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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Science and Politics

As a registered nurse, I am relieved by the requirement in my medical field to produce demonstrated and measurable outcomes when following procedures of any health care intervention where patient progress must be evaluated. This "science" is the basis of scientific based medical practice.
Therefore, it's completely ridiculous when I read about college educated politicians who fall victim to unscientific theories, sometimes even belief in "old wives tales", just because it appears politically expedient for them to do so. 

 For example, by far the most egregious statement of disbelief came from former Missouri Congressman Todd Akin who said women's bodies have some sort of mystical ability to ward off pregnancy during a "legitimate rape". This ignorant and offensive point of view is especially alarming from a man whose political constituents are roughly 50 percent women!

Although my outrage is mostly directed at science denying right wing extremists, a recent article in
 The Week pointed out nearly as equally ridiculous science skeptics from the left of the political spectrum, as well.  Some anti-intellectuals are fearful of vaccines and cell telephones, when there's no science to back up unfounded fears about undocumented side effects or harm.

A column by Shawn Lawrence Otto reprinted from Scientific American:

We Deny Science At Our Peril:
American democracy is slipping off its “foundation of science,” said Shawn Lawrence Otto. Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin strongly favored “knowledge gained by systematic study” over “the assertions of ideology,” and America’s scientific innovation made us the envy of the world for generations. It was America that pioneered automation and electrification, in medicine and biotech, in space and in tech. But now the country is being swept by “science denialism.” Republicans, sorry to say, are the worst offenders, with the party’s candidates denying evolution, human-induced climate change, and even the fact that rape can lead to pregnancy. The GOP has taken on “an anti-intellectual” cast, with an authoritarian demand for “ideological conformity,” regardless of what the facts say. Democrats are not wholly innocent: Liberals indulge in pseudo-scientific fear-mongering about vaccines, cellphones, and anything that’s not “natural.” When neither side accepts any objective test of truth, “public discourse is reduced to endless warring opinions.” We wind up with policies that are determined by “the loudest voices.”

Surprisingly, I've seen some "anti-intellectual" behavior among my nursing colleagues and friends who are sometimes skeptical of vaccines, cell phones and the science of genetic engineering.  In a recent The Mosquito Solution article published in The Annals of Science by Michael Specter, he asks if genetic engineering can eliminate the mosquito that causes a deadly tropical disease, Dengue Fever ?  Specter describes how people who live in developing countries where Dengue Fever kills children are generally supportive of genetically engineered mosquito tests to eliminate the disease.  On the other hand, "anti-intellectual" liberals, in places like Key West Fla, threw scientists out of town who recommended this solution to the area's Dengue Fever threat.

History shows how science and politics can often be at odds, but not usually when clear and convincing evidence, replicated many times over, demonstrates indisputable conclusions or outcomes.  Scientists seldom make good politicians and visa verse. 

Politicians who verbalize anti-science positions for the purpose of achieving leverage over an opponent should be required to provide proof of their educational credentials, before running for office.  Anti-science and anti-intellectual politicians are an embarrassment to their constituents and to institutions that tried to educate them.    

Let experts stick to their fields of expertise and refer one to another when they're asked to speak outside of their professional circles.  Science and politics thrive in two very different academic universes.

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