Politicians must be scientists

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In a recent opinion piece, Peabody award winning journalist Dan Rather pointed out that ignoring science has become a large issue in the United States. It is a great article and very much worth reading in full, but at is core Dan Rather points out the ways in which the United States has become anti-science, such as ignoring evidence for global climate change and misconceptions about GMOs. He goes on to offer solutions to this, suggesting journalist work together with scientists on coming up with questions to ask politicians and that politicians respond to each question in writing for the public to see. He also makes the case as to why being anti-science is such a problem; no president should rely on their misinformed ideology when making decisions for the nation and mankind. Rather, they would be expected to rely only on the facts. However, by ignoring scientific consensus they are indeed ignoring the facts. Scientific evidence is also largely ignored as party’s draw lines on how they feel about topics such as global warming and GMOs. Parties seem to be more influenced by their ancient religions and donor checks than by facts.

I agree with Dan on his views and solutions. I’d even like scientist involvement to go further, rather than coming up with a list of questions, why not have a debate hosted by scientists instead of journalists and talk show hosts? Imagine how great it would be to see Richard DawkinsBill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson moderate a political debate. They would not let misinformed opinions suffice for answers, as we have seen so often in political debates. ScienceDebate.org is indeed working on a debate like this.

These hopes aside, I’d like to pick up this blog post with Dan Rather’s line, “Being a president these days isn’t being a scientist-in-chief, but it is certainly being a science-policy-maker-in-chief.” I of course would not expect every president to be a career scientist, especially since the USA is notorious for not electing scientists, but I fully expect each and every president to be a scientist in their method of thinking. That is they rely on something like the scientific method and base all their decisions on evidence. [As an aside, the scientific method as it is outlined here does have its fair share of criticism which should not be ignored. However, the point of this post is not to debate which method is best; rather it is focused on applying the traditional scientific method to political issues.] No governmental decision should be informed by dated religious teachings or donor influences. All of our founding fathers made this painstaking clear, for example:

“The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
-John Adams, “A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America” 1787-1788

This is only one of dozens of quotes, for brevity, but hopefully you see the point they were making; that the United States of America was founded on logic and reason and nothing should interfere with that. John Adams would be abhorred if he saw how illogical our politicians have come. Republicans are ignoring the facts of global climate change. Democrats are severely misinformed about GMOs. Republicans, even the medical doctors among them, remain ignorant about vaccines. Democrats and vaccinations have had their issues in the past as well. It is also vital that our politicians be scientists because the american people rely on their political party for their ideologies. While I think this is wrong and everyone should think for themselves, it is appears party affiliation has a lot to do with what people think. For example in a recent Pew Research survey on science, people’s political party affiliation strongly influenced their views on climate change, emissions, and alternative energy. Growth in world population, evolution, vaccines, and gene modification were also moderately influenced by political party. Therefore, when members of government ignore scientific evidence the ignorance and misinformed ideology is perpetuated to hundreds of millions of people.

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What does it mean to be a scientist?

I very much like Wikipedia’s definition of a scientist, that is “a scientist may refer to an individual who uses the scientific method.” This is indeed what I would like to see; for politicians (and citizens) to use the scientific method when thinking about issues, writing policies, and making decisions. At its core, the scientific method allows us to draw conclusions on evidence alone. The scientific method consists of basic steps we all hopefully learned in school. As a quick refresher:

  1. Make an observation about the world
  2. Think of questions pertaining to these observations
  3. Formulate a hypotheses as to what may be the cause of these observations
  4. Develop predictions that can be tested
  5. Collect and analyze data to test these predictions

Once data is collected, two things happen. If the data supports your hypotheses, you begin to formulate theories based on this evidence. It is crucial to note, theories are backed by evidence. Hypotheses are based on observations. For example, gravity is a theory backed by evidence just the same as evolution is backed by evidence. Theories do not mean scientists are not certain of things. Nothing is ever “just” a theory; there must be sound, tested evidence to support it.

