Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Friday, September 18, 2015

No science, no vote.

As a nation, we need to stand up and say that we are sick of political candidates who espouse ignorant, anti-science views.

No, let me amend that; we don't need to say it.  We need to shout it.

The topic comes up because of  the Republican primary debate night before last.  All eyes, of course, were on Donald Trump; with the lead he's got, he's going to be hard to beat for the nomination unless he makes a serious misstep.

He made one two nights ago.  But the bizarre thing is that damn near no one is talking about it.

I mean, he made a good many other cringe-worthy statements, all delivered with his badda-bing-badda-boom style that for some reason seems to excite people.  Perhaps the most embarrassing moment of all was the exchange with Carly Fiorina over his questioning how anyone "could vote for that face," which ended with a verbal right hook from Fiorina and a babbling you're-beautiful-who-loves-ya-baby backpedal response from Trump.  But despite his gaffes and handwaving and mugging for the camera, and his zero details, we'll-just-fix-it platform, he pretty much stuck with his political script throughout the whole debate.

Until the topic of vaccines came up, and Trump said he thought that vaccination causes autism.

"People that work for me, just the other day," Trump said, "two years old, two and a half years old, their child, their beautiful child, went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very very sick, now is autistic."

[image courtesy of photographer Gage Skidmore and the Wikimedia Commons]

The moderator asked Ben Carson and Rand Paul to respond to that.  Why did he pick those two, out of the ten other people in the debate?

Because they're doctors, that's why.  They should know the truth, and be unafraid to say it.

And both of them bobbled the question.  

At a moment when the appropriate response would have been, "You, Mr. Trump, are dead wrong, and are apparently incapable of reading peer-reviewed science," both of them gave milquetoast rebuttals that sidestepped the main point -- that what Trump had just said was dangerously incorrect.

There have been numerous studies, and they have not shown any correlation between vaccination and autism.  This was something that was spread widely fifteen or twenty years ago, and has not been adequately, you know, revealed to the public what's actually going on.  Vaccines are very important.  Certain ones; the ones that would prevent death or crippling.  There are others, a multitude of vaccines, that probably don't fit in that category, and there should be some discretion in those cases.  You know, a lot of this is pushed by big government.  And that's one of the things that people so vehemently want to get rid of, big government. 
Trump, whose motto is Death Before Backing Down, responded:
Autism has become an epidemic.  Twenty-five years ago, thirty-five years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close.  It has gotten totally out of control.  I am totally in favor of vaccines, but I want smaller doses over a longer period of time.  Because you take a baby in, and I've seen it, I've seen it, with my children, you give them over a long period of time the same amount.  You take this beautiful little baby, and you pump... I mean, it looks like it's meant for a horse, not for a child...  Give the same amount, little doses over a long period of time, you'll see a big impact on autism.
And Carson said in response to that:
The fact of the matter is, we have extremely well-documented proof that there is no autism associated with vaccinations.  But it is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time. 
So Dr. Carson, can you show me your peer-reviewed research that shows a connection between administering vaccines over a short period of time... and anything?

No, I didn't think so.

Then Rand Paul -- did I mention, he's also a doctor? -- was asked to weigh in:
One of the greatest discoveries of all times was vaccines, particularly for smallpox... I'm all for vaccines, but I'm also for freedom.  I'm a little concerned about how they're bunched up.  My kids had all of their vaccines, and even if the science says that bunching up is not a problem, I ought to have the right to spread my vaccines out at the very least.
Did you catch that?  Freedom to do what you want.  Even if the science says you're wrong, and that you are putting your own children, and other people's lives, at risk.

Okay, I know I'm not very political.  I'm up-front about that, and have mentioned it more than once in this blog.  I have neither the knowledge nor the experience to make statements on most political topics with anything close to authority.

But dammit, we can not continue to have leaders who ignore science.  And it doesn't matter why they're doing it -- political expediency, pandering to their voter base, or outright foolishness.  There are too many problems we are facing as a nation and a world that can only be approached from a scientific knowledge base to elect someone who is willfully ignorant (or as my dad used to call it, "stupid") regarding such issues as vaccination, climate, and the environment.

Science is a process.  It is a way of sifting out fact from fiction, good ideas from bad ones, solid theory from folly and superstition.  It is time for voters to treat a baseline knowledge of science, and a respect for scientific research, as a sine qua non for electability.

In which case Trump, Carson, and Paul just catapulted themselves right out of the running.


  1. (1 of 2) Gordon, while I agree with everything you say here, I think you waste time and energy talking about a bunch of morons, none of whom will ever be President.

