Science and the Presidential Election

As voting begins for the primaries and caucuses of the 2016 Presidential election, reason appears to have taken a backseat to emotions as the catalyst for supporting a candidate. The 2016 Presidential election is not as much about improving the economy or developing a coherent foreign policy, but making the sand glow in the Middle East by carpet bombing ISIS or building a wall on the Mexican border to be paid for by Mexico. Instead of intellectual discourse or detailed plans, this election is beset by fear, symbolism and personal insults. American voters are left with candidates short on substance and long on rhetoric. The candidates’ positions on science exemplifies their paucity at understanding reality.

Fourteen candidates remain in the hunt for the Democratic and Republican nominations. For many of these candidates, their hope is a slender longshot. There are the three Democrats: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. For the Republicans, 11 remain: Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum.

Comparing these candidates on seven major science issues leads to some obvious conclusions, but some surprising positions as well. Anthropogenic climate change, evolution, alternative medicine, space exploration, GMOs, nuclear power and stem cell research cover a broad range of scientific issues from health to outer space.

While most of the candidates accept that the earth is warming, many do not see humans as a cause of it. This is in stark contrast to the near unanimity of the world’s climatologists. Unfortunately, climate change has become more of a political issue than a scientific one. To no surprise, the three Democrats all accept anthropogenic climate change.

On the other side, are the likes of Ted Cruz who stated last year that “the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers.” Santorum, Rubio, Trump, Huckabee and Carson are in the same camp of deniers, rejecting that humans are the primary cause of the warming Earth. Trump has even charged that the crisis is entirely a creation by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive.

Fortunately, not all Republican candidates are completely on the side of ignorance. Jeb Bush and Rand Paul have taken positions of being not sure. Bush has called the issue “convoluted.” Perhaps, he was simply talking about his position. Paul has acted even more confused, voting both for and against resolutions placing the blame for higher temperatures on human activity.

Only Chris Christie, John Kasich and Carly Fiorina accept that humans are involved, but none of them are ready to propose significant action. Generally, they see the problem needing a global solution and action solely by the United States would be detrimental to the American economy. At least there is some logic in their position and an acceptance that scientists know more about science than pandering politicians.

Without evolution, modern biology would be turned upside down. Yet, few issues exert such profound emotional reactions as the idea that life forms can adapt to changing environments. The opposition is almost always based on religious beliefs. If there is an atheist in the world who denies evolution, then that person is a lonely creature. Evolution is not an issue that often arises in political debates. The issues where it arises usually involves school boards or educational curriculum. Presidential candidates don’t often face those issues. Yet, few issues are as defining as evolution. It is easy to peg most of the political positions of an evolution denier by knowing only that he or she denies evolution.

However, the position of most candidates is unclear. How Sanders, O’Malley, Trump, Fiorina and Cruz view evolution is unknown. An assumption can be made for some candidates, like Sanders, who is the least religious of all the Presidential candidates. Unfortunately, without solid proof, an assumption is a poor alternative to reason and fact. Cruz’ father, an evangelical preacher, calls evolution “a communist lie.” However, Cruz has refused to be cornered by questions about evolution so his position is no more definite than Sanders’.

Paul, Bush, Christie, Kasich and Rubio have addressed evolution in limited terms, usually by calling for intelligent design to be taught alongside it or by declaring that it is outside their political responsibilities to address. They don’t seem to deny evolution, but all want to avoid appearing to embrace it. The positions of Santorum, Huckabee and Carson are much easier to discern. All three disbelieve in evolution. Only Clinton has openly embraced evolution and rejected the nonsense known as intelligent design.

Few issues have transformed life as modern medicine. It has extended lives and dealt a hearty blow to childhood diseases. Many supporters of alternative medicine are quick to criticize those who doubt anthropogenic climate change for their lack of faith in science. However, the pro-science attitude of these alternative medicine supporters stops when the science involves modern medicine. Unless an alternative medicine practice can pass the same rigorous tests that traditional medicine has met, belief in non-traditional medicine is as sound as believing that climate change is just a vast conspiracy run by scientists in search of lucrative government grants for research.

Like evolution, alternative medicine doesn’t leave a clear track record on most politicians’ resumes. The closest alternative medicine doubter there is among this year’s crop of candidates is John Kasich. Even then, his measuring stick is more of an analogy than fact. Kasich suggested that voters who back non-politicians Trump or Carson to run government is akin to having a sick person turn to alternative medicine over a doctor with a medical license. That’s a very weak link, but at least Kasich degrades alternative medicine…some voters too.

