Scientific American Drifts From Science

A few weeks ago, Scientific American sent twenty questions to the four Presidential candidates, asking for their policy positions on scientific issues. I think that’s a fine idea. The next President will control billions of dollars in federal funding for science, have to set priorities for our various department and agencies that do science and have to deal with scientific issues like disease, vaccines and climate change. These questions won’t reveal much about what the candidates think, but will reveal the kind of people they surround themselves with who actually write the answers. Are they surrounding themselves with real scientists or cranks? Big government lackeys or free market gurus? Earth-first idiots or global-warming-is-a-fraud crackpots?

Having read through the answers, it’s about what I would expect. It’s mostly pablum but gives you a general sense of their philosophies. Clinton thinks government can solve everything, Johnson is very in favor of free markets, Stein is a crackpot and Trump is kind of all over the place. All show some grasp of the issues but differ on their approaches. In terms of the quality of answers, I would rank them Johnson, Clinton, Trump, Stein, but … that is an entirely subjective rating. I rate Johnson high because I favor free markets and Stein low because she’s a crank who favors massive government intervention in everything.

Well, that wasn’t enough for Scientific American, who decided to “grade” the candidates on their answers. They rated Clinton highest (64 points), Stein (44 points), Johnson (30) and Trump (7). But their ratings having nothing to do with the actual science and everything to do with politics.

Both Trump and Johnson are hit for favoring free market approaches to climate change. Why? Because Scientific American doesn’t think the free market can handle climate change. Maybe it can’t, but that’s an opinion not a fact. It’s fine for pundits to have opinions but SA is presenting this as though it is some kind of objective analysis, which it clearly is not.

It get worse. They are heavily biased against Trump, frequently giving him zeros on issues where he’s not entirely wrong. They give him 0 points on education because he favors bringing more market forces to bear on education. Trump may be right or wrong on that (I think he’s right) but they bash him because ITT folded and Trump University was a scam. This has nothing to do with what Trump said. It’s bashing him for things he said outside of the forum and for issues unrelated to what he’s talking about. If you’re going to hit Trump for the failure of ITT (which he had nothing to do with), why not hit Clinton for taking millions in “for profit” college money? Clinton and Trump give basically the same answer on nuclear power, but Clinton gets two points and Trump gets one because reasons. On scientific integrity, they give Trump 0 points because … Politifact has rated a lot of his utterance as untrue. Look, I’ll be the first to call Trump a liar but this has nothing to do with his answers to this specific question. It’s ridiculous.

But it gets even worse. On nuclear power, they give Jill Stein 2/5 points. Jill Stein’s answer on nuclear power is one of the worst answers the entire debate. She plans to shut nuclear power down based on junk science and favors on-site storage based on junk science. Her proposal would almost certainly make climate change worse, not better. And if we’re going to judge candidates by what they’ve said elsewhere, she once claimed nuclear power plants were bombs. Stein is a complete crank on nuclear power. There is no way she should get any points on this. She also get 2/5 on food, even though she’s a complete crank on GMOs and farming.

Nowhere is this bias more visible than the question on vaccines. Trump is given 1/5 for occasionally engaging in anti-vaccine nonsense. But Stein is given 3/5 when her entire party is devoted to anti-vaccine nonsense; nonsense she has not seen fit to dispel. Seriously, Scientific American? Seriously?

I’m glad someone is asking the candidates questions about science policy. But Scientific American needs to just lay out the questions and answers and leave it that. We do not need this kind of biased analysis showing up in a supposedly scientific magazine. Write about it on Politico or Daily Kos or whatever.

You might wonder why this set me off. It’s because this is one of the biggest problems facing science today: the efforts by scientists and scientific publications to wed scientific facts to political opinions. This shows itself most thoroughly in the debate about global warming where disagreeing with left wing policy solutions to global warming is considered a form of “denial” on par with claiming the planet isn’t actually warming. The debate over global warming (and a host of other issues) would be light years easier if we separated those two; if we said “you can accept that global warming is real and not accept my solutions to it”. SA’s “grading” of the answers to the science debate is just the latest in the misguided philosophy of mistaking opinions about scientific issues for facts about scientific issues. And it needs to stop. These issues are way too important.