    The greater threat to science is more insidious, and it comes from within science itself. I would love to see you write about the following letter signed by 20 scientists calling for the RICO investigation of dissenting scientists. I’ll include the full letter here:

    Letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren

    September 1, 2015

    Dear President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren,

    As you know, an overwhelming majority of climate scientists are convinced about the potentially serious adverse effects of human-induced climate change on human health, agriculture, and biodiversity. We applaud your efforts to regulate emissions and the other steps you are taking. Nonetheless, as climate scientists we are exceedingly concerned that America’s response to climate change – indeed, the world’s response to climate change – is insufficient. The risks posed by climate change, including increasing extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and increasing ocean acidity – and potential strategies for addressing them – are detailed in the Third National Climate Assessment (2014), Climate Change Impacts in the United States. The stability of the Earth’s climate over the past ten thousand years contributed to the growth of agriculture and therefore, a thriving human civilization. We are now at high risk of seriously destabilizing the Earth’s climate and irreparably harming people around the world, especially the world’s poorest people.

    We appreciate that you are making aggressive and imaginative use of the limited tools available to you in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change. The actions of these organizations have been extensively documented in peerreviewed academic research (Brulle, 2013) and in recent books including: Doubt is their Product (Michaels, 2008), Climate Cover-Up (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009), Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), The Climate War (Pooley, 2010), and in The Climate Deception Dossiers (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015). We strongly endorse Senator Whitehouse’s call for a RICO investigation.

  2. (2 of 2)
    letter continues:

    The methods of these organizations are quite similar to those used earlier by the tobacco industry. A RICO investigation (1999 to 2006) played an important role in stopping the tobacco industry from continuing to deceive the American people about the dangers of smoking. If corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in books and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate, before even more lasting damage is done.


    Jagadish Shukla, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
    Edward Maibach, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
    Paul Dirmeyer, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
    Barry Klinger, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
    Paul Schopf, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
    David Straus, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
    Edward Sarachik, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
    Michael Wallace, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
    Alan Robock, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
    Eugenia Kalnay, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
    William Lau, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
    Kevin Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO
    T.N. Krishnamurti, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
    Vasu Misra, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
    Ben Kirtman, University of Miami, Miami, FL
    Robert Dickinson, University of Texas, Austin, TX
    Michela Biasutti, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
    Mark Cane, Columbia University, New York, NY
    Lisa Goddard, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
    Alan Betts, Atmospheric Research, Pittsford, VT

    Georgia Tech climate scientist Judy Curry writes in response: “What you have done with your letter is the worst kind of irresponsible advocacy, which is to attempt to silence scientists that disagree with you by invoking RICO. It is bad enough that politicians such as Whitehouse and Grijalvi are playing this sort of political game with science and scientists, but I regard it as highly unethical for scientists to support defeating scientists with whom you disagree by such methods. Since I was one of the scientists called out in Grijalvi’s witch hunts, I can only infer that I am one of the scientists you are seeking to silence.”

    Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at Colorado who has been(unfairly, in my view) labeled a climate “denier,” observes: “As one (wrongly) investigated by Congress for my unacceptable research, criminalizing dissent is anti-democratic & contra scientific norms.”

    Gordon, as you say, science is a process. It helps us tell “fact from fiction, good ideas from bad ones, solid theory from folly and superstition.” But in my view, scientists acting badly is a far more serious issue than a bunch of half-witted politicians pandering to the camera for screen time.

    To paraphrase your conclusion, it is time for scientists to treat a baseline knowledge of science, and a respect for scientific research, as a sine qua non for doing science. The signatories to this letter just catapulted themselves right out of the running.

    1. I saw this when you posted it earlier -- the idea that science itself can sometimes be corrupt, for whatever reason, is deeply troubling to me. I would love to learn more about this; maybe we can discuss it over a beer some time? Because the truth of the matter is, I am neither an academic nor a research scientist, and anything I could add to what was already said in the letter (pro or con) would be the empty meanderings of an ill-informed outside observer, and therefore not worth much.

      However, I disagree with you over combatting the nonsense from people like Trump being "a waste of time and energy." I wish I believed, as you do, that he's unelectable. The fact that he has gotten as far as he has in the polls is also a troubling phenomenon -- because it means that for a significant slice of America, his message is ringing true.

      Happy to discuss this further with you -- perhaps if I can find out more about your perspective on the issues raised in the letter, I'll learn enough to write about it.



  3. fair enough. On the Trump issue, here is an assessment of why "his message is ringing true." I'm not sure it's about Trump per se, seeing as how Bernie Sanders is benefiting from some of the same political dynamics. Anyway, I think I can guarantee with almost 100% certainty that you will never see a Trump presidency. I'm more confident of that than I am about a lot of things.