Politics

Does your candidate even science, bro?

Science and politics don’t seem like familiar bedfellows, but they’ve forged an unlikely and reluctant partnership. They’re bound together by people’s stories and answering questions that are too big for one person to wrestle with. A series of hypotheses and observations cobble together the experiments that live and die by scientific method; likewise, our still young country shot out of our revolution as the American experiment. We cannot escape a bond of following evidence.

There are a lot of things to consider when deciding who to cast your vote for on November 8th. Do they have the character to be president? Will they represent the needs of you and your family? Will they nominate Supreme Court Justices who will dutifully uphold the Constitution? Is America ready for an orange president?

As a scientist, I’ve examined the candidates’ abilities to accept the hard evidence of science with regard to policy. There are several scientific fields that enter into the political fray, including vaccines, health policy, climate change, energy policy, and GMOs. Not all candidates have made statements on the same issues, so a direct comparison across the board has been difficult. However, as could be expected in politics, there has been enough pandering, double talk, and mind-changing (sometimes within 24 hours) that made research for this article arduous.

If your vote was solely considering the candidate’s grasp of issues pertaining to science, let’s take a close examination of the nominees’ stances.

Jill Stein: I love science! Look at my tin foil hat! It’s Made of Quantum!

Dr. Jill Stein is currently polling lower than a beloved departed gorilla, but despite polling numbers that you have to drill for, she’s made herself into an indefatigable force on Twitter this election. Let’s have a chat about how her inability to science has made doctors like Dr. Pepper and Dr. Dre lose credibility.

She’s a medical doctor, so you’d expect that first and foremost, she’d be beating the drum about how vaccines are good, right?

I should have mentioned earlier that she’s the Green Party Candidate.

Jill Stein is “not anti-vax” the way that Donald Trump “doesn’t hurl personal insults.” In her Reddit AMA, she took a few paragraphs to say everything except that vaccines work and that you should get them and give them to your children. It’s not that Stein thinks vaccines are evil or will speak at anti-vaxxer conventions, it’s that she panders and speaks the same language as the crowd that does think they’re evil. She’s gone as far as to say the following to the Washington Post:

“There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.”

Let’s be clear, the vaccine schedule is safe, proven, and tested. Who questions if it has problems? People like Dr. Bob Sears, who make a fortune telling people the schedule isn’t safe… and Dr. Jill Stein, who is at the very least, pandering.

In this environment of easily-stoked vaccine fears, Dr. Stein’s message is damaging. Given her training as a medical doctor, the least scientific community could ask from a doctor’s presidential campaign would be to promote vaccination. Stein has failed at the absolute lowest expectation of scientifically ethical behavior.

Where does she succeed scientifically? Being part of the Green Party, it’s not surprising that she wants to transition to all clean, renewable energy by 2030. It’s an admirable goal because it also means she’s right on the issue that climate change is real.

Unfortunately, her goal to resolve it is not anything that could be considered scientific.

2030 is fourteen years away. As of 2015, less than 14% of our energy came from renewables. I don’t say this because I think Stein’s heart is in a bad place, but I’m not here to talk about the inherent goodness of her intentions. At this point, the typical mass produced solar cell for the home has approximately a 22% solar capture rate, with the world record being a touch over 44%. This represents decades of advancements in the field. However, given that we’re meeting less than ⅙ of our energy needs with renewables, we need to get a lot better at solar capture (and other forms of renewables) in order to meet our growing needs. This includes pouring money into research, growing infrastructure, and training scientists. It will probably also mean using nuclear, one of the cleanest energies we have despite public distrust, which Stein has branded a “weapon of mass destruction.”

A plan to be independent of non-renewables is a good idea, but the timeline is anti-science because it’s simply not feasible and demonstrates a deep lack of understanding of the issue. If we cut ourselves off from gas, oil, and coal in that time frame solely out of ideology, you would be reading this via carrier pigeon.

Stein’s other extreme positions are going to be rattled off lightning round style because, much like the American voter, ain’t nobody got time for that:

Maybe you’d be better voting Harambe.

Gary Johnson: Keep The Government Out Of The Government

Gary Johnson is the multiple-time Libertarian party nominee despite the Libertarian party never quite being happy enough with his Libertarian credentials. But this is standard for the Libertarian party, a conglomerate of anarchists, Republicans who smoke pot, the occasional fiscally conservative liberal, true diehard liberty fans, and as Johnson has said it, “batshit crazy” people. The defining moment of the libertarian convention was Gary Johnson answering that, yes indeed, people should have to pass some sort of proficiency for drivers licenses, only to be booed by his tribe.

They’re an interesting tribe, and he’s quite a colorful character in a grey suit to emerge from their midst. He’s goddamn climbed Mount Everest, he paraglides, and after all that he finds time to smoke pot. Even if you don’t want to vote for him, you kinda want to hang out with him.

