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the big tent of the anti-science crowd

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A column in today’s USA Today (I know, I know) got me thinking about a common subject at TRC, science and politics and the science denial-ism of the contemporary Republican party. I write and harp much on today’s GOP for simply ignoring science. Evolution is not something that you can disagree with. It’s science. C’mon, you Republicans, acknowledge facts! These are such things as are common at TRC.

But it is unfair to simply paint the GOP as anti-science, and pretend that the Democrats marry themselves faithfully to scientific knowledge. Which is the point of Alex Berezow’s column, “GOP might be anti-science, but so are Democrats.” The title pretty much tells you the story. Berezow details that, yes, the GOP is anti-science on the three hot-button election cycle science issues: climate change, evolution, and stem-cell research. Here is Berezow on these issues:

“The GOP should never cave to the conservatives within the party who deny evolution and global warming. There is simply no excuse for that. Expressing moral concerns over embryonic stem cell research is legitimate, but it is best to leave regulatory policy to stem cell biologists and bioethicists. Experts should be making those decisions, not politicians.”

Agreed. Then, correctly, Berezow points out that science is not comprised of only these three issues. The Democrats, he argues, are just as likely to join the anti-science denial-ism regarding pet issues of their party. But Berezow selects an unfortunate choice of three issues to mirror the Republicans.  Two make the point well: Nuclear Energy and GMO foods. The third issue does not hold up. And all three fall away when held to a national party platform.

It’s true that many Dems ignore the basic science on Nukes and GM foods. Nuclear Power, by the numbers, is clean and safe. That’s just the case, whether the environmental crowd of the 60s and 70s, who are now the aged-elites of the movement, wish it or not. It is reasonable to question waste issues, and nuclear has profound implications for long term human planning (long-term here being 1000-10000 years, a difficult time-frame for making policy), but the science behind nuclear is, largely, at odds with the anti-nuke folks.

As for GM foods, I don’t have much to say. I recognize why some oppose it, and I acknowledge that, as far as food safety, hunger, and poverty are concerned, GM foods offer an actual solution to a terrible problem. That said, if we lose true wild rice in Minnesota and only are left with strains of GM wild rice that have been created in a  lab and grown in SE Asia, that’s a real, physical loss. But again, these are moral issues, such as those attached to stem-cells research, and not scientific ones.

All of this gets to the final issue that Berezow uses to prove that Democrats are anti-science: the anti-vaccination movement. Here’s the author on anti-vax:

“The most extreme example is the anti-vaccination movement, which has gained new but incomplete attention in the controversy among Republican presidential candidates over the HPV vaccine. Empowered by those who believe the myth that only “natural things” are good for you, anti-vaccine activists routinely share common ground with organic food consumers. In fact, a public health official once noted that rates of vaccine non-compliance tend to be higher in places where Whole Foods is popular — and 89% of Whole Foods stores are located in counties that favored Barack Obama in 2008.”

The anti-vax movement is not a Democratic movement. Saying the Democratic Party is anti-vax like the Republican Party is anti-climate change is utterly and completely false. It is a disgraceful equivalency. Opposition to climate change in the GOP is an accepted party platform, almost a requirement to prove the bona-fides of one’s conservatism today. Democrats who oppose vaccinations are crazy.

That’s because anti-vax Americans are not just anti-science, but anti-reality. They may prefer to vote Democratic on election day, but the Democratic Party as a political party is in no way linked to the blatant anti-science, ignorant position of anti-vaxers. It is not a political position of the National Democratic Party. Some individuals in the party have sympathized, or even cashed in on support from the anti-vax crowd. That shouldn’t be denied, ignored, or accepted. But it does not demosntrate that the Democratic Party is equally anti-science as the Republican Party.

The Democratic Party, by and large, does not carry party platforms that oppose science. They just don’t. Many Democrats in the house and senate oppose nuclear, oppose GM Foods, may even oppose vaccinations for unfounded fears of autism. There are also many who do not accept climate science, or question evolution. But just as many hold opposite points of view regarding each of these science-based issues. And by not opposing these issues, they are not breaking from the party fold. They are not outliers in a party that requires fidelity to anti-scientific positions. This is the difference.

Maybe this represents an optimistic picture of the Democratic Party. They are a political party after all, and speaking too highly of a political party, either party, leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. But there is a false equivalency, in my opinion, in comparing the anti-science Republican Party to anti-science democrats.

There are, of course, anti-science folks everywhere. Everyone, in some element of their mind, holds views that do not follow the scientific majority on many issues. In pointing this out, Berezow is correct. Democrats and Republicans alike pick and choose the science that serves political interest. But portraying the Democrats as a Party to be as anti-science as the GOP as a Party does not hold up to scrutiny. Because the GOP as a Party holds anti-science views. The Democratic Party, on the other hand, makes room for the anti-science democrats within the party.

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Written by Christopher ZF

September 21, 2011 at 11:28

Posted in anti-vax, food, Politics, Science

“Get off our back”, we can eat what we want

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Relative to:  Sarah Palin’s criticism of Michelle Obama, over the First Lady’s Anti-Obesity Campaign and school nutrition rules.

To start: This argument wants to be over the issue of the US becoming a “nanny state,” in which Americans lose the right to eat the “food” that they choose, despite eating very little food. I must say, I don’t want a nanny state. I understand that fear, and I get it. It is not really over “food”, and what “foods” or  foods one should eat.  It seems to me, the issue is about why so many people need that nanny in the first place. Sometimes, people need a nanny.

