Monday, May 14, 2007

I want my President to understand, not believe

At the most recent Republican "debate" the candidates were asked to "raise their hands if they did not believe in evolution." Three raised their hands: Senator Sam Brownback, Governor Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo.
(read the transcript)
Now, generally, this was a good result. The front runners - Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney* - didn't raise their hands, and three of the candidates willingly declared themselves unfit for office. Why do I say unfit? It's not because they are religious, but because that anyone who rejects the more than 200 years of scientific research** out of hand simply should not be involved in making policy decisions. The leader of the U.S. should not pick and choose which facts to believe. The people of Kansas, Arkansas, and Colorado may be willing to have such willfully ignorant politicians represent them, but they have no place representing anyone who considers themselves part of the "reality based community" (such as me).

The question itself has been bothering me a bit though. I couldn't really put my finger on it until I read this essay by Henry Schreiber. He describes his experience teaching evolution in heavily creationist east Texas, and, in particular, his gut reaction to one student who came to him to tell him that she now "believed" in evolution:
“Believing in evolution” is an abominable non-sequitur. It reveals that the speaker doesn’t grasp the most fundamental aspect of science. Beliefs have to do with faith, and faith has to do with religious things, unseen but believed. In contrast, science is about constructing models of the natural world without recourse to anything unseen or supernatural. Believing and evolution do not go together in the same sentence. Evolution is not a metaphysical or religious truth in which one professes faith; it is just the representation that best fits and explains what is presently known about the natural world.
And that's it exactly. I want a President who understands science - not only the facts, but the process of science itself. This should be basic knowledge for every high school graduate. The current Bush administration seems to think that science is just part of the political game, and that you can pick and choose which facts to use based on your policy goals (see, for example, the Union of Concerned Scientists' statement on Scientific Integrity or Chris Mooney's The Republican War on Science***).

I want a President that will at least try to understand global warming and stem cell research and toxins in the environment. Is that so much to ask for? Will the media step up and actually start asking the hard questions? I hope so.

** Romney has his own reality issues, having claimed that France has instituted seven-year marriage contracts. It turns out that was a creation of science fiction writer (and fellow Mormon) Orson Scott Card. While I'm also a big fan of science fiction, the fact that Romney's favorite novel is Scientology-founder Hubbard's Battlefield Earth is enough to give me serious doubts about his mental state. There is a lively conversation going on at ScienceBlogs over Romney's views.

** Yes, I know Darwin didn't publish the Origin of Species until 1859, but that work was based on the work of many scientists, from the 18th century geologists James Hutton and William Smith to Darwin's own decades of research.

*** The Republicans have been in power for the past 8 years, so they've had the best opportunity to muck with science. The Democrats running for President shouldn't be exempt from answering questions on science issues too. Obama has said "Evolution is more grounded in my experience than angels." That sounds like a good start.

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