Science And Religion

Journal's survey delivers best reporting yet on presidential hopefuls and a host of scientific issues

As Iowans prepare to go caucusing, the journal Science offers a ten-page special report* on four Democrats and five Republicans’ views on science and science policy; the introduction laments that, “So far, with the exception of global warming, [these issues] are not getting much play” in the press. The journal’s editor, Donald Kennedy, spells out the reason they deserve more in the issue’s editorial: r-e-l-i-g-i-o-n. It’s a reactive position, but understandable.

The latest round in the age-old religion-v.-science debate began a little over a year ago, more or less when Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins published “The God Delusion,” advocating a strict brand of atheism. Since then, the debate has become “uncomfortably combustible,” Kennedy writes in his editorial. Although the “new atheists,” as other publications have called Dawkins and his brood, have gained certain ground, faith has pushed back. The press and public have given more than ample attention to the uncertain role that evangelicals will play in the election. Once a key GOP voting bloc, these “values voters” have grown disenchanted with the Republican Party, and though they have not necessarily swung left, Democrats have worked hard since 2004 to court their support. Indeed, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards all speak very comfortably about their faith, something that rankled Science’s Kennedy:

Given this new focus on religious disclosure, what does this U.S. election have to do with science? Everything … We need to know the candidates’ qualifications for understanding and judging science, and for speaking intelligently about science and technology to the leaders of other nations in planning our collective global future. I don’t need them to describe their faith; that’s their business and not mine.

Of course, one might note that Democrats are speaking more about religion at the same time that evangelicals are espousing environmental protection, or “creation care,” as they prefer to call it, with a particular emphasis on thwarting man-made climate change. Any journalists covering this unique political intersection, then, must ask themselves: are liberal politicians embracing faith because conservative voters are embracing the environment, or vice versa? It’s hard to knock the candidates’ faith-based rhetoric if it is encouraging skeptical voters to heed environmental science. It is difficult to say, however, how much Democrats are actually influencing evangelicals (the latter group insists that the “creation care” movement is more organic) and besides, global warming is not the only important science-based issue of the campaign.

Science, which, along with a handful of other top journals, sets the gold standard in the world of peer-reviewed scientific literature, is also known for its robust front-of-the-book news section. Because of this, it is perhaps better placed than many other publications to tease out candidate positions on science other than hot button issues like climate change, stem cells, and evolution. Unfortunately, as Science’s editors point out, none of the campaigns gave them direct access to the candidates themselves. This closeting has plagued all journalists who have sought to press the presidential hopefuls for specifics about scientific issues. Thus, as one might expect, Science’s roundup mostly keeps to the same topics that candidates have been comfortable discussing all along, though it does manage to touch on a few that are less conspicuous. The real strength of the report comes from its reporters’ success in digging up original sources, knowledgeable about the scientific industry, to comment on the candidates’ current views and past behaviors.

It starts with Clinton. The article describes her speech on the fiftieth anniversary of Sputnik’s launch as “the most detailed examination of science policy that any presidential candidate has offered to date.” None of the pieces offer endorsement, however, and in fact, after the initial praise, Clinton’s write-up turns out to be one of the driest of the nine entries, perhaps because of her relatively forthright platform on science.

The dirt on other candidates is crunchier. The piece on John Edwards revives a stinging allegation that surfaced during his 2004 vice-presidential campaign, but has not seen the light of day since. In July of that year, The Washington Times accused Edwards of using “questionable” science to win a number of medical malpractice suits in the 1980s, and the GOP used calls for tort reform to lean on Senate Democrats ahead of the election. This might seem moot in 2008 (many defended Edwards and the argument has simmered), but Science quotes Peter Agre, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, saying that he knows people who would “never” vote for Edwards because of his track record on malpractice litigation.

The piece on Rudy Giuliani doesn’t have a lot of new material, but its tone is set by the immediate disclosure that “his campaign successfully discouraged key advisers from speaking to Science about specific issues.” It goes on to mention the success of the CompStat system he championed in New York City, which logged crime statistics and successfully guided police operations. The most novel snippet in the review is a quote from the former president of the New York Academy of Sciences talking about how the mayor showed interest in science-oriented city projects, but lacked follow-through. And, Science reminds its readers, Giuliani has drawn considerable flak this fall for misusing international prostate cancer statistics in his campaign ads.

