Tag Archives: politics

Political Science

As the shoutfest The Onion fittingly dubbed “The War for the White House” staggers towards its storm-soaked climax next Tuesday, there’s one fundamental question that I don’t think has really been answered yet:

Why are scientists such raving liberals?

Obama Banner

Yes, science moves in that direction too.

We can’t deny that we look that way to the general public. Nature, which is to science what the Wall Street Journal is to investment banking, unabashedly endorsed President Obama for re-election. Sixty-eight Nobel laureates signed an open letter making the same endorsement. If you follow scientists or science journalists on Twitter, your feed will seldom go an hour without someone advocating Democratic policies or candidates. And by the highly polarized standards of our time, voting for Democrats automatically constitutes raving liberalism, as surely as voting for a Republican is diagnostic of reactionary wingnuttery.

Never mind that “scientists” are far from homogeneous. We’re a group whose principal unifying traits are independent thought, distrust of authority, and a love of intense, arcane arguments. We will agree – slowly, grudgingly – to certain broad, general principles, but only in the face of overwhelming evidence. Even then, the “scientific consensus” inevitably contains thousands of small but intense disagreements about the details. Virtually every biologist worthy of the title will concur that complex life evolved from simpler life, and continues to do so, but if you ask whether this particular species diverged sooner or later than that one, or even what the word “species” means, you’ll immediately see taxonomists disemboweling each other. So how can we possibly have a unified political agenda?

We don’t, of course. Talking to scientists is a big part of my job, and when specific policies come up, the conversation inevitably reveals diverse and unpredictable opinions. Scientists in industry sometimes sound like good Republicans, advocating smaller government, less regulation, and unrestrained markets, while academic researchers sometimes favor more government funding, stronger regulations, and less industry involvement, like stereotypical Democrats. Other times it’s the reverse, and the same scientist commonly appears on different sides of the aisle on different issues. Like taxonomists debating the proper classification of a grasshopper, we’re all over the map.

There’s also some diversity in scientists’ assessments of the two major political parties, but in broad, general terms the group leans toward the Democrats. Some have theorized that this is because Democratic candidates are more likely to understand (or at least purport to understand) the complexity and nuances of major policy questions, whereas Republicans prefer pat slogans that oversimplify the issues, and scientists understand that oversimplification is dangerous. I think that’s bullshit. Bumper stickers that proclaim “Healthcare is a human right” are no less jingoistic than “Abortion stops a beating heart.” Both are willfully deceptive oversimplifications.

Nor does either side’s constituency have a monopoly on the rational treatment of data. If you like to ignore the overwhelming evidence that humans are changing the global climate, odds are you vote with the red states. But if you irrationally oppose genetically modified crops, then I’ll bet the donkey is your mascot. Anti-vaccine advocates, animal rights groups, and the anti-psychiatry movement also draw mostly from the left side of the aisle. Indeed, I suspect that if we held a big conference for everyone who advocates profoundly irrational policies, we’d draw a solid Democratic majority.

Given the blatant stupidity on both sides, you might expect scientists to just throw up their hands, pick randomly, and say “don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos.” I know some who do. There is, however, one crucial difference between the two parties, at least in their current incarnations. Considering what I said a few paragraphs ago, I certainly wouldn’t presume to speak for all scientists, but this difference is the main reason my own voting record has favored Democrats, and I suspect others may have reached similar conclusions.

Political parties are like dysfunctional families. Everyone has a few crazy cousins somewhere, so the question is how to deal with them. The Democratic party tolerates but marginalizes its anti-science crusaders. The Republican party hands them the keys. That’s why the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress neutered the EPA, obstructed any meaningful environmental legislation that came up, and hamstrung public health agencies and some branches of research. Their crazy cousins didn’t like what the science was saying, so they banned it. When Obama was elected, he came into office with a commanding majority in Congress. If the two parties were truly equivalent in their stupidity, we would have seen vaccination, genetically modified crops, and animal research in the crosshairs. Instead, the Democrats nodded and smiled at their crazy cousins, then went about enacting (mostly) rational and moderate policies in all of those areas.

I don’t think this comparative Democratic rationality is deliberate. Instead, it stems from the way the two parties operate. The GOP is a carefully engineered political machine, which is why it’s so frighteningly efficient when its candidates gain power. By grabbing a few critical levers, a small, unhinged minority can take control of the whole juggernaut, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen in recent years. The Democratic party is more of an amoeboid organism, sending out pseudopodia in all directions, averaging the inputs from innumerable signals, and finally crawling in a specific direction for a short distance before repeating the whole cycle. It’s slow, inefficient and cumbersome, but very unlikely to run off the rails.

If that sounds like faint praise, it’s because it is. Should the Republicans ever hand the controls over to scientists, do a teardown on their platform, and adopt consistent, evidence-based policymaking as their primary ideology, I’d be thrilled to join them. Until then, I’ll be voting for these folks.

What Tsunami?

It looks like Massachusetts held true to form: our governor and all of our House representatives will remain Democrats, a big tax rollback initiative lost by a comfortable margin, and we still favor affordable housing. We did, however, cut the tax on alcohol. Big, liberal government is fine with us, but don’t mess with our liquor.

