Obama and McCain – Friend or Foe of Science?

In the last presidential debate there were only a few zingers. One came from John McCain who, after Barack Obama compared him to G. W. Bush, emphatically stated, “If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

Since the debate Obama’s running mate, Joe Biden, responded to McCain’s implications with, “If it walks like a duck, if it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck!”

But regardless of the promises or perceived merits of either candidate, no one really knows what a McCain or an Obama country would look like. We listen to their words, review their records, and seek out the truth but as to the reality of their campaign promises, it’s anybody’s guess. And as to Biden’s duck analogy… well, it’s a possibility but not a guarantee.

John McCainStill though, McCain’s ties to the conservative voter base rattles me somewhat. Not that I’m against his views particularly but I worry about the attitude that seems to be prevalent among some republican supporters. In extreme cases, there seems to be an undercurrent of intolerance, sometimes to the point of crazed hatred. When your supporters yell, “Kill him,” that’s taking campaigning too far. It makes me wonder if the Republican base is healthy? Are common sensibilities and the ability to be un-objective when necessary less prevalent among this group?

I direct this question to republicans instead of democrats for two reasons. One, mentioned above, has to do with the dangerously frenzied sort of atmosphere that has been reported at republican rallies. And my second reason has to do with Bush, the current republican president. It seems that the Bush administration hasn’t exercised common sensibilities regarding health issues. In a BMJ article, Douglas Kamerow points out that over the last eight years this administration has made choices in regards to health issues and policies that seems to shrug off scientific knowledge in favor of personal views and interests. It seems that many times Bush was “an army of one” when dealing with hot-button and high-profile issues — refusing to use science as a basis for decisions and doing… well, what he (or his administration) just wanted to do. The Union of Concerned Scientist has documented many of these instances including:

  • Insisting on and publicizing the effectiveness of abstinence only sex education, despite a lack of evidence for it.
  • Censoring testimony before Congress by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the health hazards of climate change.
  • Posting erroneous data linking abortion and breast cancer on CDC’s website.
  • Distorting evidence on the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV transmission and prevention
  • “Stacking” a federal advisory committee on prevention of lead poisoning to prevent more stringent standards.
  • Adding non-scientific proponents of positions favored by the administration to sessions at scientific meetings in the guise of providing “balance.”

Along with these actions, this administration directly influenced other key issues by refusing to publish evidence, allowing invalid data to influence decisions, and changing test results. Even more disturbing is that this administration, “…prevented its own surgeon general from speaking out on topics in the areas of mental health, global health, and secondhand smoking.” In other words our health policies have been based, at least partly, on a very biased and self-serving administration.

Is this pattern related to the republican’s large evangelical christian voter base? Possibly knowing that many of your constituents agree with the outcome, if not the means, may have allowed Bush to endorse these methods. But I am going to venture to say that most members of this subgroup would not sanction these unethical methods. Most rational opponents of say, sex education or abortion would not want misinformation to lead the argument for policy changes. Logical arguments that are not based in science exist for every issue so there is no need to distort scientific results; this only leads to more governmental distrust and is misguided.

Both ideologies, support bases, and candidates have taken on a life of their own by this point in the race. Will McCain’s views cause him to do the same as his party’s predecessor? Could Obama push his views or his constituent’s views via this same avenue? I hope not. An intolerance to science is dangerous for everyone — regardless of party ties.


D. Kamerow (2008). Politics and science: a cautionary tale for the presidential candidates BMJ, 337 (oct14 4) DOI: 10.1136/bmj.a2093

J. R. White

J. R. White is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She has over five years of experience in education and pedagogy.
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