For some time now, the blogosphere has been abuzz about the anti-science rhetoric emanating from the McCain campaign. Like agitated and erratic pit bulls in a china shop, McCain has crashed into astronomy, calling planetariums “foolishness”, toppled biological and conservation bear research, quipping that he doesn’t know if it’s “paternity issue or criminal issue” and more recently Palin toppled over basic genetic research with fruit flies.
Now I suppose one could make an argument that earmarks for planetarium equipment is not an appropriate means to obtain funding. However, the fact that he glibly equates such a noble enterprise as a planetarium as mere foolishness is something I find quite disturbing. Certainly one of the contributing factors for me entering into science was learning about science and astronomy at our local planetariums. The planetarium is an important feature of our educational landscape and deserves support. The Adler Planetarium, as you may learn from the link above, was using outdated equipment and in sore need of an upgrade, which, by the way, it did not get. This, together with the other items mentioned, portray a disturbing pattern of outright antagonism to the needs of furthering basic scientific research.
Why is this case? I suspect it may be in part due to pandering to a certain anti-intellectualism in this country. Based only on this, one could make a case that McCain and Palin have no credibility. But I also tend to think their problem is deeper and perhaps related to a more general public misunderstanding of one aspect of how science works. In high school, everything is often separated into different subjects which rarely intersect. Physics rarely, if ever, meets chemistry, which you probably don’t see in geology, and so on. Students often seem averse also to the idea of needing to use concepts learned in an earlier class. So, what does this have to do with anything?
Palin did support genetic study of harbor seals, mating habits of crabs, and support for children with disabilities. Granted, her support was probably politically motivated (though probably with a personal interest in the latter), but it was support nonetheless. The problem with Palin and McCain is that they do not seem to understand that the scientific enterprise is a giant interconnected framework. Back in the days when I did my research a lot of my work was based on the hard work of others in many disparate areas. The nuclear models upon which my work was based were derived or inspired from several different areas ranging from classical mechanical models, quantum mechanics, and so forth. Radiation patterns were understood with a combination of quantum mechanics and electromagnetism. Electromagnetism was used to design and build the steering magnets to do the experiments. Superconductivity from solid state physics was used for the ion beam acceleration process. The results of years in research in chemistry was needed to understand the targets. Detection systems were used based on years of painstaking research in solid state physics. One type of work in one area is often dependent on the results of work in a different area. In the examples before us today, genetic research, likely done from the type of fruit fly research Palin now derides, lies at the basis of the genetic research on harbor seals she supported. This type of research she dismisses is also useful in studying the development of the nervous system, needed for helping with some special needs children Palin claims to support. The bear research McCain mocks was not only very inexpensive, but useful in understanding the bear population, its relation to the local environment, and from that to learn better how to protect that environment. Apparently they want the results while taking away the elements upon which achieving those results are dependent (Assuming they actually want results of course. The cynical view would be that they’ll just claim to support whatever will make them win or better hold on to power. I’m sure nobody thought that.). What harm could this attitude have?
The derision with which these two candidates consistently attack science targets I fear will undermine the support for basic science research in this country. This will not bode well in maintaining our technological (implying also economic) and scientific effectiveness in the global picture. My friends, that’s not change we can believe in. But how could a non-scientist politician, out to win votes, do better? I would suggest a little bit of curiosity about the world. Just ask a few questions. You don’t, as a politician, need to understand all the science or even all the dependencies. But you should, through asking a few simple questions, understand something of what scientists are trying to achieve, how it relates to the big picture in basic research, technology development (where applicable), and perhaps a bit more of the background on issues for which you have an active interest. Sadly, any type of curiosity seems to be largely in short supply for both McCain and Palin. Obama, on the other hand, has displayed such curiosity and shown at least a level of understanding which won the endorsement of over 60 Nobel laureates.