How can we have an argument about obesity? Obesity is a problem. An epidemic. This isn’t news, nor is it in any way disputable. It  causes diabetes, heart disease, strokes, Cancer, etc. etc. etc. (This is such obvious news, it doesn’t even deserve a link (here’s a link)). Children are becoming obese far too frequently for good-conscience adults to ignore. Remember adult onset diabetes? It doesn’t exist anymore, because it has become Type II diabetes. Adult onset implies it is an adult problem. Obesity ought be opposed. But we are not a nanny state. If you are an adult and want to be eat “foods” that directly lead to obesity (I recognize not all obesity issues result from lifestyle choices, that genetics and other factors exist) the government won’t stop you. It’s your right.

The question that has brought me to writing this post then, is why anyone would oppose a healthy foods initiative in school, for school children, for individuals who eat only what they are provided , and many of whom eat very very poorly. Do we really think that providing children with food, not “food”, is a symbol of a deteriorating state? Adults can eat what they want, but can they feed anything they want to their children? Knowing that childhood obesity is already a severe, and growing, problem in the United States? Sometimes folks need a nanny. Remember the story of that child who was named Adolf Hitler and was subsequently taken from his parents?  It turns out they weren’t fit to raise their children. Is that better or worse than providing a child with a lifetime of health issues and likely an early death? These are the stakes of obesity in the US. And it’s a huge problem, involving poverty issues, racial issues, education, access, etc. etc. etc. But one place that actual change can be made is in school cafeterias, where kids go almost everyday, to simply eat.

So, Sarah Palin, I get it. You want the government to stay out of your business. You’re running for president. You can eat all the ‘smores on your television show that you want, and criticize Michelle Obama for her healthy food programs, and deride her socialist nanny state tendencies. But there is nothing to oppose in supporting a healthy diet *and lifestyle* for children.

UPDATE: In a NY Times editorial today, The Can’t Do Nation, Timothy Egan writes the following: What’s wimpy is Sarah Palin equating Nanny State intolerance withMichelle Obama’s campaign to get children to exercise more and improve their diets. Eat smores, Palin implored, as a patriotic act of defiance to Big Government. This assertion is an affront to every genuine act of political disobedience, let alone the epidemic of childhood obesity.

Written by Christopher ZF

December 30, 2010 at 12:28

Posted in food

The Safety of Our Food

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Relative to: The Food Safety Bill and Growing Good Food

Eating foods that we know are safe and healthy should be among our highest societal values. It should be incumbent upon food producers to provide the safest product possible for consumers. But anyone who pays attention to food issues knows this is not the case. Rather, despite an upswell of interest in eating healthy food produced in a sustainable manner, the US continues to support an agricultural industry whose priorities are not even growing food, let alone growing safe food.

In this vein, the Senate passed the first overhaul of food safety regulations in 80(ish) years. The bill would hand more authority over to the Food and Drug Administration to recall food that is deemed unsafe, and puts further responsibility on food growers and processors to produce safe food products. Giving FDA the authority to recall foods (food recalls have been voluntary by growers and processors. Voluntary!) created strong opposition to the bill, but it was passed in the Senate with bipartisan support (73-25).

Of more interest to foodies and sustainable interests, and creating even more opposition to the bill, is Sen. Tester’s amendment.
The divide between corporate growers and family farmers stemmed from an amendment added by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), himself a farmer. Tester got an exception for small farmers — who sell directly to consumers at stands and farmers markets — from the legislation’s mandate that increases growers’ responsibility for contamination prevention.
I met Sen. Tester in his office in DC over the summer and have been impressed by his commitment to organic and small farm interests in Washington. Tester has been in organic farming for a long time in Montana, and is a valuable voice in the Senate on behalf of food producers who take routes other than corporate farming. Tester grows organically on a large scale, but advocates strongly for the smallest of producers, who might only sell at the farmer’s market or produce stands.

Exempting these small scale farmers, in my opinion, is an overall benefit for the organic, sustainable food producing community. But there are obvious dangers involved. If small scale farmers produce tainted or contaminated food, and FDA does not have equal authority, the small scale farmers could continue to fall even further behind corporate growers. Obviously, small-scale organic growers will have to be even more careful than the big guns.

Written by Christopher ZF

December 1, 2010 at 10:40

Posted in food, Politics

Less corn, more food.

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Relative to: Al Gore, Ethanol, Food

Ethanol requires a lot of land and even more energy to convert corn or grass or whatever biomass one prefers into fuel. But as an alternative fuel solution, back in 2000, Al Gore was a big pusher for the product. Now, with some refreshing candor, Mr. Gore has admitted his mistake.

“It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first-generation ethanol,” Gore said at a green energy conference in Athens, Greece…”One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee,” he said, “and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.”

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. He pandered for votes in the 2000 election, and supported an environmental measure that was not in the best interest of the environment. Our agricultural subsidies in this country are absurd and out of hand, and the ethanol subsidies are part of the problem. That being said, I am from Minnesota, and my family is full of corn growers who benefit from these subsidies. I don’t know the solution to the problem, but there have to be better alternatives. Such as: making food a profitable product, then encouraging farmers to grow food, rather than destroying the soil by growing corn crop after corn crop every year. That’s just one idea, but it seems like a pretty good option to me. We need more food in this country. By food, I really mean food, not the “food” that makes up most of the diet of our nation, and is pretty much, well, corn.

Written by Christopher ZF

November 24, 2010 at 11:03