Science a la Carte

Waiting for the candidates to reveal all of their positions on particular scientific paradigms is getting to be a bit of a fan dance. We hear a little bit here about how climate scientists are all in it to make a quick buck, then a little bit there about how evolution is just one of those ideas like iambic pentameter or Manifest Destiny. I can’t stand the suspense: what science will get put in its place next? It’s time for a new standard in Presidential campaigns: a comprehensive position briefing on the candidate’s views of relevant scientific knowledge.

Here’s a suggestion for what the standard briefing document should look like.

Does the candidate believe in…atomic theory?
Relevance to voters: Need to know if a possible President will treat our atomic arsenal as imaginary, as a material manifestation of the wrath of the Old Testament God, or as a confirmed scientific reality.

Does the candidate believe in…weather forecasting?
Relevance to voters: If all climate scientists are in it for a quick buck, presumably all weather forecasting is suspect. Need to know if possible President will disregard satellite pictures of hurricanes forming in the Atlantic and regard all weather events as a manifestation of Providence.

Does the candidate believe in…the germ theory of disease?
Relevance to voters: anti-evolution candidates presumably don’t really believe in the germ theory of disease and can be expected to shut down the Centers for Disease Control, direct the FDA to allow antibiotics to be freely manufactured and sold because what the heck they’re no different than herbal supplements, and cease all funding for disease-related health research. Also the possible President might be able to cut health care costs by refusing to pay for soap in hospitals and medical facilities. Who needs it?

Does the candidate believe in…gravity and heliocentrism?
Relevance to voters: Possible President may choose not to fly on Air Force One as planes should not exist, and will therefore be slower to visit parts of the country and the world away from Washington. Presumably would have no interest in monitoring for near-Earth asteroids, planetary probes, solar flares and other astronomical phenomenon connected to mere theories of gravity and heliocentrism.

Does the candidate believe in…Boyle’s Law and other gas laws?
Relevance to voters: Candidates who do not believe that there are formula that can describe the relationship between pressure and volume of gases might not believe that guns exist and function, since gas laws are an important part of how guns actually work. Not believing that guns exist might be a stealth form of gun control.

I’m sure folks can think of other things the public needs to know.

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15 Responses to Science a la Carte

  1. mike shupp says:

    It’d sort of be nice to know where candidates stand on (1) where the manned space program is going, (2) prospects for nuclear energy, (3) prospects for fusion, (4) providing encouragement to nanotechnology, and (5) sea-bed mineral exploitation. Granted, these are engineering issues as much as policy wonkery, but being in an economic mess with all sorts of non-technical people blubbering about economic stagnation for want of technology, they’re reasonable topics for would-be leaders to be knowledgable about. I suspect Aladdin’s lamp will be rediscovered first, however.

  2. Western Dave says:

    Oh Mike, way to ruin the fun.

    Here’s mine: Does the candidate believe in Pi?
    Relevance to voters. Since pi is a) a number between 3 and 4 and b) first discovered in India and c) is only possible in arabic numerals as opposed to Roman numerals, it lets voters know whether or not the candidate supports the continued Islamicization of our society.

  3. G. Weaire says:

    Doesn’t affect Western Dave’s joke but: I believe that pi was actually first calculated in Babylon or Egypt. One could arbitrarily exclude those calculations by claiming that the approximation wasn’t close enough, but one could play that game at any point in the history of the problem.

  4. Eric says:

    I love this. A further question: if one is avowedly a Young Earth Creationist, how does one reconcile answering “yes” to the question about the atomic theory of matter composition, since radiocarbon dating buttresses evolution? (Perhaps the YECer believes that carbon-14 ratios are the product of Satan or a prank by God; in either case, doesn’t that have some striking theological implications if one is also prone to believe that God is essentially honest, benign and all-powerful?)

    A similar question involves the Theory Of Relativity, which requires (in its special case) light to have a constant speed in a vacuum. One consequence of this notion is that the observable universe must be billions of years old based on observed redshift values; a more practical consequence is that now-everyday things like cell phones, communications satellites and GPS actually work. If the YECers answer is that God (or Satan) have affected the velocity or travel-distance of light coming from “distant” galaxies, it has rather dire implications for modern telecommunications (not to mention, yet again, the theological implications of a God who cheats or tolerates such fundamental tampering in His Creation by Old Scratch). Oh, and since Special Relativity is the reason those theoretical atoms bundle so much energy, we have another troubling problem with our nuclear arsenal, don’t we?

