I got temporarily excited during Hillary Clinton’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. After boisterous applause for a comment slamming Wall Street, buoyed by the enthusiasm of the arena, she shouted:
I believe in science!
This unleashed another round of applause from the crowd, and I have to admit, my heart swelled. (To borrow a Hillary phrase, prompting my wife to deadpan, “She should take something for that.”) A politician had just proclaimed her trust in the scientific method, and an arena full of people from all over America responded with approval. I had just enough time to raise my hopes for the next, oh I don’t know, 3 minutes of the speech? 2 minutes? 45 seconds? She continued:
I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying clean energy jobs.
And then… back to immigration. Science got one sentence, although note that even that one sentence had to share space with Joe Biden’s “three letter word: J-O-B-S jobs!”
This post isn’t about the scientific evidence for climate change or the merits of various public policy positions to combat it. What bothered me about that passing moment in Hillary’s speech is that for many politicians, climate change is the only scientific issue of our day. Worse, it has become a litmus test for politicians and for the general public. If you believe in human-caused global warming, you are pro-science. If you disbelieve, you are a knuckle-dragger. And so by boldly proclaiming her appraisal that science has proven that the climate is warming due to industrial activity, Hillary and her supporters can pat themselves on the back and move on in their sanctimony.
Here’s what I believe is great about science. Science is a system that forces you to weigh evidence and to accept that evidence even when it conflicts with your preconceived notions. That, in a sentence, is what science is – why it is good, why it is sorely needed. Understand, this is not to say that all scientists practice this ideal, and it is not to say there aren’t considerable problems in the day to day practice of science. But over the long haul, it is science – certainly not a particular brand of politics – that deserves the label “progressive”. Bad ideas are weeded out, and those with the best evidence survive.
So for me, you don’t demonstrate your scientific bona fides by taking one particular position. You do so if you favor evidence over your preconceived notions.
It takes no courage for a Democrat to stand before other Democrats and remind us that the scientific consensus is that human activity is warming the planet. That’s a softball in that environment. What would have demonstrated real courage would have been if Hillary Clinton then went on with my hoped-for 2 or 3 minutes:
“And by clean energy” – riotous applause – “I include nuclear power, the most efficient carbon-free energy source we already have the technology to use!” Silence. (Not to inject politics here, but wasn’t the “Iran Deal” all about keeping the Iranians from making nuclear weapons but allowing them to pursue “peaceful” nuclear technology for power generation? Why do Democrats think it’s okay for the Iranians to develop nuclear power but favor inefficient wind farms and solar fields to nuclear power here at home?)
Although you can now hear a pin drop, I imagine Hillary continuing. “I believe also in the science that demonstrates that transgenic crop technology is not only safe, but actually increases yields, decreases the need for new farmland, lowers carbon emissions, and is safer for the environment!” The camera now zooms in on Bernie Sanders, squirming in his seat. She seems to be boring a hole through his chest as she continues, “We will oppose unnecessary GMO labeling laws, recognizing that such regulations would decrease consumer choice, favor large corporations, increase the price of food, and demonize a promising technology!”
Personalize it, Hillary. “When I was Secretary of State, I traveled to some of the poorest countries on Earth. I saw the faces of young children, blinded by Vitamin A deficiency, and met mothers who had buried their children far too young. As President, I will stand up to anti-science crusaders like Greenpeace to ensure that technologies like golden rice become available to all those in need!” Several spectators walk to the exits. A gentleman in the front row with a No GMO hat faints.
Keep harping on your record, Hillary. “I have made a career fighting for access to health care, especially for young children. My administration will continue to do so, placing special emphasis on ensuring that all children have access to life-saving vaccines. I strongly rebuke Robert Kennedy, Jr.’s nefarious demonization of vaccines, and I part with our current President and my opponent Donald Trump in that I unequivocally deny the fraudulent vaccine-autism link!” The Massachusetts and California delegations suddenly become dizzy.
Show your personal growth, Hillary. “And speaking of health care issues, let me also clarify my position on so-called complementary and alternative medicine. Although I was previously sympathetic to this quackery, having learned more, I now recognize that this is one of the major ways in which our nation squanders precious health care resources. I no longer consider Dr. Mark Hyman an advisor on these issues.”
“Instead I will support evidence-based biomedical research. My administration will pursue bipartisan increases to biomedical research funding, which we recognize requires the use of animal models.” Delegates that give time and money to PETA and the Humane Society of the United States break out in a cold sweat.
“My administration will also fully support NASA and exploration of the universe through telescopic observation. I challenge the delegates of the great state of Hawaii to overcome unscientific superstition and support bringing cutting edge research to the Big Island.” The Hawaiian delegation heads for the exit.
“And speaking of unscientific superstition, let me make amends for my earlier embarrassing comments about aliens having visited Earth. When I made those comments I was uneducated on not only the enormous distances between stars and the impossibility of traveling at speeds approaching the speed of light, I was also ignorant on the psychological sciences on how false beliefs are easily formed. When I said there couldn’t be so many stories of UFOs unless they were real was a too-credulous comment on my part, and one that I regret.”
Suddenly the entire roomful of delegates – ones that had lustily applauded science belief when the topic was first broached in a fit of self-congratulation – are themselves experiencing regret. Possibly at their own scientific ignorance, but more likely at having nominated a woman who believes not only in the science consistent with their preconceived notions, but even in the science that does not. How audacious!
There’s a funny Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza has been experiencing some good fortune, but then becomes worried about a spot on his lip that might be cancer. He is discussing this fear with a therapist. He says: “God would never let me be successful. He’d kill me first. He’d never let me be happy.” His therapist replies: “I thought you didn’t believe in God?” He answers: “I do for the bad things.” Take a look at some common left leaning views on climate change, nuclear power, transgenic crops, alien visitations, vivisection. One wonders if many at the Democratic National Convention do believe in science – but only for the bad things.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making any political points in this reaction. Donald Trump didn’t do any better in defending science or in promising to make decisions as President with science in mind. But preaching to the choir is easy. Leading – which sometimes means taking your followers where they don’t really want to go – is hard. I suppose it is nice that Hillary Clinton wants to be known as a pro-science leader, but if she really wants to be one, she has to adopt a scientific worldview that favors carefully collected evidence over preconceived notions. To conclude she is pro-science, well – I need to see more evidence.