Mar 10 2009

Obama on Science

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Comments: 41

Obama signed an executive order yesterday lifting the ban on embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. No surprise there – it was highly anticipated that he would remove Bush’s ban on federal funding for such research.

Obama, however, decided to sweeten the deal by adding a memorandum regarding science in general. He wants to shield the scientific process from ideological intrusion. This is a very good thing – a principle with which I heartily agree.

Harold Varmus, who co-chairs Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is quoted as saying:

“We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs,” Varmus said. “This is consistent with the president’s determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy.”

Obama and his advisors have shown that they understand science only works when it is free from outside influence designed to bias the findings or operation of science. If science is subjugated to ideology or politics, it ceases to be science.

So now we know that the Obama administration will talk the talk of science – that’s good. But the real tests are yet to come. It remains to be seen if he will walk the walk.

It is one thing to decry the abuses of science by one’s ideological foes – we all do this. We know that the Obama administration will criticize and correct where possible abuses of science by conservatives in the past. These include embryonic stem cells, the denial of man-made global warming, reliance upon abstinence-only sex education, and obstruction of the Plan-B over-the-counter “morning after” pill.

The real test will come when science conflicts with liberal ideology. The biggest issue I see here is that of so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). Already Tom Harkin, a fellow Democrat, is trying to use Obama’s health care initiative to increase the integration of unscientific CAM into science-based medicine.

As I discussed last week, Harkin’s agenda is about as unscientific and ideologically driven as you can get.

Ideology also trumps science when it comes to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). I and others have called upon Obama to disband this organization. The research they fund is either useless to science, serving only to promote CAM, or it can easily be funded by another center within the NIH. The political purpose of NCCAM is to create a double standard for CAM and to promote CAM – not to do good science.

If Obama is serious about putting science first then he will need to also take on those unscientific  programs and beliefs that are popular with Democrats. (As a side note, CAM proponents often find support also among anti-regulation libertarian Republicans, but this does not lessen the point that it is also popular among many Democrats.)

There are other issues as well, many having to do with energy. This includes traditional Democratic opposition to nuclear power. It seems this has been weakening with the spike in oil prices last year, but we will see how this plays out.  Subsidies for corn-based bio-fuel are also scientifically dubious but politically popular.

Don’t get me wrong – I think that Obama’s dedication to untainted science is real and he deserves credit for this. He clearly wants to send this signal with the memo he is attaching to his lifting of the Bush ESC ban.  I am only pointing out that so far this principle has only been applied to opposing conservative positions. We have yet to see if his dedication to science will hold when traditionaly liberal positions are in the cross-hairs.

We will see.

41 responses so far

41 thoughts on “Obama on Science”

  1. ADR150 says:

    another stripe of democrat that might impede efforts to curb CO2 emissions are the so-called “brown-state” democrats where coal is a major supplier of energy, mainly in the midwestern states.

  2. I really can’t think of CAM as being a liberal position. It’s just as likely to be promoted by right-wing conspiracy theorists as by fuzzy-minded new agers. Jenny McCarthy is hardly a liberal icon.

  3. Fifi says:

    Alison – I agree. CAM seems to be a bipartisan thing which manages to bring together believers on both side (of the not very wide) American political spectrum. It’s common factor is a need for religion/spiritual beliefs to be a part of science and medicine – be they new age or Fundamentalist (and they’re often both at the same time, like Scientology). The key hooks seem to be an idea/image of “freedom” that fits into Americ’s Marlboro Man patriotic freedom mythology (the rugged individualist who is an outlaw hero fighting the government for “freedom”, the irony of it being people in the government who propagate this meme is quite delicious, if also a bit tragic in terms of intellectual, personal and social integrity). I’m always amazed by how the rich and powerful in the US can spin any form of consumer protection or social equality into an issue of individual freedom (going so far as to make corporations into individuals to pursue profit and manipulate real people via this avenue!).

  4. I agree that CAM is bipartisan – that’s why I specifically mentioned this in the post.

    In fact, the liberal-conservative axis is too limiting to capture many ideological opinions. CAM has more to do with science/reality vs spirituality.

    But this is actually irrelevant to my point – which is that Obama does not get points for opposing conservative positions based upon science. He will prove he is truly dedicated to science when he opposes positions popular among liberals (whether or not they are also popular among other groups) based upon science.

  5. Fifi says:

    Also, Obama’s moving very fast to change things so decrying what he hasn’t done yet as a failing (like dismantle a whole organization!) is a bit silly. He is a politician and he’s already making big moves politically. All the other politicians will be jockeying to preserve their special interests (and those of their constituents). If Obama’s smart he won’t get rid of NCCAM, he’ll make it align more stringently with science and not play by it’s own rules beforing folding it back into the science fold.