A number of candidates provide no information on where they stand. O’Malley, Santorum, Fiorina, Paul, Rubio and Christie fit that bill. Cruz, may or may not be a friend of alternative medicine, but he did propose a strange bill that would radically speed the approval of new drugs in the United States. If the FDA declined to approve one of these drugs, then Congress could override it. In other words, Cruz is willing to entrust the efficacy of medical drugs on the vote of Washington politicians. That’s a different kind of alternative medicine.

On the other hand, Carson, Trump and Huckabee have enthusiastically marketed natural and unproven medicines. As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush signed a proclamation declaring that alternative health care therapies provide “affordable, quality health care.” Hillary and Bill Clinton have a long association with Dr. Mark Hyman, a promoter of pseudoscience medicine.

However, none of the candidates have a longer history supporting alternative medicine than Bernie Sanders. In 2010, Sanders hosted a Complementary and Alternative Health Care conference. In 1996, he played a crucial role in getting naturopaths licensed in Vermont. Sanders was also responsible for getting the Affordable Care Act to include complementary and alternative medicine. His support for alternative medicine professions comprises a long list.

Space exploration has many supporters among the Presidential candidates. Clinton, O’Malley, Bush, Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum, Carson, Rubio and Kasich robustly support NASA. Perhaps the most ardent supporter of this group is Rubio, who even speaks of militarizing space. Fiorina is a supporter too, but may prefer privatization over NASA.

Despite public support for NASA, Sanders has often voted for cutting NASA’s budget with the argument that the needs of people on the planet must come first. Christie and Trump appear to take a similar position that the earth’s problems must be solved first, but without a nod of general support for NASA. The strongest opponent to space exploration appears to be Paul.

Genetically modified organisms have become a big issue in food politics. While the science is that a gene is a gene and transgenesis is basically no different from traditional plant breeding, except that it is more efficient, critics fear Frankenfoods. In fact, Frankenfoods have been around for hundreds or thousands of years. Staples like broccoli and corn do not exist in nature. They are purely manmade. The current debate surrounds labeling, which is opposed because there are no known health side affects to GMOs.

Most of the candidates support GMOs. Clinton, Paul, Bush, Cruz, Christie, Huckabee, Fiorina and Santorum are supporters. As Fiorina said, “Let’s not ignore the science, GMOs are safe. The scientific evidence is clear.”

O’Malley and Kasich have somehow avoided substantial comments on the subject, while Sanders, Rubio, Carson and Trump oppose GMOs. Trump riled up Iowa voters by tweeting about GMO corn causing brain problems as a reason Carson has so much support.

As the growing threat of natural disasters from climate change looms, the most immediate and effective energy source to combat climate change is nuclear power. While 10,000 people have died from nuclear power since its use as an energy source, almost all the fatalities have come from two horrendous and preventable Soviet accidents. On the other hand, a conservative estimate is that 170,000 people die every year from coal-powered energy. The need to confront the risks of a changing climate is immediate, and nuclear power, along with renewable sources, remains part of the solution to reducing carbon emissions.

When it comes to nuclear power, the lines are split by party. O’Malley and Sanders both oppose nuclear power. Clinton is alone in the middle, apparently trying to play both sides of a controversial issue. Every single Republican is in favor of nuclear power, although it is difficult to pin point Cruz’ position.

Finally, there is stem cell research. Stem cell research was a major issue in 2008. Eight years later, it is still a point of contention, but rarely discussed on the campaign trail. The benefits of stem cells in medicine are indisputable and immense. Further research promises even greater benefits. The argument against it rests solely on the morality of abortion.

To no surprise, this issue breaks down by party even more than nuclear power. All three Democrats support stem cell research. Of course, the eleven Republicans all oppose it.

Taking the totality of these seven issues, one candidate stands out far above the rest. That is Hillary Clinton. Not too far behind are John Kasich and Carly Fiorina with most of the rest bunched after that. Sanders slips towards the bottom, but at the very bottom is Donald Trump.

This list of issues is somewhat arbitrary and there maybe a mistake here and there on a position for the candidates. Seven issues, fourteen candidates, and a lifetime of sometimes shifting positions can make cornering a candidate’s position difficult. Nevertheless, the vast majority of these positions accurately reflects the candidates views. That Trump should rest at the bottom of this list as a science supporter is an uncomfortable thought for the candidate who has the caught the most attention in the election year. It is an indication that many voters prefer rhetoric over facts.

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