is the risks are extremely low if not zero; vaccines are very safe, very effective, and very necessary. Santorum also attacked governor Rick Perry for having a policy that required HPV vaccinations (although parents were allowed to opt out for a variety of reasons). It is safe to infer, then, that he is against public health policies that require vaccinations; those policies are necessary to eradicate a disease.

Science funding

While in the senate, Santorum voted several times to increase the NIH budget and for a tax on tobacco products to help pay for NIH funding. I post a link to these votes here. That link is to a conservative website though, so you’ll have to scroll down to “WASTE” to see the votes he made on research funding. Generally, it seems that the only times he opposes strong science funding is when it somehow violates his deeply held beliefs, such as stem cell research.

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The scientific views of new presidential candidate Mike Huckabee

Today we get yet another presidential announcement. Mike Huckabee officially entered the contest for the Republican nomination. Huckabee is the former governor of Arkansas, and ran for the Republican nomination in 2008 as well.

Below are statements and positions Huckabee has made that especially pertain to his views on science. The main purpose of examining these topics is to see if scientific evidence influences his thinking or if he rejects evidence when it doesn’t suit his previously held belief. The first three topics are not at all controversial as far as the scientific evidence is concerned, but can be among the public.

Climate Change

During his 2008 campaign Huckabee said “One thing that all of us have a responsibility to do is recognize that climate change is here, it’s real. That what we have to do is quit pointing fingers as to who’s at fault and recognize that it’s all our fault and it’s all our responsibility to fix it.” He added “I also support cap and trade of carbon emissions.” Fantastic!

But unfortunately it appears that Mr. Huckabee has now reversed his position and even denies ever having made his previous statements (a silly thing to do in the age of video). Worse, on his radio show Huckabee has since made some outrageously wrong claims about climate science that muddles the issue. For example he said “The volcano that erupted over in Northern Europe actually poured more CO2 into the air in that single act of nature than all of humans have in something like the past 100 years.” in case you’re wondering, the volcano did emit CO2 into the atmosphere, but not even close to as much as humans dump out.

The theory of evolution

During his 2008 campaign Huckabee repeatedly said that he does not believe in evolution. He brushes the question aside as silly since he’s not running to be an 8th grade science teacher but instead running to be the President of the United States. It seems reasonable to me that anyone running for president should know things that are taught in 8th grade. He often defends his position by saying we just don’t know for sure, but that stands in the face of mountains of evidence telling us that we do know the answer. Evolution is true!

Vaccinations

When it comes to vaccinations Huckabee believes they are safe, effective and should be mandatory. “In my state as governor, we had a strong emphasis on immunizations. It’s very vital to keep kids healthy and well.”

In an interview he scolded Michele Bachmann for claiming that a certain vaccination caused mental retardation. “That raised a howl of protest from doctors who’ve been piling up stacks of research showing no links between vaccinations and serious brain problems.”

Science funding

Huckabee has made several favorable statements about the importance of increased funding for science research. He argues that federal funding should be spent on finding cures to diseases rather than on treatment. He even makes the case that there is no private solution that can do the job as well as the federal government because, as he puts it: “You put it in the hands of the private sector, doesn’t make sense because there is no money long-term if you cure the disease.”

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Scientific views of new presidential candidate Ben Carson

Yesterday we received another presidential campaign announcement, and again it is from someone who has never held elected office (nothing necessarily wrong with that). Ben Carson announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in Detroit.

Mr. Carson is a retired neurosurgeon from Johns Hopkins Hospital. Given his medical background it is tempting to hold him to a higher standard when it comes to his positions on science matters. But that wouldn’t be fair. Below are Mr. Carson’s positions on the four issues that some find controversial even though scientists have uncovered mountains of evidence to support only one side.

Climate Change

In an interview with Bloomberg news, Mr Carson said “There’s always going to be either cooling or warming going on. As far as I’m concerned, that’s irrelevant. What is relevant is that we have an obligation and a responsibility to protect our environment.” When pressed a bit further by pointing out that scientists who study climate change are nearly unanimous on this issue he added “You can ask it several different ways, but my answer is going to be the same. We may be warming. We may be cooling.” To say that the globe “may be cooling” is factually incorrect. On this issue it is clear that despite his background Mr. Carson has made up his mind based on something other than scientific evidence.

