Christmas Poem

For those of you that fall into the category of grumpy curmudgeon who grumbles that retail stores are already putting out Christmas paraphernalia, apologies for a Christmas-themed post in early November. Below is a poem I wrote for my in-laws. To put the poem in context, one of the first interactions I had with my now mother-in-law was her telling me that during Christmas she wasn’t having any of my skeptical, atheist nonsense. In her house everyone believed in Santa Clause or didn’t receive any presents from him; deal with it.

This poem was my response.

On the scientific validity of the magical, immortal man known as Santa Clause

 

Here is the problem I’m facing this season

I’ve devoted myself to both science and reason

But a challenge was stated that told me, in essence,

Believe in Santa or you won’t get any presents.

I could never accept such a fable I fear

A single man bringing gifts to each house once a year

Thus you see that I’m stuck in a quandary indeed

I don’t believe in Santa, but there’s shit that I need

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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.

Politicus Cerebri

Newt Gingrich calls on congress to double the NIH budget!

I’ve previously written about how the US Government’s funding priorities are out of whack. Today former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times arguing that congress should double the National Institute of Health’s budget because we desperately need more science research! His article is a breath of fresh air, and sets a good example of how science and research funding shouldn’t be a partisan issue. He makes this point by bringing attention to the fact that the science boom of the 90’s occurred due to a bill passed by the Republican congress and Democratic President. He writes:

Amid the policy fights that followed the Republican victories of 1994, President Bill Clinton and the new majorities in Congress reached one particularly good deal: doubling the budget for the National Institutes of Health.

Gingrich also does a good job of making clear why the current funding status is causing such a strain among research scientists.

The N.I.H. budget (about $30 billion last year) has effectively been reduced by more than 20 percent since then. As 92 percent of the N.I.H. budget goes directly to research, one result is that the institutes awarded 12.5 percent fewer grants last year than in 2003. Grant applications, over the same period, increased by almost 50 percent.

He goes on to make a great case for why we should make science research a funding priority whether you are conservative or liberal. I encourage you to go read it!

Politicus Cerebri

The scientific views of new presidential candidate Marco Rubio

The 2016 election is heating up fast! Today we get another Republican candidate officially announcing his bid for the presidential nomination. Marco Rubio announced his candidacy at an event in Miami tonight.

Marco Rubio has been serving as a senator from Florida since 2011. Although he doesn’t have as much name recognition nationally as some of the other candidates, he’s considered by many to be one of the biggest contenders in the Republican field. This is mostly because he can check so many boxes of what a Republican primary winner needs to be. He’s a Cuban-American, and has performed better with the Latino American vote in his election in Florida than average Republicans. He has high rankings as a very conservative candidate with many conservative organizations that track such things. He has also won state-wide election in Florida, a must-win state for any presidential contender.

But how does Senator Rubio rank on science positions? I’ve been running each candidate through their positions on a handful of science issues that the scientific community has a large consensus on, but that the general population finds controversial. Those items are climate change, the theory of evolution, and vaccinations. I also look at each candidate’s position on science research funding in general.

Climate Change

When looking for the position on each topic, I try not to misread into a nuanced position; instead I try to mainly uncover how the candidate feels about scientific evidence. If the vast majority of research results come back a certain way, that should be very convincing for someone who shapes their opinions based on evidence. In Senator Rubio’s case he has a fantastic quote regarding climate science that shows whether he uses evidence to shape his opinions: “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it.” In other words, he’s aware scientists report it, but rejects it anyway. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t offer any evidence to support his rejection.

The theory of evolution

I look at statements about the theory of evolution because it is a case where the science is so, overwhelmingly, indisputably in confirmation of the theory. With the evidence gained from the last 150 years, to deny evolution as a fact is as crazy as denying that germs cause disease or that sex is what causes babies. So when a politician doesn’t believe in evolution, it is a sign that he is out of touch with science at best, and hostile to it at worst. Mr. Rubio has said “At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all”. Indeed, you should be able to teach anything you like, but which class you teach it in matters. Science needs to be taught in the science classroom, and religion in the theology classroom. The Senator continues “I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.” Granted, the theory of evolution isn’t about how the Earth was created, but it’s pretty clear from his statements that he does not embrace the overwhelming evidence that all life on the planet has evolved. In that interview he did say one thing that is undoubtedly true: “I’m not a scientist, man.”

Vaccinations

Before you think I’m out to smear Senator Rubio, I give him high marks for accepting the science which strongly suggests no link between vaccines and autism. Mr. Rubio weighed in on the topic saying “There is absolutely no medical science or data what so ever that links those vaccinations to onset of autism or anything of that nature.” Kudos!