Second, both if the hypothesis is supported but also if it is not, you will then use the data to refine, alter, expand, or, in the case of it not being supported, outright reject your hypothesis. For example, collected data often reveals things you did not at first consider in your initial hypothesis, so you expand upon it and retest these expansions. However, if the data does not support the hypothesis in anyways, the hypothesis is rejected and we return to thinking of questions for our observations. Lastly, and arguably the most important steps, hypotheses must be tested repeatedly (especially by other labs) and reviewed by expert peers. These final steps come about my communicating your results with peers and hopefully the public.

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Scientific method diagram. Source: ArchonMagnus of Wikipedia

 

 

How does the scientific method work?

First I will give you a scientific example of the scientific method and then a few examples of how this methodology can be applied to politics. DNA is often used as an example so I will use it here, simplifying from Wikipedia’s write up on it.

  • Observation: DNA carries genetic information. DNA is made up of chemicals and we know what these chemicals are. However, we do not know how these chemicals are stored.
  • Question: How is DNA stored in the cells of living things?
  • Hypothesis: DNA has a helical structure for storage (this was mathematically derived by Crick and colleagues before the DNA discovery)
  • Prediction: If DNA is helical, it will produce an X shaped X-ray diffraction pattern (again, using information from the above paper)
  • Collect and analyze data: Rosalind Franklin crystallized pure DNA and X-rayed it. The X pattern was observed and Watson and Crick used the X-ray data to make their model of DNA.

These results were reviewed by peers and reproduced numerous times afterwards. From all of this we have the helical DNA theory. This is how scientist tackle problems they do not know. Rather than forming opinions out of thin air, religious text, or donor goals, scientists form theories with hard evidence.

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Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction image of DNA, Photo 51. Credit: Raymond Gosling/King’s College London

 

The scientific method in politics

So how can the scientific method be applied to politics? Surely they are totally different things. But the scientific method does not apply only to natural sciences. For example economists and political scientists use the scientific method for their studies as well. Here are some ways the scientific method can be used by politicians (and citizens) to think about issues and make policy decisions.

I’d like to note here the purpose of this post is not to convince you what to think about any specific issue nor to lay out all the evidence we have pertaining to an issue. Rather, it is to provide you with a framework on how to think about issues so that you can investigate them and form unbiased opinions on them. The examples serve to demonstrate what observations, questions, hypotheses, and data collection and analysis could be used for various political questions. I hope these will help you to form your hypothesis when thinking about issues. Second, I’ll provide ways to find data from appropriate sources. I will however briefly include some data for each example for the sake of the example. I highly encourage you to investigate on your own and form your own evidence based theories about the topics our world currently faces.

 

Scientific Method and GMOs

To continue with the DNA example above, lets apply the scientific method to forming theories about GMOs and policies about GMOs. For a bit of background, GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. That is, scientists modify the genetic code of an organism for a desired result, say more crop yield. Scientists have been doing this ever since they settled down to farm. For example, here is a picture of what corn originally looked like and how humans modified it over time:

Corn progression. Source: University of Utah - Genetics
Corn progression. Source: University of Utah – Genetics

 

However, we no longer need to wait decades to modify plants. Due to innovative research we can now directly change DNA, such as taking genes out and putting new ones in. For example, scientists have been able to modify the DNA of bacteria so they can sustainably make propane. Innovations like these will help us move away from our finite fossil fuel reseves. We can also make more subtle changes, like creating more copies of a gene that an organism already posses. Say there is a gene (in reality it is likely multiple genes) that codes for how many apples an apple tree bears. We can make more copies of that genes so the tree bears more fruit.

With this background, lets go into how the scientific method can be used by politicians to inform their GMO policy.

  • Observation: Humans have been modifying the genetic makeup of organisms for over 10,000 years. Now we have technology that lets use modify genes in a new way.
  • Question: Are new GMO methods safe for agriculture?
  • Hypothesis: GMO agricultural plants are generally safe.
  • Prediction: GMO agricultural plants do not harm those who consume them and result in a net benefit.
  • Collect and analyze data: Look over peer reviewed, repeated scientific evidence that applies to our prediction. In this case we may look for reports by the FDA and USDA.