The theory of evolution

Ben Carson has been very outspoken about his complete rejection of the theory of evolution. He has even gone so far to say that scientists do not know the age of the Earth saying “carbon dating and all of these things really don’t mean anything to a God who has the ability to create anything at any point in time.” Perhaps not, but these things mean something to people who follow the evidence wherever it leads.

This is very disappointing. The theory of evolution has so much evidence supporting it that to reject it requires a great deal of ignorance on the topic or perhaps an unbreakable bias against it. A person given the power of the United States Presidency who rejects mountains of facts because he or she doesn’t like them is a frightening thing.

Vaccinations

Fortunately it’s not all bad news. Mr. Carson wrote a very thoughtful piece in the Washington Times advocating for vaccination programs and insisting that these programs need to be mandatory. In regard to the link between vaccination and autism (or other health risks) he says “I am not aware of scientific evidence of a direct correlation. I think there probably are people who may make a correlation where one does not exist, and that fear subsequently ignites, catches fire and spreads. But it is important to educate the public about what evidence actually exists.”

Well said. I wonder why he doesn’t find his own words convincing when it comes to climate science or evolution.

Science funding

Mr. Carson has no political or legislative record to look to for his position on research funding, so we’ll have to settle with his statements. He has not so far given too many specific plans (the campaign just started!), but I did come across one relevant quote from his book, America the Beautiful. “I believe the logical approach would be to have each governmental agency and department trim its budget by 10% — with no exceptions. In each subsequent year, another 10% decrease would be required and would continue as long as necessary to bring the budget back into balance. This would mean there would be no sacred cows and no sparing of entitlements. No politician, agency, or special interest group could cry foul.”

An annual 10% cut to the NIH budget would be simply disastrous. Long-term projects would run out of funding mid-way through and what is already a very unfriendly funding environment would turn even uglier. It is a little surprising that a surgeon thinks using a hatchet to solve the nation’s budget problems is a good idea.

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Scientific views of new presidential candidate Carly Fiorina

This will be a busy week of announcements. This morning we awoke to the news that Carly Fiorina has officially announced that she is running for the Republican presidential nomination. Mrs. Fiorina has never held elected office, although she ran for a senate seat in California in 2010. Instead of politics, her experience comes from the private sector. Carly was the CEO of Hewlett-Packard for six years.

Now that she has made her presidential campaign official, let’s examine her scientific views. I have been examining views and positions on three issues for each candidate, climate change, the theory of evolution, and vaccinations. The reason I chose these is because all three are relatively controversial, but all three have overwhelming scientific evidence supporting one side. That is, these issues are only controversial if you use something other than scientific evidence to shape your views and opinions. If you just use currently known facts to base your views and beliefs then you should come down solidly on only one side with all three of these topics.

Climate Change

With a lot of candidates, finding a definitive statement or position on a slippery topic is tough. Mrs. Fiorina has been pretty clear on her views of climate change. At an event in New Hampshire she said “There is a lot of consensus among the scientists that climate change is real and human activity contributes to it. But there is also absolute consensus among the same scientists that a single nation acting along can make no difference at all.”

Mrs. Fiorina clearly accepts the science on climate change. She stresses that the solution will be found in innovation and technology rather than regulation by governments. “The only answer to this is innovation, and in that America could be the best in the world. Because we will not have a harmonized regulatory regime.” It is refreshing to see a candidate who looks for different solutions to the problem rather than resorting to denying the problem’s existence because the solution is unpalatable.

The theory of evolution

The theory of evolution doesn’t come up in day to day discussions as much as it used to. Usually the issue that brings it to the forefront is attempts to teach non-scientific theories about the diversity of species in public classrooms. I couldn’t find any direct quotes from the candidate regarding this issue. There is a fairly good chance that the question will be asked directly over the course of the campaign, and I’ll update this section when she makes a statement.