  6. Orac says:

    I really can’t think of CAM as being a liberal position. It’s just as likely to be promoted by right-wing conspiracy theorists as by fuzzy-minded new agers. Jenny McCarthy is hardly a liberal icon.


    Whenever I hear someone spouting nonsense about how liberals are the main supporters of CAM and alternative medicine, I first point out people like Ron Paul and Dan Burton, neither of whom are what you would call “liberal” and both of whom are huge boosters of “health freedom” and quackery. Dan Burton, in particular, is a friend to the antivaccine movement.

    If that doesn’t work, then I go for the “nuclear” option: I point out that the Nazis were very much into homeopathy and naturopathy, both of which they considered to be more volkish. That’s not to Godwinize the argument, but only to point out that support for alternative medicine is very much a problem that spans the entire spectrum of political ideologies. The reasons for supporting it may be different among liberals (suspicion of “big pharma” and a tendency to New Age-type mystical beliefs) and conservatives (suspicion of government and a belief in “health freedom,” which is in reality freedom from pesky laws and regulations that keep quacks from practicing their quackery), but the magical thinking leading to woo is the same.

  7. Fifi says:

    You’ll notice that the meme both the left and right wing use is “health freedom” – a meme that appears to have been created by the very dubious and General Stubblebine (who is himself a very strange mix of new age and right wing having been one of the person behind all the woo that was funded by the Pentagon in an attempt to create a “New Earth Battalion” of psychic super warriors that can kill with their mind). The “health freedom” meme is no less potent amongst left leaning people and no less frequently used by liberals.

  8. Fifi – I never criticized Obama for what he has not done yet or described it as a failing. Read the post again.

    I only stated that it is premature to conclude that Obama is pro-science simply because he uses science to reverse a bunch of conservative positions.

    I concluded that we will have to wait and see what he does when science confronts ideas popular to liberals.

    My final words – “we will see”

  9. Fifi says:

    Fair enough. However, I think you start making it appear a bit as if you have a political agenda when you start referring to nuclear energy as if choosing to use more nuclear energy is equivalent to science-based medicine. Also, it seems that all Obama’s been doing so far is rescind anti-science and anti-environmental moves by Bush that he promised to do during the election.

  10. geoff1502 says:

    Does anyone know how much the push for the science debate before the election, has influenced Obama’s science policy? Just from my own standpoint, the pro-science discourse from the candidates seemed to pick up after that. If the internet has had a positive influence on science and policy, this would indeed be good news for the future as well.

  11. Fifi says:

    geoff – I suspect a lot of Obama’s perspective just comes from being younger and affluent. Most young, affluent and educated people like science and technology. He’s not afraid of science and technology, or change, in quite the same way as many older politicians and people seem to be. What remains to be seen is how much of a technophile he is and if he’s of the Al Gore school of greenwashing of industry, “progressive” propaganda and technophilia or truly an advocate of science and clear, balanced thinking that neither deifies or demeans science but uses it as a tool to better understand our world and make sane choices that create sustainable societies. So far he’s actually looking back for a lot of his inspiration – from victory gardens to trains.

  12. Enzo says:

    I think Dr. Novella is right to reserve his judgement until more policy is discussed and written.

    I myself am curious to see what will be made of science topics that fall outside of the hot zone (stem cells, global warming, etc.). Will the doors open wider for basic and translational research that makes up a majority of the scientific community? Science funding is in need of help right now.

    I have noticed the current administration is making fair efforts, including a program that “fast tracks” grants for scientists working on select fields. These grants include requirements to describe how research in the field specified will help stimulate the economy, etc.

    I’m very positive about the issue. I think Obama clearly understands that science helps everything advance, including the economy.

  13. MattWarren says:

    Dr. Novella makes a very good point. I am an over-enthusiastic Obama supporter and I need views like Steven’s to help me be objective. I now have stronger criteria on which to evaluate President Obama’s Sciencey Credentials. If he meets these, I will be even happier. I am choosing to be optimistic. After the last 8 years, I think I’m entitled to a little bit of optimism.

    All of us who agree with Dr. Novella’s opinion that NCCAM should be defunded should make these views known to our representatives, the President and in all available public political forums. If Obama is as Sciencey as some will claim, then he might respond to a loud-enough outcry from “our people”.

  14. pec says:

    “(NCCAM). I and others have called upon Obama to disband this organization.”

    I rather doubt Obama is an atheist/materialist with his mind nailed shut. Therefore, he probably won’t disband NCCAM.