Science funding

Given some of the above views of Senator Rubio, there was a lot of concern when he was appointed the chair of the Senate subcommittee on oceans, atmosphere, fisheries, and Coast Guard. Mostly that fear is because that subcommittee determines the budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the branch of the government doing lots of research on climate change. To my knowledge, Senator Rubio has not used his position to boost or cut science funding. He has only been on the committee for a few months though. I also don’t see any direct quotes about his more general feelings on science funding. Marco Rubio opposed and voted against the sequester that devastated science research budgets (among other things), but his reasons were mainly because of the cuts on military spending. He never mentioned research as a reason the sequester was bad policy.

Politicus Cerebri

The scientific views of new presidential candidate Hillary Clinton

Today we got the announcement everyone has been expecting for quite a long time. Hillary Clinton has officially become the first candidate seeking the Democratic party’s presidential nomination.

As each candidate announces their bids for the presidency I’ve been looking at their views on issues that have a scientific consensus but that are not necessarily widely accepted by the population.

Climate Change

Clinton said in a recent speech “The science of climate change is unforgiving, no matter what the deniers may say, sea levels are rising, ice caps are melting, storms, droughts and wildfires are wreaking havoc”.

Theory of Evolution

In an interview during Mrs. Clinton’s 2008 presidential run, Hillary said “I believe in evolution, and I am shocked at some of the things that people in public life have been saying.” She added, “I believe that our founders had faith in reason and they also had faith in God, and one of our gifts from God is the ability to reason.”

Vaccinations

When it comes to whether vaccinations cause autism or not Clinton has been pretty clear:

Funding Sciences

Clinton decried the sequester cuts focusing on the damage it would cause to science research. She said “In the days and months ahead, all of us who care deeply about finding a cure for epilepsy and other diseases need to be very loud and passionate about the continued research funding that is necessary,” Clinton said. “I do think there has to be a greater awareness on the part of the American people about what this will mean – not just today or next week, but in years to come.”

When it comes to the sciences Hillary’s positions are overall pretty friendly.

Politicus Cerebri

2016 Presidential Election has Officially begun!

This morning we have the first official announcement of a candidate running for President. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas announced his intention to run for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. Of course, everyone paying attention to the secret primary already knew he was running, but today he made it official.

As each candidate announces, I’ll try to give a quick rundown of their stances on science policy. Senator Cruz is a new face in Washington having only been serving in the Senate since 2013. So there is not as big a database of quotes and opinions to pull from.

Senator Cruz is often labeled a “science denier” and that is mostly because of his statements on climate change. Mr. Cruz insists that those who raise concerns about the alarming trend of increased global temperatures are dead wrong. He tries to back this up by saying that the Earth’s temperature has not risen in the last 17 years. Below is an image from NASA/GSFC/Earth Observatory, NASA/GISS showing how misleading that statement is.

getting hot

Senator Cruz has been serving as the chairman of the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness.

I am not aware of the senator ever offering a position on evolution.

Senator Cruz is in favor of vaccinations for children. I’ll be honest, this surprised me a little. From the many times he so enthusiastically embraced Tea Party positions, I assumed he would at least pander about this issue, but his direct quote is “Children of course should be vaccinated.” Kudos!

Finally when it comes to science funding in general, Senator Cruz tends to support cutting government spending in every area except the military. This sentiment comes more from concern about government debt. Earlier I wrote about how our funding priorities heavily favor war over knowledge. Mr. Cruz is guilty of this sin as well, ranting about how our government is saddled with too much debt to allow us to maintain funding for things like research on curing diseases. But at the same time insists we must not decrease military spending despite the fact that we spend more on our military than the next 8 countries combined.

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US budget favors war over knowledge

One of the biggest weaknesses a democracy must always work to overcome is the short memory of its voters. In March, 2013 the President, Congress, and Senate all failed miserably at governing when they allowed sequestration to occur. Sequestration was a horrible law that said the legislators and President had to come up with a budget agreement by a certain date otherwise massive, irresponsible and terribly damaging budget cuts would slash every part of every department no matter how important. The idea was to hold a loaded gun to their heads to put lots of pressure on everyone so that they would feel obligated to compromise with each other and work together to find some common ground.

But now it is clear that the current US government prefers suicide to compromise, so in March after months and months of ugly debate, they failed to find any common ground and the sequestration gun went off. I know, I know, 2013 was two whole years ago! Why bring this up now?

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