Feel sympathy for the Republican hard-right. Somehow the party has managed to putatively nominate for president a candidate who actually thinks that human beings descended from apes of all things. Really, I’m not making this up. According to a March 2006 Aspen Times John McCain said that “I happen to believe in evolution. I respect those who think the world was created in seven days. Should it be taught as a science class? Probably not.” No wonder the religious right is having fits. Here it is the 21st century and they can’t get a good, solid fundamentalist creationist as their candidate. Where’s William Jennings Bryan when you need him? (Although the old populist was a Democrat.)
McCain is not the sort of devout, church going creationist many Republicans are looking for, and he even believes in global warming. But don’t go thinking that the GOP has suddenly gotten its act together when it comes to modern science. For years the senator has been waging a personal mini-war on science. It was exposed in a 3/10 Washington Post article titled “While McCain Sees Pork, Scientists See Success.” Over the years he has targeted a series of federally funded science projects for criticism by poking fun at them. About a $5 million study of grizzly bear DNA he said that “I don’t know if it was a paternity issue or criminal, but it was a waste of money.” McCain has also gone after the $2 million Groundfish Disaster Outreach Program in Oregon, and research into the influence of methane emitted by cattle on atmospheric ozone. Of the latter McCain said that he “always wondered about the testing procedures used to determine those effects on the ozone layer.”
To be fair, bashing science is not just a conservative Republican thing. Liberal Democratic Senator William Proxmire made a political career out of it. And when pressed on the issue straight talking McCain will retreat into the claim that he is criticizing pork science, projects that were not properly vetted through the peer reviewed process. He may well have a point there. Here is where the problem lies. According to a McCain aide interviewed in the Post article, the senator did not “question the merits of these projects, it’s the process he has a problem with.”
But Senator McCain did not just criticize the vetting procedures, he went right after the quality of these research projects by ridiculing them. That too would not be a fatal defect if they deserved the derision. For instance, taking on how medicines kept getting approved, pushed by massive ad campaigns, and then withdrawn after they killed off a portion of the patients would be a good idea. But what about the projects McCain derides? The state of the ozone layer is no joke. If it goes then UV radiation has a free ride to the surface of the earth, and that would be very bad. The high altitude ozone that screens us from most UV rays is a delicate thing, easily degraded by chemicals emitted into the air. Because there was a dispute over whether the fluorocarbons used in industry, air-conditioners and aerosol products was really what was doing a number on the ozone layer, it was necessary to find out if something else was contributing to the problem. Methane and ozone do not get along, the former destroys the latter. Each cattle churns out an astonishing amount of methane as it ferments its food during its lifespan, and there are a whole lot of the beasts wandering about the planet from the streets of New Delhi to the high plains of Wyoming. It would have been embarrassing if after banning a widely used set of chemicals it turned out that something else was causing the problem in the first place. So someone had to do the measurements and crunch the numbers to find out what was going on. It’s called scientific research. In the end it was determined that banning the industrial chemicals would do the trick, which is has. That too was science.
As for the bears, the grizzlies that once ruled the west are now rare and under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Problem was that up in northwest Montana where the grizzlies still roam no one knew how many there actually are. So the highly respected biologist Katherine Kendall came up with a method that is considered scientifically brilliant. In a large scale project covering 12,000 square miles the DNA of the bear population was examined by testing the over 33,000 hair samples they left behind at specially prepared sites. The results showed that the hundreds of grizzlies in the region are doing better than earlier, less accurate estimates predicted. Now biologists have the data they need to better mange the bear populations. More good science.
If McCain really were just going after the way Congress funds a lot of science that would be OK. Instead he cannot resist casting rhetorical scorn upon good science done by excellent researchers. By doing so he is — for personal political gain — unnecessarily contributing to the poor opinion that many Americans hold concerning science and scientists. It is the sort of yahoo anti-science attitude that the nation does no need. There is growing concern that the United States is slipping in the international science competition. In part, this reflects the rise of science in a fast developing world, but there is also a decline in interest in science among Americans. We have to import scientists from India and China to compensate for a lack of sufficient researchers coming out of our own education complex, and doing that is getting harder as those nations offer increasing opportunities for their own scientists. Increasing numbers of evangelical kids are being home educated by parents whose views on science are not all that much better than those of Bryan. That can’t be good.
So what can be done about McCain? Matthew Chapman is a filmmaker who happens to be a descendent of Charles Darwin; he wrote a book about the Dover trial in Pennsylvania where the creationists got their anti-evolution butts legally kicked. He has mounted an effort to dedicate one of the upcoming presidential debates solely to the subject of science. You can check it out at sciencedebate2008.com. Whatever form the debates take, it fortunately will not be the epic contest between the pro-evolution Dem and creationist Repub that was once feared. That’s a dose of progress. But it offers the opportunity to call the man from Arizona on the mat for picking on good scientists.