Vaccinations

Again Mrs. Fiorina appears to be factoring in evidence into her stance on vaccinations. I couldn’t find a direct quote regarding the supposed link  between vaccines and autism, but she has made statements about vaccines. “I think there’s a big difference between — just in terms of the mountains of evidence we have — a vaccination for measles and a vaccination when a girl is 10 or 11 or 12 for cervical cancer just in case she’s sexually active at 11. So, I think it’s hard to make a blanket statement about it. I certainly can understand a mother’s concerns about vaccinating a 10-year-old.” In the same statement she also said “I think vaccinating for measles makes a lot of sense. But that’s me. I do think parents have to make those choices.”

I think it is a fair reading to say that she thinks vaccinations are safe, effective, and advised. And again, it is refreshing that she backs up those statements by pointing to the evidence at hand. Her caveats seem to be about government requiring vaccinations to parents who feel otherwise.

Science funding

Since Mrs. Fiorina has never held elected office it is hard to find evidence about her science funding priorities. The closest I could find to her vision of funding was from a post she wrote during her 2010 senatorial election in which she proposed starting every governmental department’s budget at zero dollars and adding funding for things as needed, as opposed to starting with the previous year’s budget as the starting point. That would likely have big ramifications on science funding; stability is critical given that most research projects take many, many years to reach fruition. However, it does not make clear what level of priority she would give science funding if she were in charge.

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The scientific views of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders

You might have missed it because it didn’t receive as much media attention, but Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont announced his candidacy for the presidential nomination yesterday. This makes him the first official contender squaring off against Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee.

Senator Sanders is currently serving in the senate representing Vermont, and before that was the congressman from the same state for nearly 20 years. As both a congressman and senator, Mr. Sanders is officially an independent, although he caucuses with the democrats.

Climate Change

Senator Sanders has a good record of accepting the science of climate change. He received one of the highest rankings from Climate Hawks Vote, a group that scores senators’ based on their statements, legislation, votes, etc regarding climate change. Senator Sanders has also directly challenged his fellow senators when they write off the dire warnings coming from the vast majority of scientists who study climate. For example, he scolded Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma for his statements that the recent changes in temperature are merely part of a routine cycle: “The bottom line is that when Senator Inhofe says global warming is a hoax, he is just dead wrong, according to the vast majority of climate scientists.”

Theory of Evolution

Unlike the other candidates so far, I was unable to find a single statement from Senator Sanders on his views of the theory of evolution. If readers know of a stance he’s made one way or the other, leave a link in the comments.

Vaccinations

Senator Sanders has said “I think obviously vaccinations work. Vaccination has worked for many, many years. I am sensitive to the fact that there are some families who disagree but the difficulty is if I have a kid who is suffering from an illness who is subjected to a kid who walks into a room without vaccines that could kill that child and that’s wrong.” That statement doesn’t directly address the recent issue of many people fearing a link between vaccines and autism despite the scientific evidence overwhelmingly showing no link. However, when combined with another incident in which Senator Sanders brushed off arguments made by Robert Kennedy Jr. that vaccines are causing autism, I think it is safe to say that Mr. Sanders is accepting the scientific evidence on the issue.

Funding Sciences

Senator Sanders has introduced legislation to make some dramatic changes to research funding. The main purpose of his legislation is not to increase or decrease research funding, but instead to reduce the cost of health products to citizens. His website says “his proposal would also reduce wasteful spending on research, development and marketing.” Unfortunately there is not any further discussion of what he considers wasteful spending on research. From the context it seems to imply that any research that is not directly dedicated to producing a new medication or treatment for a known disease. But of course the research projects directly developing and testing treatments for disease are relying on a large scope of basic science research. That is, in order to develop a new treatment for some disease, you first need basic information about the disease, about the system that disease occurs in, etc. It would be a grave mistake to limit science funding on only those grants that are directly testing new treatments and medications for existing diseases!

All in all, Senator Sanders appears to be pretty friendly to science. He at least seems to allow scientific evidence to shape his opinions, a trait sorely needed among our political leaders in my very humble opinion.

Politicus Cerebri