I realize the last bullet point is by no means easy. The other steps are vital, but data collection and analysis is what all prior and future steps rely most heavily upon. During this data step always be wary of your sources for data, especially if they are just a blog post with no sources or a website that is affiliated with a political party. I would highly recommend getting at least some of your data from meta-reviews done by independent researchers. Meta-reviews are articles that review hundreds if not thousands of peer-reviewed experiments that followed the scientific method. Meta-reviews then draw conclusions based on all the available data. As it pertains to those in government, it is their job to be correctly informed on topics so that they can make the best decisions. They should at the least be reading meta-reviews but hopefully specific papers that pertain to the policy at hand. Many have a team of support staff to do the heavy reading and they must also follow the scientific method.

Hillary Clinton should not form her GMO opinions based on donations from Monsanto. Bernie Sanders should not base his view on GMO labeling on debunked studies and the opinion of a few squeaky wheels. If the data support the hypothesis, “GMOs are generally safe”, a theory and stance on the issue should be formed. If the data does not support this hypothesis, we must formulate another and test the data against that. We can continually use the scientific method at different levels. For example rather than “GMOs are generally safe” our hypothesis might be “GMOs are safe for pregnant women”. Our prediction would then be, “No experiment has shown that eating GMOs affects the health of the mother or fetus”. Our data collection would be tailored to that prediction. Conversely we could zoom out with a hypothesis of “GMOs provide a net benefit”. By utilizing the scientific method, the theories around the topics are hand will be supported only by evidence and not biased by religious belief, donor interest, or other sources of biases.

Always keep in mind your hypothesis and what is it putting forth. If you are focused on herbicides and GMOs, like RoundUp, be sure your hypothesis includes this. Try your best not to mix hypothesis even if they are related. Be sure to continually reformulate your hypothesis to include all the issues you’re interested in. The hypothesis “GMOs generally safe” is not the same as “RoundUp herbicide is generally safe”. This is a vital aspect of the scientific method.

In this case, the FDA, USDA, and a recent academic meta-review support the hypothesis that “GMO agricultural plants are generally safe”.

GMO can be applied to many things, as we saw in the above examples from bacteria that make propane to increasing crop yield. It seems like the most controversy on GMOs is related to the foods we consume. I am not aware of politicians against GMO mice that improve drug testing or against the GMO microbes that create insulin for diabetics. For these reasons I will stick with evidence as it pertains to food as we propose in our above scientific method.

To my knowledge, the best GMO meta-review to date is by Alessandro Nicolia and colleagues which came out in 2014. It covered 10 years of GMO research with 1,783 peer-reviewed articles from 2002 to 2012. They looked at everything from human and animal consumption, environmental impact, and biodiversity. They concluded, like many others: “The scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazards directly connected with the use of genetically engineered crops.” Another recent meta-review concluded that GM crops also increase crop yield and often require fewer resources than non-GM plants. The labeling of GMO foods is not a separate issue from their safety either. In a Pew Research study, the largest discrepancy found between scientists and the public was between the safety of GM foods.

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When the public is misinformed about the safety of GM foods they will make misinformed decisions at the grocery store in regards to GM foods. As we see on one of Jimmy Kimmel’s shows, most people do not even know what GMO stands for let alone their health risks (which, as far as we know, are none). I do not at all mean to poke fun at these people, but consumers are meant to make informed choices. Seeing a GM label without adequate information as to what GMOs are does not lead to informed decisions and instead perpetuates ignorance. Until the public fully understands GM foods, labeling them will likely be a costly negative.

When doing your research on GMOs or any other issue, please be cautious of websites who do not provide links to scientific evidence (published, peer-reviewed articles) or who talk about a single study (which is likely a red-herring). Accurate articles will likely have multiple, reliable sources and layout the evidence, or lack of evidence, for both sides. Always remain a skeptic and stick to the scientific method; even Bill Nye hypothesized GMOs had a largely negative impact. However, after collecting data, he changed his stance on GMOs and found that they were largely good.

