Today, Barack Obama becomes the 44th president of the United States. Obama earned his historic victory in large part because he articulated this nation’s longing for change and renewal.
While the Obama Administration must tackle an urgent and intimidating to-do list, one of the most important changes that our new president brings is renewing the value our nation places on science and reason.
Here’s what Obama said in December: “My administration will value science, we will make decisions based on the facts, and we understand that the facts demand bold action.”
Contrast that with George Bush’s approach to science on just one of many critical issues confronting us over the last eight years, as summarized by the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform in December 2007: “ … The Bush Administration has engaged in a systematic effort to manipulate climate change science and mislead policymakers and the public about the dangers of global warming.”
I’ve written frequently about the dangers of ideologues, those who cling to a theory or philosophy despite evidence that refutes it. I’m hopeful that with Obama’s leadership, we’ll realize that it’s imperative that we respect science and reason and reject ideology.
If we are guided by ideology instead of science and reason, we squander precious energy, money and time and prolong suffering.
Here in South County, for example, we’ve suffered the consequences of ideologues peddling unfounded fears about cell phone towers. Several years ago, the Gilroy Unified School District had the opportunity to earn several thousand dollars a year in rent for a cell phone tower on a school site. But ideologues armed with fear instead of facts convinced officials to reject that opportunity.
This particular flavor of ideology has reappeared several times since then. We endured protests about a possible cell phone tower in Morgan Hill’s Jackson Park and another planned for unincorporated Gilroy in 2005, and currently suffer through protests about the continued operation of a cell phone tower near Wheeler Center in Gilroy.
Cash-strapped public schools denied much-need funds, municipalities forced to spend scarce resources fighting fear from ideologues who ignore science: These are the local consequences of ideologies that ignore reams of scientific research showing that cell phone towers pose no public health risk.
Unfortunately, examples of ideology trumping science abound.
If you have a friend or loved one afflicted with autism, you are probably aware that in 1998, a British doctor speculated that a link between autism and the MMR vaccine might exist. In the intervening years, that theory has become an article of faith — an ideology — for many in the autism community, even though, as Alison Singer, former executive vice president of Autism Speaks, notes, “Dozens of credible scientific studies have exonerated vaccines as a cause of autism.” Singer is Autism Speaks’ former EVP because she recently resigned her position after other leaders of the organization refused to renounce their anti-vaccine ideology.
A highly respected medical doctor, Paul Offit — a pediatrician, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine, and author of the recently published book “Autism’s False Prophets” — has received death threats because he dares to criticize the autism-vaccine link theory based on science. He can’t even go on a book tour because concerns for his safety are so high.
I simply don’t understand why so many in the autism community value their ideology more than they value helping to prevent and treat autism. But that’s the tradeoff they’re making. Here’s what Singer told Newsweek: “Over and over, the science has shown no causal link between vaccines and autism. … If there was an unlimited pot of money at the NIH from which to fund autism science then it would be fine to say let’s study it more. But we don’t have that. We have very limited resources and every dollar we spend looking where we know the answer isn’t is a dollar we don’t have to spend where we might actually find new answers.”
I could list many more examples — climate change, embryonic stem cell research, pollution, endangered species protection, sex education, birth control, evolution — where science has been forced to take a back seat to ideology, especially during the last eight years.
Despite the many immediate challenges facing President Obama, valuing science and reason over ideology might be the most important long-term change he’ll create.