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

Continue reading

On the scientific views of presidential candidate Martin O’Malley

Under different circumstances Martin O’Malley, who served as mayor of Baltimore and more recently the governor of Maryland, would be in a strong position to claim the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. Unfortunately for Mr. O’Malley his chances are looking rather bleak.

Even so, a lot can happen between now and the first primary elections, and it is worth getting to know each candidate and giving them their shot in the spotlight to convince us they are the best for the job. When I look at each candidate I want to know how science, data and evidence shape their worldview. Below are Mr. O’Malley’s views on a variety of topics that are considered controversial to the public even though the evidence is weighted very heavily in one direction over the other. If this would-be president looks to data to shape his views then he should have no trouble cutting through noise.

Climate Change

Governor O’Malley made my job of finding his stance on this topic pretty simple. O’Malley wrote an op-ed piece for USA Today about climate change in which he said

Given the grave threat that climate change poses to human life on our planet, we have not only a business imperative but a moral obligation to future generations to act immediately and aggressively

He has also proposed a fairly aggressive plan to combat climate change if he were made president. Mr. O’Malley has also made some headlines by suggesting that climate change has played a role in the chaos occurring in Syria and Iraq. That is, he suggests ISIS is a result of a changing climate. That claim may be stepping out on a limb, although it is not completely unsuported by evidence. A recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests there could be a link between climate change and the Syrian conflict.

Regardless, it is pretty safe to say that O’Malley accepts the science of climate change and is taking it very seriously.

The theory of evolution

Despite lengthy searching, I was unable to find any relevant quotes O’Malley has made regarding the theory of evolution. This topic tends to come up more among Republican candidates since the teaching of evolution vs creationism or intelligent design is a pet issue of evangelicals. I will update this section if any relevant information comes to my attention.

 Vaccinations

A Buzzfeed reporter asked O’Malley if he thought parents should be required to vaccinate their children and if there should be a religious excemption. A campaign spokeswoman offered the following statement on his behalf.

Gov. O’Malley believes it is critically important for every family to vaccinate their children. It is his hope that the American people take cues from medical professionals rather than pandering Republican presidential candidates.

 

Science funding

Finally I like to look at each candidate’s stance on funding for research. O’Malley signed a letter to congress urging them to increase the National Institutes of Health budget by 3.2%. As governor of Maryland, one of his signature economic policies, investMaryland, raised $84 million dollars for investment in innovation, technology and research initiatives.

All in all, Martin O’Malley is certainly near the top of the list of candidates as far as aligning his positions with evidence and being science-friendly. Kudos!

On the scientific views of presidential candidate Chris Christie

Finally we come to my favorite candidate to read and write about, a man who could be described as a rational-minded moderate or an egotistical, tyrannical thug but would never be described as boring. Chris Christie. Christie has been serving as governor of New Jersey since 2010, and is now one of the 17 candidates elbowing their way to the Republican presidential nomination.

Christie is somewhat famous for his brash temperament and his town-hall meetings in which he gives it to people unfiltered. He has also gotten attention for demanding Mitt Romney not raise money from any donors in New Jersey until he approved, and shutting down the George Washington Bridge to cause a massive traffic jam as payback to a local official for not backing him. Whatever you think of Christie, you have to admit he’s fun to pay attention to. If you don’t know what I’m talking about just watch this quick highlight of some things he’s said.

Below are Christie’s statements, positions and policies regarding a few issues that are controversial among the public but have massive amounts of evidence supporting one side over the other. By examining his views on these issues we can hopefully shed some light on how much data, evidence and science shape his world view.

Climate Change

At an event in New Hampshire, Governor Christie said “I think global warming is real. I don’t think that’s deniable, and I do think human activity contributes to it.”

So he accepts the science. When it comes to policy solutions to this problem Christie stressed that the United States “can’t be acting unilaterally.” His record as governor on environmental policy is somewhat mixed.