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Scientific Method and Global Climate Change

As I stated before, the scientific method can and should be applied to any policy issue. Lets take the issue of global climate change now.

  • Observation: Weather patterns are changing, global air and see temperatures are rising.
  • Question: Why are these changes to the global climate occurring?
  • Hypothesis: Humans and their greenhouse gas emissions are causing the change observed in global climates.
  • Prediction: As greenhouse gas emissions increase, changes in global climate should be more numerous.
  • Collect and analyze data: Look over peer reviewed, repeated scientific evidence that applies to our prediction. In this case, we may again look for reports by NASA. the NOAA, or US energy information administration. We may also look for global data from the World Bank.

NASA does a particularly good job at conveying scientific evidence to the public. For example, they have a webpage on the scientific consensus for climate change. They have another that outlines general evidence but also specific evidence for things like sea level rise or temperature rise. The NOAA is also a great resource for all things climate change and puts out great reports. You may also look into the many free reports available from other sources, such as this one by the New York Academy of Sciences. After reading this data, you will either accept your hypothesis and integrate it into your theory of climate change. Or, if the data does not support your hypothesis, go back to the hypothesis phase. Again, I am not here to tell you what to think on a given issue, just how to apply the scientific method to it.

 

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I think many politicians (and members of the public) are beginning to accept the idea of global climate change and that humans are causing it, finally. A more recent issue is on what to do about climate change. For example, Carly Fiorina (2nd in the polls at the time of writing this) has a terrifying stance on climate change and thinks the United States alone cannot do anything about climate change. Well lets use the scientific method on this to avoid being biased by her donors, such as Chevron.

  • Observation: Weather patterns are changing, global air and see temperatures are rising. These changes are due to greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Question: Can the USA prevent global climate change from getting worse?
  • Hypothesis: If the USA cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, global climate change would lessen.
  • Prediction: Cutting the CO2 emissions of burning coal in the USA will have a non-zero impact on global climate change.
  • Collect and analyze data: Look over peer reviewed, repeated scientific evidence that applies to our prediction. In this case, we may again look for reports by NASA. the NOAA, or US energy information administration. We may also look for global data from the World Bank.  We would also want to be especially skeptical of reports funded by the energy sector and those with finical interest in keeping emission standards loose.

 

Data from World Bank

 

It is quite clear that data on CO2 emissions by the World Bank, a very unbiased source, shows the United States is the second highest emitter of CO2. Only China, a nation with quadruple the population, produces more. The United States also produces nearly 3x more CO2 per capita than China. It would seem quite logical that if the United States took steps to reduce emissions a significant effect would result. Indeed this is the case and it is why we are seeing so many initiatives to reduce emissions. We see there are many solutions too. NASA has a great resource for this. Yes lots of damage has been done. But, as we know from the data, the damage was caused by us. We can surely take steps to at least mitigate future damage and at best reverse damage that has been done. America along with nations around the world are working to reduce emissions and mitigate climate change because they largely follow the scientific method in their practices. For example, independent, data driven organisations like the United Nations and OECD (.PDF file) recommend cutting emissions because the evidence shows it will make a difference. The EPA also shows the USA will have an impact if emissions are reduced. Thus, because the USA is such a large producer of CO2 and because reduced emissions will effect climate change, our hypothesis is accepted and we can make well informed policy decisions.

This example also provides us with opportunity to flex our skeptical muscle. Carly often uses California as an example of emission requirements hurting the economy and the residents. This is likely because a vast majority of her donations have come from California. Rather than sticking to the scientific method to form policies, Carly is instead biased by her donors. The view of “America alone cannot do anything about climate change” is defeatist and if we indeed do nothing, California will be partially underwater if it survives this never before seen drought. And hopefully we are aware the United States is not at all alone on fighting climate change and China is indeed doing its part. Stay skeptical.

