The Independent’s Political Illiteracy Represented in Review of Scientific Illiteracy

Scientific illiteracy is certainly a problem and this was a worthy topic for an article in The Independent. Unfortunately they show a degree of political illiteracy in this reporting. There are numerous examples of scientific illiteracy to be reviewed, but they do the topic a disservice when they begin with one of Barack Obama’s rare scientific mistakes and equate him with the likes of John McCain and Sarah Palin. They are certainly correct in listing Obama’s misstatement on the relationship between vaccines and autism. When Robert Kennedy, Jr. was being discussed for possible key positions in the Obama administration I recently pointed out that Kennedy’s history of promoting such pseudo-science would make him a poor choice.

The article does at least note one example of Sarah Palin’s scientific illiteracy:

Sarah Palin, Mr McCain’s running mate, waded into the mire with her dismissal of some government research projects. “Sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not,” Ms Palin said. But the geneticist Ellen Solomon takes Ms Palin to task for not understanding the importance of studies into fruit flies, which share roughly half their genes with humans. “They have been used for more than a century to understand how genes work, which has implications in, for example, understanding the ageing process,” she said.

While their facts are true, this suggests a false equivalency in making scientific errors between Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. Obama made a single blunder on scientific issues that I am aware of. Palin, along with other Republican candidates, made many. Obama’s error was on a single isolated issue. McCain and Palin’s many errors in their criticism of funding for science (such as McCain’s debate gaffe on the projector for  The Adler Planetarium) could lead to serious limitations on funding for scientific research which she fails to understand. Palin’s denial of the scientific consensus on climate change could lead to planet-wide catastrophe. She denies the entire basis of modern biology with her belief in creationism as opposed to evolution. Even John McCain, who at least was not one of the Republican candidates to outright express belief in creationism, was still willing to pander to those with this flat-earth mentality.

We have many politicians who outright deny major areas of science. Barack Obama certainly made a mistake on one issue, but he has also shown in his public statements and appointment of scientists to key roles that he understands the importance of science. This represents a key change from the past eight years. During the Bush administration scientific facts would be ignored if they conflicted with their policy goals. I am confident that if the Obama administration were to become involved in policy matters involving vaccines, Obama would listen to legitimate scientists who disagreed with the unfortunate bit of pseudo-science he has picked up and change his position.

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