The theory of evolution

Christie’s position on whether or not he accepts the science of evolution is easily summed up by one quote he made at a press conference in 2011: “That’s none of your business.” Christie went on to say “Evolution is required teaching, if there’s a certain school district that also wants to teach creationism, that’s not something we should decide in Trenton.” I’ll call this a punt, but even though he dodged answering the question (so much for giving it to us straight) his position shows a tolerance and acceptance for cramming religious ideas into a science classroom. Certainly Creationism can be taught in a theology class, but in biology classrooms it is shameful to teach anything other than biology.

 Vaccinations

Earlier this year Governor Christie said in regard to vaccination “Mary Pat and I have had our children vaccinated, and we think that it’s an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health. I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.”

A few months later in New Hampshire, when confronted by a member of the National Vaccine Information Center – an anti-vaccination group – Christie said “I would err on the side of protecting public health through vaccine unless that vaccine has proven to be harmful to the public.”

I think this passes as a position informed by the science. My take is that he is trying his best not to be dismissive of parents’ concern but is also acknowledging that that public health requires mandatory vaccinations until a vaccine is proven to be harmful. Am I being too generous to pull all of that out of his cryptic politician speak?

Science funding

Christie has tried to cut cancer research funding in his home state of New Jersey six years in a row. Christie also cut education funding by about 1 billion dollars as governor. However, he was one of only a few Republican governors to sign on to a letter to congress which said:

As you develop the Congressional Budget Resolution, we urge you to enable the 3.2% funding increase for NIH contained in the President’s budget request. We thank you for your past support for biomedical research and ask you to craft a budget resolution that accommodates the President’s $32.2 billion FY 2011 NIH budget request.

Politicus Cerebri

On the scientific views of presidential candidate Jim Webb

The Democratic primary has received far less attention than its republican counterpart, most likely because Hillary Clinton is so far ahead in terms of money, party endorsements and polls. However, there is a Democratic primary race occuring, and it is worth while getting to know the candidates running against Clinton. Jim Webb is one such candidate; he was a senator from Virginia, serving a single term from 2006-2012. He was also the Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan.

Unfortunately, because of Webb’s relatively sparse record in public office – and because he isn’t receiving as much media coverage and questioning about campaign issues – nailing down his statements, votes and positions on a variety of issues to gain insight into how science influences his thinking is a difficult task. Even so, I’ll post what I could find below, and hopefully as his campaign for president continues some of the blanks will be filled in; I’ll update this post as new information filters in.

Climate Change

Senator’s Webb’s position on climate change is a little hard to interpret. His statements, according to the many articles written about this issue seem to indicate he accepts the science that the Earth’s temperatures are rising dramatically and that human activity is a major contributing factor – although I couldn’t find that quote myself and none of the articles ever link to a source. However, as a senator, he voted against nearly every single environmental bill that was ever up for a vote. Seriously, he has a very poor record on addressing climate change. He even went so far as to say that CO2 is too ubiquitous to be a pollutant.

That statement is scientifically incorrect.

There is a good chance this apparent mismatch between his words and his actions is because there is a large coal industry in Virginia. So what should we think about him? Is it a good thing that he accepted the science vocally (apparently) even though it was very inconvenient for him as a senator? Or should we hold him to his record and say that perhaps his words were hollow simply because he feared taking the opposite position as a Democratic senator? I tend to lean towards the latter option; a candidate who allows data to influence his thinking but not his policy is useless.

The theory of evolution

Try as I may, I could not find any clues to Webb’s take on the theory of evolution. I will update this section if any information comes out during the upcoming election.

[update:8/10/15]

Astute reader Roger Bigod pointed out that Senator Webb did make a statement regarding evolution in his book Born Fighting. Indeed, with that tip I was able to track down the relevant passage:

This confrontation between religious and scientific theories is still unsettled even today, as creationists rationally argue that the living world could not have been fashioned without an “intelligent designer,” and that the theory of evolution as presented by the Darwinists still rests on scientific speculation that has yet to be proven.

That final statement is dead wrong (and was wrong in 2005 when the book was published). The theory of evolution has massive evidence behind it “proving” it beyond any reasonable doubt. The only sense in which it is unproven is the philosophical sense in which nothing can ever be truly proven. In that case, the theory that germs cause disease and that sex makes babies are also “yet to be proven.”

Thank you Roger for bringing this to my attention!