Bullshit and Belladonna

The weekend brought yet another incident highlighting the astonishing stupidity of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. Passed by Congress at the behest of herbal supplement makers’ lobbyists, this insidious Act puts strict limits on the US Food and Drug Administration’s ability to regulate “nutritional supplements.” It’s the reason every drugstore now has a whole aisle dedicated to drug-like products that are either untested, proven to be useless, or even downright toxic.

Baby teething. Image courtesy Rosemary McKevitt.

Baby teething. Image courtesy Rosemary McKevitt.

The latest debacle comes from a company called Hyland’s Homeopathy. Homeopathy, of course, is the special branch of quackery based on diluting active ingredients to undetectable levels, which is to say that they sell expensive bottles of nothing. Unfortunately, it seems that the folks at Hyland’s can’t even do that right:

Hyland’s Teething Tablets are manufactured to contain a small amount of belladonna, a substance that can cause serious harm at larger doses. For such a product, it is important that the amount of belladonna be carefully controlled. FDA laboratory analysis, however, has found that Hyland’s Teething Tablets contain inconsistent amounts of belladonna. In addition, the FDA has received reports of serious adverse events in children taking this product that are consistent with belladonna toxicity. The FDA has also received reports of children who consumed more tablets than recommended, because the containers do not have child resistant caps.

The FDA advises consumers to consult their health care professional if their child experiences symptoms such as seizures, difficulty breathing, lethargy, excessive sleepiness, muscle weakness, skin flushing, constipation, difficulty urinating, or agitation after using Hyland’s Teething Tablets.

Yep, belladonna. In child-friendly bottles, at inconsistent doses, providing a stern reminder that “all-natural” is not the same as “non-toxic.” According to the FDA web site, Hyland’s has “voluntarily” recalled the pills nationwide. As of this morning, however, the company’s web site still speaks of the tablets in glowing terms:

Sometimes it seems as if teething goes on forever, and it can be grim for both mother and baby. Hyland’s Teething Tablets have made it easier for mother and baby for years. This homeopathic combination of natural substances relieves the restlessness, peevish whining and irritability.

Yes, a nice deep coma does tend to put a stop to the whining.

Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Kim Jong Un

In a rare flash of brilliance (or perhaps a common flash of stupidity), Time Magazine has posted a wonderful poll on their politics website. Look in the right-hand column, and be sure to vote. In the current results, it looks like the two candidates are in a dead heat here in Massachusetts, while in neighboring Vermont it’s a landslide for the first one.

For the record, I voted for Kim Jong Un.

Quiz for Politicians and Pundits

Please answer the following “Yes” or “No” questions:

1. Is your primary residence anywhere outside of the County of New York (also known as the “Borough of Manhattan”)?

2. Does your constituency/audience hail primarily from a “red state”?

3. Have you ever made a disparaging rhetorical reference to “New York elites”?

4. Have you ever vehemently proclaimed that states’ rights and local control are superior to Federal policymaking or other outside meddling?

If you answered “Yes” to any of the above, neither you nor your constituency/audience are entitled to any opinion whatsoever on the local zoning decisions of Lower Manhattan’s democratically elected leaders. Please find some actual problem to talk about instead.

Time to Upgrade The Glassware

After an unfortunate incident involving a broken beer glass, the Landsdowne Pub in Boston has switched to plastic cups. Fortunately, I don’t frequent that establishment, but it seems the Commonwealth has forced a number of other pubs to use plastic containers as well. Blech. New Englanders should instead follow the lead of Old England on this issue: shatterproof pint glasses.

Two Timelines

20th Century

1950: Smokers don’t get cancer any more often than non-smokers.

1960: We’ve said all along that some smokers get cancer, but it’s a tiny minority of them.

1970: Certain personality traits drive both cancer and smoking – it’s a coincidence, as we’ve said all along.

1980: Smoking causes cancer, as we’ve always said, but adults have a right to make their own choices.

1990: Can we help it if our addictive, cancer-causing product appeals to kids?

2000: We’re sorry about all the cancer, addiction, and damaged kids. We didn’t know.

21st Century

2000: The world is not getting warmer.

2010: The world is getting warmer, as we’ve said all along, but humans have nothing to do with it.

The Right to Repair

There’s a bill in the Massachusetts legislature right now that I really hope passes: it’s called the Right to Repair act. It would require automakers to publish all of the diagnostic codes and repair data for their vehicles, and make them available to anyone for a reasonable price. Independent auto shops and parts dealers are lobbying hard for it, and so are occasional tinkerers like me.

If you live in Massachusetts and are sick of having to take your car to the overpriced, often incompetent mechanics at the dealership, please write to your state Representative and tell them to pass this. If you’ve forgetten your Representative’s name, check the House site.

For folks in other parts of the country, feel free to cheer for us. Once again, Massachusetts is on the verge of doing something the rest of you will thank us for later.

Finally, a Tax Break We Can All Support

Senator John Kerry definitely has my vote the next time he’s up for election:

BOSTON—U.S. Sen. John Kerry says he wants to give the country’s 1,500 small beer makers a tax break. Kerry introduced a bill to the Senate on Wednesday that would reduce the excise tax for small breweries from $7 to $3.50 per barrel for the first 60,000 barrels of beer produced each year. For every additional barrel up to 2 million, the bill would lower the excise tax from $18 to $16.

I’m also happy to see that the measure has bipartisan support:

Republican Senators Mike Crapo of Idaho and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon are co-sponsoring the bill.

via Boston.com.