FLORIDA, September 24, 2012 — If only we could allow science to be science.
Over the last several years, what should be a purely academic discipline has become a politically charged one. From global warming to stem cell research to alternative energy, there is no shortage of partisan rancor and aggrandizement. Why has our nation’s dialogue on scientific matters descended to such a level?
Dr. Alex Berezow is the founding editor of RealClearScience and the co-author of Science Left Behind, a new book about how progressivism can be anything but when science is concerned. Of course, conservatism is by no means a perpetual friend of scientific inquiry. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that politicos on both sides of the aisle often do become skeptical of science when the facts do not suit their respective agendas.
In a detailed discussion with me, Berezow explains his views about the organic food craze, the anti-vaccine movement, science journalism’s lack of objectivity, and much more.
Joseph F. Cotto: This is surely one of the most polarized eras in American politics, especially insofar as science is concerned. Not so long ago, finding consensus on scientific matters was not such a partisan debacle. Why do you believe that the times have changed?
Dr. Alex Berezow: There are several possible explanations. First, news outlets often like to present “both sides” of a story. That’s great for politics, but it’s not great for science because it gives the false impression that scientists are evenly divided on any given controversial topic. That’s often not true. Instead, the majority of evidence usually points in one direction. Second, while the internet is a great thing, it can be used to spread misinformation and to find others willing to echo that misinformation.
Also, as any person who has read the comments section of an article knows, the internet seems to bring out the worst in us — encouraging disrespectful confrontation instead of thoughtful debate.
Third, politicians like to claim science supports their viewpoints, even if they are completely wrong. Finally, when scientists become political activists, that tends to undermine the credibility of science in the eyes of the public.
Cotto: Global warming is a highly contentious subject. Many on the right claim that human actions have no real impact on the environment’s long term stability. What is your opinion about this?
Dr. Berezow: Clearly, humans can impact the planet. We can’t swim in or drink from many rivers because we polluted them. The oceans are polluted with plastic. So, yes, humans can impact the planet negatively, and this also applies to the climate. Climate change is real and, currently, humans are largely the problem. I believe the issue is contentious because of the policy implications, not because of the science itself.
Unfortunately, when conservatives hear “global warming,” many of them really hear “cap-and-trade” or some other policy they don’t like. The key to defusing the situation is to make sure the science is separated from the policy. Just because the planet is getting warmer doesn’t mean we must implement cap-and-trade. Instead, we could try other methods of reducing our carbon emissions, such as encouraging more nuclear power and natural gas development, both of which are a huge improvement over burning coal.
Cotto: Stem cell research remains extremely controversial. Many believe that those on the right prevent much needed progress from being made. Do you find this to be the case?
Dr. Berezow: Not really. A lot of conservatives support embryonic stem cell research. George W. Bush was criticized for “banning” it, but that’s not true. He only limited federal funding to preexisting embryonic stem cell lines. Barack Obama made an incremental improvement by allowing federal funds for new embryonic stem cell lines, but truly revolutionary technology — such as somatic cell nuclear transfer (which could be used for therapeutic cloning of organs) — is still not eligible for federal funding. Obama’s policy is better than Bush’s, but it represents only a small improvement.
Currently, there are hundreds of thousands of embryos sitting in freezers all over the country which are leftover from couples who used in vitro fertilization technology to conceive. If scientists had access to those embryos, that could make an enormous difference in embryonic stem cell research. But, Obama’s stem cell policy does little to address that.
Cotto: Does the American left really support alternative energy to the extent that most might imagine it does?
Dr. Berezow: No. At one time, the Left supported natural gas as the bridge to a clean energy future. Now, they completely oppose it. At one time, the Left supported hydroelectric power. Now, many are turning against it because it disrupts river ecosystems. At one time, the Left was in favor of wind energy. Now, many are opposed to that because the turbines are ugly and they kill birds. Right now, the Left only seems to agree on solar power, yet today’s technology isn’t advanced enough to meet our energy demand. Someday, it will be.
If I ran the world, I would transition the planet to natural gas and nuclear power, and I would make sure solar and fusion power were top research priorities.
Cotto: Organic foods are very popular these days. Have political concerns stopped us from taking an objective look at this trend?
Dr. Berezow: Yes. People are emotionally attached to organic food because they believe it is more nutritious, better for public health, better for the environment and even tastier than “regular” food. None of this has been proven scientifically, with the one exception that organic food appears to have a smaller problem with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (Adding antibiotics to livestock feed contributes to the problem of antibiotic resistance, and organic food producers correctly avoid this practice. However, we should pass a law banning the irresponsible use of antibiotics in all livestock feed.)
It is also worth noting that organic farms are inefficient, and we simply cannot feed the world with organic food.
Cotto: The anti-vaccine movement found a considerable deal of support on the left. Is there any particular reason for this?
Dr. Berezow: I think it’s because the progressive Left adheres to two basic myths: The first is that “natural is better” (which explains the fascination with organic food and alternative medicine) and “unnatural is bad” (which explains the fear of “chemicals”). Combine those myths with their hatred of pharmaceutical companies, and you have all the ingredients for an unreasonable opposition to vaccines. A public health official once noted that the anti-vaccine movement seems strongest in places that have Whole Foods.
Cotto: Do partisan politics play a large role in contemporary science education?
Dr. Berezow: Possibly indirectly. There are very few conservative scientists. One survey showed that only 6% of US scientists are Republicans, while 55% are Democrats. In the social sciences, the ratio can be as lopsided as 30 Democrats for every 1 Republican. Obviously, a discipline that is so ideologically skewed in one direction is going to produce research that reflects that internal bias. Partisan politics probably plays little to no role in the objective “hard” sciences (biology, physics, chemistry, etc.), but it’s hard to believe ideology doesn’t affect the quality of the research that comes out of the more subjective social sciences.
Also, teachers’ unions — which are allied with the Democratic Party — refuse to accept any reasonable reforms in education (such as merit-based pay and charter schools).
Cotto: Has science journalism become more concerned with party registration than actual ideas?
Dr. Berezow: There is a very clear double standard in science journalism. Science journalists are quick to point out the anti-science beliefs held by conservatives, but they are hesitant to ridicule the anti-science beliefs held by progressives. Addressing this problem was the primary motivation behind our book.
Cotto: Very often, science is perceived as being anything but a right-of-center cause. Can this stereotype be defeated during the years ahead?
Dr. Berezow: Science, by its very nature, is always pushing forward, pushing new boundaries. So, from that viewpoint, it is not “conservative.” For instance, science will always produce controversial research, and it will always generate new bioethical and technoethical dilemmas. Having said that, political conservatives can and should feel perfectly welcome in the scientific community. The reason science is perceived as “left-of-center” probably has more to do with the fact that only 6% of scientists are Republicans. And it certainly doesn’t help that conservatives in academia sometimes encounter a hostile work environment. But the solution is simple: If you’re a conservative and you like science… become a scientist!
Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering how you came to be a prominent writer about scientific matters. Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Dr. Berezow: I grew up in a small town in southern Illinois. I moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington, where I earned my Ph.D. in microbiology in 2010. As much as I love science, I did not love research. A scientist can spend his entire life working on a single molecule, and when doing experiments, there are far more failures than successes. I’m a “big picture” person, so the narrow focus of research, combined with its low success rate, did not fit my personality. I decided to change careers, and I became the founding editor of RealClearScience in October 2010.
In my spare time, I read, write and can be found drinking overpriced, fancy coffees at any of several different Seattle coffee shops or visiting Europe with my Polish-born wife.
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