But what about his stances on science?

Johnson legit thinks science is a thing, but do his positions really make a difference given that he doesn’t intend to do much with it? His campaign gives a soft yes that climate change is a thing, but stresses that government shouldn’t get involved too much. Are GMOs safe? Yes, but we should enact legislation to put a label on them, which doesn’t seem particularly Libertarian or pro-science.

Mental healthcare? When asked in his Reddit AMA by someone struggling to afford their mental health care, he told them “don’t be a victim.” Whether this was was in regards to their finances or their mental condition, it was unclear, but it’s not a leap in logic to believe this represented lack of intention from Johnson to do anything about our patchwork mental healthcare in this country.

Additionally, his position on vaccines wavers between ideology and science. Does he think vaccines work? He’s given a pretty clear yes to that, but beyond that is questionable. In 2011, he tweeted out “No to mandatory vaccines.” Then recently, he gave a radio interview in which he said he’d studied the issue and his position had evolved, and he believed in mandatory vaccines, indicating that he’d delved into the science of herd immunity. In the interview with Vermont’s NPR news station, he said “It’s dependent that you have mandatory vaccines so that every child is immune.”

The next day, when he had a crowd of his base in front of him, Johnson claimed he would only mandate vaccines in the event of the zombie apocalypse.

Did the science change in twenty-four hours? Of course not. It’s also highly unlikely that his alleged months of evolving and researching on the subject evaporated in a day. Is it political pandering to his base that loudly decried his interview statements as “medical tyranny?” Perhaps. Are there long term ramifications of not mandating vaccinations on any level? California issued a vaccine mandate last year for school children due to such a low rate of childhood vaccinations that family trips to Disneyland were bringing home biohazardous souvenirs. Despite the evidence that government intervention can help with herd immunity, the suggestion of it hurt Johnson’s standing with his base enough for him to pander back to his previous position.

But getting government out of your life does work in his favor in one area on the science; Johnson supports legalizing marijuana for both recreational and medicinal purposes. Whether or not it’s because he openly admits to imbibing the substance whereas statistically a lot of politicians are merely lying about it, his stance is to be applauded. The number of legitimate medical treatments cannabis can be used for, including appetite issues, nausea for chemotherapy patients, certain types of pain relief (which is desperately needed as practitioners struggle to manage the state of pain management), and patients with certain types of hard to manage seizure disorders have found relief with cannabis.

And while it’s illegal, anybody who uses it as their doctor prescribes and crosses certain state lines may be guilty of drug trafficking. A bit of libertarianism would go a long way on this issue.

He has some misses, and it’s up for questioning what policies would be enacted under a Libertarian presidency. But as far as “Republicans (who smoke pot) are concerned, his acceptance of science is at least better than say, the next guy…

Donald Trump: My science is the greatest science, it’s going to be tremendous, just the best science.

I’m not even sure where to start with Cheeto Jesus. You’ve heard the rumors.

I debated just giving you a collection of quotes. I thought perhaps I should stretch myself a bit as a writer and do this in haiku format. I also considered just posting a picture of a large pile of horse shit with shards of glass and maggots in it.

As Trump appears to be running his campaign via twitter, I have opted to give his stances on science from twitter followed by the appropriate response from a cartoon.

Trump On Global Warming:

“That young man fills me with hope and some other emotions which are weird and deeply confusing.” — Zapp Brannigan, Futurama

“Sometimes science is a lot more art, than science. A lot of people don’t get that.” – Rick, Rick and Morty.

I don’t like it here Morty. I can’t abide bureaucracy. I don’t like being told where to go and what to do. I consider it a violation. Did you get those seeds all the way up your butt?” – Rick, Rick and Morty

”Well, it may be stupid, but it’s also dumb.” Patrick, SpongeBob SquarePants

Trump on vaccines:

“Your opinion means very little to me.” -Rick, Rick and Morty.

“Dumb people are always blissfully unaware of how dumb they really are.” -Patrick, SpongeBob SquarePants

“It’s like a party in my mouth and everybody’s throwing up!” — Fry, Futurama

On energy policy:

“Are you the scientist or are you the kid who wanted to get laid?” -Rick, Rick and Morty.

“Can’t we have one meeting that doesn’t end with us digging up a corpse?”Mayor Joe Quimby, The Simpsons

“If we don’t go back there and make that event happen, the entire universe will be destroyed…And as an environmentalist, I’m against that.” — Al Gore as portrayed in Futurama

You know there’s more insanity in this three ring circus of fear mongering, ignorance, and political flailing, but my work here is done.

Hillary Clinton: “I believe in science.”*

And here we are at Hillary Clinton. I know you have an opinion on her. You know I have an opinion on her. And like two out of three of the other candidates here, she has some hits and misses on the science.