    Also related: if one believes the Bible is literal and inerrant, I hope one didn’t flub the heliocentrism question by answering that the Earth orbits the sun when the Old Testament is clear on the subject in at least two places I can think of off the top of my head.

    See, this is what anti-science conservatives don’t get: science is an interlocking puzzle. Creationism doesn’t just challenge those pesky paleontologists, it also challenges physics, astronomy, medicine, geology and the rest of the package deal. If you don’t believe in global warming (as Bill Nye The Science Guy recently pointed out in a Fox News clip that went viral a few weeks ago), you have problems with the atmosphere of Venus. If you don’t believe in the biogenic origin of hydrocarbon fuels, you create problems for chemists, not just geologists. And so on. Makes you want to hit someone, and I’m not even a violent guy.

  5. The Indiana state legislature in 1897 did apparently begin the attempt to set a standard value of pi but the bill never made it out of committee. So that seems a sound one to add to the list.

  6. Don’t laugh too hard at that “germ theory of disease” crack; what if a Christian Scientist decides to run? (BTW, and by a curious coincidence, “God” is one of my reCAPTCHA words at the moment.)

  7. Withywindle says:

    Ah, the seamless garment of science.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Laying it on a bit thick, I know, but honestly, there are a few things that really do go together. I don’t see how you can use antibiotics with confidence, for example, if you don’t believe in evolution, unless you have some extremely exotic alternative theory about why they work and how antibiotic resistance occurs. The Christian Scientist example is a good one in the sense that that’s at least philosophically coherent and consistent as a position on biology, medicine and scientific authority. A la carte rejectionism in contrast is just pandering or cynicism. You can’t say, “Look, an exceptionally large majority of scientists are all on the take, producing results they know to be fake in return for financial gain” and then turn around and say, “On most other matters, I accept the authority of scientific experts and will fund scientific and technological institutions and investments accordingly.” Those cannot be reconciled.

  9. I know you’ve probably already seen this, but the issue of antibiotics makes me want to be sure:

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    I love the design of that graphic.

  11. Withywindle says:

    Jim Manzi — — speaks to you. It’s not quite so a la carte as all that.

    John Derbyshire also had a good post some years ago about how utterly indifferent he is if the postman is a creationist so long as he delivers the mail. The areas where an elected official has to be up on his Science are, I think, much fewer than you appear to believe–a certain happy inconsistency and muddle gets us through the day. E.g., “I don’t believe the wispy theoretical underpinnings behind antibiotics, get me another thousand cases ASAP, I don’t care why they work so long as they do!” is not a very difficult practical combination. You can find areas where public policy gets affected–but on the whole it’s pretty small potatoes. Save, I suppose, for “we’re not going to spend trillions of dollars because some climate scientists are hot and bothered and think the aliens will spank us if we don’t shut down our coal plants yesterday.” But I hope you don’t really think that this “the Himalayas will melt tomorrow, oops, that was a typo” branch of (pseudo-)science is quite on a par with Boyle’s Law.

    Me, I’m generally skeptical of experts and scientists–the Montaigne in me.

    By the way, thanks for switching your commenting format. The downside is that I may comment more frequently.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    Well, skepticism of expertise is an old theme here too. But it’s not so much that politicians have to be “up on science” as much as they need to avoid using epistemological expediency. Or if you like, a favorite bugbear of conservatives, they need to avoid being postmodern relativists.

    Accusing a very large majority of scientists now practicing of authenticating results they know to be false for personal gain is a serious accusation, or should be coming from anyone who aspires to be entrusted with the power of the Presidency and already has the power of a state governor. More importantly, it should have serious implications for every process that involves trusting in scientific knowledge. But Perry tosses this off as a quip instead. Believing that evolution is a false or fundamentally undemonstrated theory should occasion serious suspicion of antibiotics, and as a matter of public policy, should instruct active disinterest in governmental programs that are premised on viral and bacterial evolution being real. Picking and choosing which demonstrated truths you’re going to not believe in based on what’s politically expedient is precisely what complaints against “relativism” are all about.

  13. Withywindle says:

    Oh, you shouldn’t doubt people’s good faith willy-nilly–always call your domestic opponents fools, not knaves–although at this late date I am not terrifically shocked to find gambling going on in this establishment. Again, this turns on “More importantly, it should have serious implications for every process that involves trusting in scientific knowledge.” Maybe it should, but people aren’t very consistent, and politicians less so. Calling this “relativism” unwarrantably dignifies the usual happy opportunism, for which consistency is scarcely ever a bar.

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