Vaccinations

I also could not find any information on Mr. Webb’s positions regarding vaccination. It appears to me that the senator needs to work harder on getting his thoughts on the issues out there to the public better.

Science funding

When the issue of increasing science funding came up in the senate, Senator Webb voted in favor of it. Tracking down hard statements of his vision for research funding and its place in American society is again difficult to do. But I suppose a vote in favor of increased funding for research is good enough.

Politicus Cerebri

On the scientific views of presidential candidate Scott Walker

If you have a vague recollection that you’ve heard the name Scott Walker before, it is probably because he has been the subject of a lot of very controversial legislation in Wisconsin, the state in which he is currently the governor. The biggest controversy came when he pushed through anti-union laws that restricted their ability to bargain collectively. The outrage over this law was so great that Wisconsin citizens struck back by holding a recall election to remove Walker from office. He survived that recall effort, and then won a second term as governor in 2014. That is an impressive feat for such an aggressive Republican governor in a state that has voted for Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 1984. You can see why he thinks he can win.

As with all the presidential candidates, I have run Governor Walker’s views, statements and record past a litmus test of issues to test what influences his thinking. These issues – climate change, evolution, and vaccinations – are the source of heated controversy among the public, but have mountains of data supporting one side over the other. If a person uses hard data and results from rigorous scientific exploration, then they should have no trouble cutting through all the noise about these issues and finding the facts.

Climate Change

I was a little surprised at the difficulty of finding Governor Walker articulating a specific point of view regarding climate change. When asked direct questions about it, he responds with a very ambiguous answer, such as this one given to a young boy who asked him about it at a political convention.

If you examine his record as governor, it begins to become fairly clear that if he does accept the science that human activity is driving an increase in global temperatures, then he doesn’t care about it. Tim McDonnell wrote an article piecing together Walker’s record on environmental issues that is worth a read. The highlights are that Walker is leading the charge against President Obama’s new climate rules, cut funding for research on renewable energy, increased funding on research examining potential health impact of wind turbines, cut recycling programs, etc.

Suffice it to say, Walker’s actions speak louder than his words. He does not appear to be worried about climate change in any measurable way.

The theory of evolution

When asked if he believed in evolution, Walker dodged the question saying “That’s a question politicians shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.” Perhaps a fair point, except that it does give voters information about his thought process, and is important information when the issue of education standards gets raised.

When pressed further for his views on the issue he finally conceded “I think God created the Earth. I think science and my faith aren’t incompatible.” If you have faith that life did not evolve on planet Earth then that would set up a pretty large incompatibility with science.

Vaccinations

Walker told a reporter that “My wife and I send out a card to all newborns, in conjunction with Hallmark, to encourage people to get vaccinated.” That’s pretty clear. He went on to say that whether or not they should be mandatory is up to the States, but it seems clear that he has rejected the incorrect hypothesis that vaccines cause autism.

Science funding

Finally, I always like to look at where candidates stand regarding science research funding. As mentioned above Governor Walker is moving to cut funding for clean energy research. But perhaps that is part of his climate policy rather than a broader science research position. Perhaps more telling is Walker’s more recent budget which calls for large cuts to the State University system. As a university professor put it “We are now facing a cut that will absolutely savage the infrastructure and quality of teaching and research to this university.”

Like so many presidential candidates, Scott Walker is pretty slippery when it comes to answering direct questions about these issues. However, piecing together information from his statements, vague though they may be, and his record as governor, it does not seem like a leap to me to put Mr. Walker down as not too friendly to the sciences.

Politicus Cerebri

On the scientific views of presidential candidate Jeb Bush

Just when you thought we would have a decade without a Bush running for president, Jeb – the son of 41st  president George H.W. Bush and brother of 43rd president George W. Bush – has announced that he gets a turn too. And don’t write off his chances just because his father’s presidency ended when he was unseated by Bill Clinton and his brother’s presidency ended with the lowest approval ratings of any sitting president since Nixon was forced to resign. Jeb Bush is already polling at or near the top of the field, and his campaign and SuperPAC have pulled in an astonishing 103 million dollars in the first six months.