  15. pec,

    Did you miss the news? Senator Harkin recently let slip that the purpose of NCCAM was to *validate* alternative therapies. So, which side is it that has it’s mind nailed shut?

  16. Or nailed open, which is just as bad.

    Call me a cynic, but where science meets political expediency, science loses, regardless of party or ideology.

  17. empiricalgod2 says:

    I think it’s Great that Obama administration is reversing Bush’s policies. I wish i could read Bush’s mind everytime Obama signs or announces a reversal of his policy. I bet Bush is fuming to himself.

  18. Min says:

    Yep, let’s shield science from ideological intrusion…oh except for that whole cloning thing because its “wrong”.

    Where’s the rolling eyes emoticon?

  19. chtr says:

    In Canada, the party in power is the Conservative Party, a copy of the Republican Party. And the Minister of Science and Technology is a chiropractor.

    So CAM is not necessarily liberal.

  20. badrescher says:

    You are sooooo speaking my language here. It is SO REFRESHING to hear a voice of reason among the cheers in the blogosphere.

    Politics are never transparent and this guy is better at the game than the last one. I love what he has said about science, but words are not actions and actions are not always what they appear to be.

    I am hopeful, but it will take a LOT more to get me excited.

    CAM is definitely bi-partisan. The difference between the liberal CAM user and the conservative CAM user is the sCAM for which they fall. The left tend to lean toward the old stuff (e.g., acupunture) & conservatives the new (e.g., magnets).

  21. erdrick says:


    You said, “I agree that CAM is bipartisan – that’s why I specifically mentioned this in the post… Obama does not get points for opposing conservative positions based upon science. He will prove he is truly dedicated to science when he opposes positions popular among liberals (whether or not they are also popular among other groups) based upon science.”

    This is a keen observation, and I wholeheartedly agree. (Now thank me for adding so much content to this conversation.)

  22. QuestionEverything says:

    I wonder how much of a fan Oprah would be of Obama if he started meddling in her religious beliefs (crap-based medicine and general ingnorance).

  23. pec says:

    “I wonder how much of a fan Oprah would be of Obama if he started meddling in her religious beliefs”

    Obama has religious beliefs also. You materialist wackos are only a tiny minority.

  24. weing says:

    Are you saying Obama is going to try to impose his religious beliefs on us non-believers?

  25. TheBlackCat says:

    “Obama has religious beliefs also. You materialist wackos are only a tiny minority.”

    14%, a minority but I wouldn’t call it “tiny”.

  26. Have anything substantial to add, pec, or do you just have childish insults to spew? You’re not even trying anymore.

  27. TheBlackCat says:

    I apologize if this is old news, but I just found out about the U.S. government accountability office is requesting that the FDA be given more power to oversee, guarantee the safety and effectiveness of of, and regulate dietary supplements:

    This would be a great thing if they actually manage to pull it off.

  28. HHC says:

    Min, you are right. President Obama did state in his recent speech that cloning was morally wrong. Guess “Hello Dolly” is not part of his Washington repertoire.

  29. TheBlackCat – I blogged about the GAO report today on SBM

  30. badrescher says:

    “You materialist wackos are only a tiny minority.”

    Does “materialist wackos” cover atheists, scientists, or just us special combo wackos (atheist scientists)?

    I think I will let our contributions be the measure by which our value in society is judged. Market share will follow.

  31. sonic says:

    If one wanted to remove science from ideology, then the first place to start would be to remove science funding from the government.

    Here are some questions that I have about the whole thing-

    Why do scientists need so much money from the government? Can’t they raise funds on their own?
    If someone truly believes that stem cell research (for example) is going to produce all these amazing cures, why don’t they just give the money to the researchers? Why do they feel the need to force people who would not fund the research to fund it? How is the use of tax dollars not ‘ideological’?

    If one wanted to remove ideology from science, then the first place to start would be to remove government funding from science.

  32. weing says:

    Because the government confiscates so much of our money, that’s where the money is. The US owes its scientific and technological advantage, and resulting tax revenue, to the funding of scientific research. If the leaders are stupid enough to change that, we will all suffer. A return to pragmatism would be great. I recall Obama saying that he would raise taxes on the higher income people even if it lowers tax revenue in order to satisfy his redistributionist ideology.

  33. TheBlackCat says:

    Can’t they raise funds on their own?

    From who?

    If someone truly believes that stem cell research (for example) is going to produce all these amazing cures, why don’t they just give the money to the researchers?

    If someone truly believes they need roads, why don’t they just give money to the road workers? If someone truly believes they need police, why don’t they just give money to police departments?

    If one wanted to remove ideology from science, then the first place to start would be to remove government funding from science.