Given the current polling, there are fortunately more hits than misses. But I’m not letting her off the hook for anything. So let’s shine some light on her stances, for better and worse.

She is the only candidate that has said in no uncertain terms that vaccines are safe and effective.

(She also threw down that the earth is round in the same tweet — it’s been a strange election, this may have needed clarification).

In light of declaring that she believed in science in her acceptance speech before a segue into her plans to combat climate change, it’s fitting that she’s received the first ever presidential endorsement from the NRDC, one of the nation’s largest environmental groups. She likewise garnered the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters, a group that has actively tracked voting records on every environmental bill floating through Capitol Hill.  Clinton’s goals on climate change and energy policies are in line with current science and feasible with the rate at which renewables are advancing, advocating for funding research and focusing on measurable, timely results.

As for her comments on putting coal miners out of business? A few things need clearing up regarding energy policy for both sides on this one:

It’s understandable why people who work backbreaking labor to provide for the nation’s energy grid were unhappy with Clinton’s comments. Anybody who’s been laid off should be able to empathize on a human level. But discussing the coal mining industry’s eventual demise in this day and age as though it’s a pearl clutcher is just alarmist. We also have a long defunct lead paint manufacturing industry and a closed division of Bayer that advertised heroin for children as a cough syrup. In all of these cases, we figured out that their products kinda sorta worked. There was also a problem with the products kinda sorta being dangerous.

Coal miners are not going to lose their jobs tomorrow. The complete switch might not even happen in my lifetime. Renewables today are the Palm Pilot to coal’s telegraph. Both get the job done in different forms of ‘meh,’ but renewables are not economically viable yet. We’re using technology from the 1990s and the 1890s.

We haven’t invented the renewable energy version of the iPhone, the economically viable and reliable powerhouse that we need to switch away from fossil fuels. As Clinton has proposed investment into research instead of just a blind leap of faith away from current industry, it’s a long-term plan that stands a chance at working.

Clinton does have some blind spots on science. While she is not promoting alternative medicine on the campaign trail, she and her husband are advised medically by Dr. Mark Hyman. He’s a notorious alternative medicine crank who promotes the idea that all disease is caused by toxins and lifestyle, ignoring a half century of genetic research entirely. The tacit endorsement of Hyman’s work by the Clintons is troubling as Americans struggle to understand the difference between real medical science and pseudoscience. She’s also been lukewarm, at best, on the issue of medical marijuana legalization, saying that we still need more research. This ignores pre-existing evidence and inconveniently forgets that federally de-scheduling the substance would open the floodgates for research.

While she’s historically been a staunch supporter of biotech and GMO technologies, she has waffled slightly during the election. Statements have been made via twitter about labeling that seem to pander to the further left part of the liberal base while ignoring the widespread scientific consensus that GMOs are safe. Even with a voting record that supports the science, the pandering speaks to the frequent criticism that we don’t know where Clinton stands on the issue.

She’s not always right, but even if she’s the least wrong on the science, is that enough?

Who’s the “right” choice according to science?

Looking past the data, the bad smells, and the occasional picture of a rat with tumors, science is still a story of people. Some of the greatest accomplishments in science are attempts to minimize human suffering. It’s rarely one scientist who cures a disease or discovers a technological marvel that revolutionizes how we live. The big ones are always accomplished by teams of dedicated people working tirelessly for their moonshot.

There were deadly illnesses to wipe off the face of the planet, something better than arsenic as a treatment for everything from pest infestations to cancer, and an iPhone to bestow upon humanity because we needed a device that could reliably call for help in an emergency, film your own porn, and send funny pictures of cats anywhere in the world.

It’s a guarantee that some of those scientists who have worked together on the biggest breakthroughs of our times disagreed with each other deeply on important issues. They possibly disliked each other. There was maybe even yelling.

But there was important work to do, and a weary world to help.

Politicians, likewise, are at their best when differences are set aside because the human story is bigger. It’s moments when Governor Chris Christie embraces President Obama because part of his state was under water. It’s when Senator Lindsay Graham is sobbing in his car because he just found out that his friend (and occasional political foe) Joe Biden, was mourning the loss of his son. It’s when FDR says we have to do something about polio crisis, launches the March of Dimes that funds Jonas Salk’s research dime by dime from the American people, and in a generation sees polio’s ravages come to a screeching halt.

Science needs politicians who accept and defend evidence. Voters need to hold their politicians accountable when they get the science wrong. The results can and will last generations when we fail to act.

Choosing your presidential candidate involves a lot of variables, and their acceptance of science is one thread composing the fabric of their character. In the story of these strange bedfellows of science and politics, proficiency in science doesn’t just tell you how well the nominee did in tenth-grade biology class. It gives you an indication that they will hold dear this oldest of values of ours, the pursuit of evidence for a better country.

As for who’s the right person for the job, the question is for these United States to answer; whose story continues the American experiment?

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