 

Scientific Method and Same Sex Marriage

As stated earlier, the scientific method can be applied to any topic! GMOs and climate change are usually regarded as science-centric issues so for my final example I’ll use something inherently non-scientific. How can we set up the scientific method for a social issue? What will our data look like? How do we make hypothesis? Hopefully this example will help to answer those questions.

  • Observation: Same sex couples would like to get married and have all the same rights as their opposite sex counterparts.
  • Question: Should same sex couples be allowed to get married?
  • Hypothesis: Same sex couple should be allowed to marry.
  • Prediction: Same sex couples can marry because they are equal to opposite sex couples.
  • Collect and analyze data: We can still look for peer-reviewed, reliable articles published on the topic. There is data that is just as real as temperature or toxicology data. Depending on specifics, we can look at things like same sex couples and raising children. We can look aboard to countries that already allowed same sex marriage and see the effects there. We cannot look to religious text for data as these texts have no evidence to back its claims.

Our first data point can just be looking at homosexual humans. They look and act like heterosexual humans. All physiological and genetic evidence points that they are indeed human. This is of course absolutely absurd and I hope you can appreciate the point I am trying to convey. Homosexual people are obviously humans and like any other human they deserve the same rights, marriage and otherwise. Just as we discovered women and people of color are humans too.

Our second data point can be marriage itself. We have evidence that marriage developed long before the church got involved. Marriage and the legal implications it brings with it is a civil matter with the government and religion has no bearing on it. We can look to empirical data as well. Meta-reviews have all concluded that children of same-sex couples turn out just fine, maybe even better than heterosexual couples.

We cannot, however, use religious text as we have no way to get god to repeat the claim that men should not lay with men. It was only observed once. This is not a good data point and cannot be relied on as evidence. Thou shall not lay with a man Leviticus 18:22 has the same merit as no football playing in Leviticus 11:8, no tattoos in Leviticus 19:28, and no divorce in Mark 10:9 (Kim Davis seems to really not care about this line of scripture). That is to say it has no merit. Also, god’s statement on same sex marriage was not peer-reviewed by the hundreds of other deities. Again, not a a reliable data point and it is rejected by the scientific method.

Thus, because same sex couples are, of course, humans they are equal to opposite sex couples and can, of course, marry. Our hypothesis is supported. We learn from this example that when using the scientific method religious text can never come into play because it is evidence is not peer-reviewed or repeatable.

Conclusions

The United States is leagues ahead of any other country in science and innovation. But why are its citizens and congress anti-science? I think, as Dan Rather pointed out, is partially due to misinformation from the media. It may also be in part due to the misconceptions about how science is conducted. I hope this post about the scientific method will provide politicians and citizens alike a scientific framework for thinking about policy decisions. Hopefully I did a sufficient job at explaining how powerful the scientific method is for making unbiased theories about the world. If people begin to use the scientific method more often they may gain an appreciation for science and understand why it is always changing as new hypothesis are tested. If politicians begin to use the scientific method when thinking of issues we will have evidence backed polices and donor and religious influence would be naturally avoided. Faults can occur in the scientific method if data is cherry picked, but that is not how the scientific method is to be conducted. All reliable evidence must be taken into account when forming theories.This will lead to policies that are more beneficial to the nation and earth rather than the bank accounts of a select few.

Scientific knowledge is of course ever changing as we gather new information and test new hypothesis so do not get discouraged if things change. It is perfectly okay for your hypothesis to be wrong; they often are. However, robust general theories rarely change much. We have a more nuanced understanding of gravity, but the theory of gravity still exists. We may learn more about climate change, but I would very much doubt that the theory that humans have had a drastic impact on climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions will go away.

Hopefully this article will add to the discussion of anti-science feelings in the United States. By getting anti-scientists to use the scientific method we may be able to change their perceptions about science and make better informed decisions using factual evidence. I hope one day all the citizens of earth will be scientists.


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