So we know that Jeb can raise a lot of money, but we do not know how this would-be president thinks. My hopes and dreams for our next president is that he or she uses evidence to shape his beliefs, data to drive her policies, and logic to make his decisions. In other words, I hope she thinks like a scientist. With each candidate I have been examining their thoughts, opinions, statements and pontifications on science to measure what drives their thought process. I look up their views on several issues that are considered controversial to the public, but are not controversial at all when you examine the underlying data and studies. The hope is that if the candidate is looking to evidence and data to make a well-reasoned, thoughtful policy about each issue, then they will cut through the noise and land on the conclusion bolstered by mountains of scientific evidence. Here we go!

Climate Change

There is a massive consensus among climate scientists that the average global temperatures are rising, and that human activity is a major contributing factor to this warming. Jeb Bush recently remarked “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope” A good start, but where does he get his policy from? At an event in New Hampshire, Bush laid out his views on climate science. “The climate is changing. We need to adapt to that reality.” However, in the same event he also said “I don’t think the science is clear of what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted,” and then went on to call those who do not feel so confused – like the 97% of climate scientists who study this – intellectually arrogant.

Given the incredibly low bar set by so frighteningly many of his competitors, let’s give this nuanced position about a B. He is by no means dismissing the mountains of data being thrown at him, and that is a relief. Ok, he’s also being hugely resistant to the conclusions from that pile of data because admitting it causes a huge conflict with his ambition to become president. Like I said, about a B.

The theory of evolution

It depresses me that this is still so controversial among the American public. Evolution is the unifying theory of biology, and probably has more evidentiary support for it than any other scientific theory in existence. Even so a majority of Americans do not think it is true. Jeb was the governor of Florida for a while, and during that time he was responsible for Florida schools. When asked if intelligent design (one of the religious theories opposing evolution) should be taught in classrooms, Governor Bush said “It’s not part of our standards. Nor is creationism. Nor is Darwinism or evolution, either.” When pressed a little further for clarifying remarks Bush added “I don’t think we need to restrict discussion, but it doesn’t need to be required, either.”

When asked directly by the Miami Herald where he personally believes in evolution or not, he said “Yeah, but I don’t think it should actually be part of the curriculum, to be honest with you. And people have different points of view and they can be discussed at school, but it does not need to be in the curriculum.”BUT, in the five-paragraph statement, the Republican governor also said “I am a practicing Catholic, and my own personal belief is God created man and all life on earth.”

Are you confused yet? Let’s recap. He does believe in evolution and he does believe that God created man and all life on earth. He does not believe personal beliefs should determine school standards, but he also does not think that evolution should be part of the school curriculum because people have different personal beliefs about it. Somewhere in that muddled mess is an honest answer to the question.

Vaccinations

In a speech in Detroit, Jeb said “Parents ought to make sure their children are vaccinated.” In that same speech he seemed pretty determined not to get spun off in any weird twists or turns regarding state’s rights, autism, mercury or any of the other silly things that this topic often gets spun into. His answer was direct: should you vaccinate your children? Yes. 

Science funding

Finally there is research funding. As a scientist myself, I always want to know how candidates feel about funding the sciences. As governor of Florida, Bush vetoed a research funding bill to fund the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. However, in his statement regarding that veto he said “Although the Center provides outstanding research and treatment of cancer, funding for medical research is primarily a federal, not a state, responsibility.” So it would seem this veto did not signify a stance against funding research as much as a belief that science funding is a responsibility of the federal government. He is now trying to become the chief executive of the federal government, so how would a president Bush treat science funding if he were allowed to take the office? At an event in Iowa he said “I would add another long-term spending initiative that we ought to be focused on. One, of course, is these infrastructure projects. The other is research and development. As we’ve cut back with NIH funding and other types of research funding, we lose the initiative to cure diseases. And I think this is an appropriate role for government.”

To sum up the scientific views of Jeb Bush, I’d have to say Bush does fairly well. He faces a constituency that is not always friendly to openly espousing scientific views. That fact most probably accounts for the many hedges and question-dodges that he does. But overall, he seems to be fairly scientifically literate and fairly open to the scientific evidence around him, even when that evidence puts him in uncomfortable positions.

Politicus Cerebri

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).

Politicus Cerebri