    And that would result in pretty much the end of any pure research in this country. Brilliant plan there.

  34. sonic,

    It’s very ironic that you chose stem cells as your example, seeing as human embryonic stem cells were first isolated at a state university with public money. So, without government funding for science, no one would know about stem cells or their economic potential.

    There are other responses, as weing and TheBlackCat got into, but really you shot off your own foot from the get-go.

  35. sonic says:

    weing, TheBlackCat, cheglabratjoe,
    How do people fund anything? They demonstrate value and either sell a product that people want, or gain donations from like-minded individuals.
    You seem to have a very low opinion of science (nobody would fund it except through force)
    I don’t believe scientists need to have forced collections imposed on those who might otherwise be unwilling to fund them.
    (As an aside- the government of the USA is in massive debt. It is not ‘where the money is’).

    Your argument is an example of a “post hoc” fallacy.

  36. Sonic – you are presenting a bit of a false dichotomy – free market funding vs forced collection.

    But – we have a representative government. Most people want there to be medical research to help find cures for diseases. This is actually one of the most popular things the government does. It makes sense to have a public pool of money to support such research and for there to be an objective and scientific process to decide which research is most promising and deserving.

    An expert panel in a careful deliberative process is likely to make more informed and thoughtful decisions about where to invest research dollars than the public square. As long as the process is free from ideological tampering, which is the issue with stem cell research.

    The private sector is still free to fund their own research. Companies can fund research that is likely to earn them a profit. Special interest groups can pass the hat to fund research into the diseases they care about.

    While I am a strong believer in the power of the marketplace, market forces are not always well-informed, deliberative, or rational.

  37. mindme says:

    ||You seem to have a very low opinion of science (nobody would fund it except through force)||

    One should not caution others about logical fallacies while making your own fallacy. It’s a straw man to claim they’re arguing no one would fund x. They may be arguing (rightly or wrongly) that government is the most efficient or fair method (but not the only method) of funding pure research.

    The argument could go:

    1) Pure research has consistently demonstrated long term benefits even though it was hard to demonstrate such research had immediate benefits.

    2) Allocation of funds via private industry would not be free of industry trying to fund research that produces a better iPod.

    3) The government, without a dog in the fight, would be a more fair allocator of funds for pure research.

    4) Scientist then have to compete for the money not based on what has the most commercial potential but what has the most potential of adding knowledge.

    5) If as a society we generally agree we’re happy to give up tax dollars for such funding, then, you know, we generally agree. If we start to think we’re not getting benefits, we’ll start to vote for politicians who will stop funding science.

    One might counter argue that if we eliminated government funding for science we would suffer as a society. Business would not have the basic research to spin into products. Business would then realize it had to start funding more pure research.

    But then we’re talking about a couple decades maybe of reshaping the way science is funded.

  38. sonic,

    The way I phrased my point, indeed it was. My bad. But, the fact remains that the research was funded through public money, and thus public money was a causative agent in isolating stem cells. Could the research have been done with private money? Perhaps. But, as it stands, it *did* happen with public money.

    No one can say whether or not the discovery would have been made without public funding for science. I cannot say: “without public funding, we wouldn’t know about stem cells.” However, in parallel, you cannot claim that they (and indeed all fruitful research) would definitely have been discovered without public funding.

    A helped cause B (gov’t money, stem cells). You’re saying that C (private money) could have done it just as well. How do you know that? Are you perhaps making the argument from final consequences (gov’t money leads to ideological influences)?

  39. MNIce says:

    Senator Harkin is scheduled to be at Obama’s Regional Forum on Health Reform in Des Moines on March 23.

    The link allows you to suggest a question (even link to a video!) and check a box to say you’re interested in attending. This would be a great chance to call Harkin out on his recent NCCAM statements.

  40. sonic says:

    mindme- Good point.

    cheglabratjoe- yes I am thinking that a representative government (like we have in the USA) should make policies that reflect and respect the ideologies of the people being represented. I don’t think that is a bad thing, but it is the very nature of the gig.

    Steven- I agree that this could be viewed as a false dilemma. But I also think that the government should only fund projects that are in argeement with the ideologies and morals of the vast majority of the governed. I don’t think it is a good idea for the government to fund what a majority of the people think is murder- no matter how badly informed that majority may be. Educate, but don’t force the majority to participate in what they consider murder. I don’t think a government that does that is serving the people well and may not be around for too long.

    Doesn’t that seem reasonable?

  41. HHC says:

    sonic, What you have stated is not reasonable. Murder is defined as the unlawful killing of a human being by another human being with premeditated malice, directly expressed or implied. This is not the same as the research discussed here.

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