Science’s take on Mike Huckabee centers on the obvious: his waffling on evolution and man-made climate change. The writer makes the point, however, that despite his usually conservative rhetoric, “Huckabee has often veered toward the center of the political road.” There is also the reminder that as governor of Arkansas, he aggressively pursued a referendum to use millions of dollars from tobacco settlements to fund health and medical research. Unfortunately, apart from this information, the article devotes too much space to ad hominem remarks, such as one from a Little Rock newspaper columnist who calls Huckabee “vindictive.”

McCain’s piece is fairly blasé; as a senator, he’s been a strong supporter of climate action and has opposed George W. Bush’s limitations on embryonic stem cell research. Beyond that, Science reports, “Most non-climate science issues are far down on McCain’s list of priorities.”

The opposite seems to be true of Barack Obama. The journal found a University of Chicago pediatrician who used to invite Obama to speak to her class on racial health disparities while he was still a local community organizer. He would urge students to think about “how to use scientific inquiry to make intelligent public policy.” Obama has also been strong on global warming lately, although Science reminds readers about the hullabaloo he created last year by supporting liquid-coal legislation, and then backtracking.

In its review of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s positions, the journal starts off discussing his turbulent relationship with the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Of course, he is best known as the man who, as Clinton’s secretary of energy in 1999, fired Los Alamos scientist Wen Ho Lee for a security breach. Lee was accused - wrongly, as it turned out - of passing secrets about the United States’ nuclear arsenal to China. The charges were reduced to mishandling sensitive information, and Richardson stripped the University of California of its responsibility for security at the weapons lab. Science ignores this bit of Richardson’s history, however, and focuses instead on his relationship with Los Alamos as governor, which was similarly turbulent - after first recruiting science advisers from the facility, he summarily fired them, according to Science. The information is intriguing, but its meaning and significance beg for elaboration, especially since Internet searches turn up little on the matter.

The narrative on Mitt Romney that Science puts together is fairly well known. It starts five years ago when, as governor of Massachusetts, he supported stem cell research and regional carbon dioxide reductions, and opposed teaching intelligent design in schools. It ends in 2005, when Romney’s presidential ambitions were taking shape, and he decided to reverse course on almost all of those positions. His saving grace, in the review, results form the reporter’s incredibly wise decision to call representative Vernon Ehlers, a Republican from Michigan and one of two Ph.D. physicists in Congress. Ehlers, who is a longtime member of the House Science Committee, has been ignored by the press this campaign season, but thinks Romney is the “best choice for any scientist or engineer.”

Finally, there is Fred Thompson. Fortunately, Science focuses on the actor/attorney’s recent naïve remarks about stem cell research and man-made climate change: he heralded the recent discovery that skin cells can be turned into embryonic-like stem cells as proof positive that Bush administration’s restrictive research policies are working; he also misused evidence on warming on other planets in the solar system to suggest that Mars and Jupiter “are actually inhabited by alien SUV-driving industrialists.” While a senator from Tennessee, he helped win federal support for a $1.4 billion particle accelerator at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, but the article quotes the scientific director of that project as saying that Thompson was far more interested in the in-state revenue than the science itself. Perhaps that explains why, “Campaign staffers declined repeated requests from Science to detail Thompson’s views on science and technology issues.”

With this issue, Science delivers the most up-to-date cache of information on candidates’ views on science and science policy. In his editorial, Kennedy was right to highlight the new role of religion in this presidential election. Indeed, in its recent list of the top religion stories of 2007, the Religion Newswriters Association made evangelicals disaffection with the GOP number one, and the Democrats’ attempts to woo them a close second. The same can also be said of the top science stories of 2007, however: Discover just compiled a list of one hundred, many of which are politically-oriented: number one is Chinese pollution, and numbers five and six deal with restructuring at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and domestic conservation programs, respectively. The difference between the politics of religion and the politics of science, as Kennedy points out, is that the former gets much more media attention than the latter.

*At press time, the special report was not yet available online.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.