The Science Primary is…

….now over.

The blogosphere has been all over Hilary Clinton’s bizarre, preposterous, and just plain awful defense of the gas tax holiday nonsense to which she has, seemingly, attatched the last shred of her hopes of winning the nomination. See John Cole for his customary clarity and — how to say this…– precision guided rhetoric. The Carpetbagger (Steve Benen) is on the case; so is Matthew Yglesias … and best of all, Brad Delong channels Robert Reich to drive a stake through the heart of Clinton’s latest.

But neither the politicos nor the science blogging world have picked up on what seems to me one of the central implications of Clinton’ s statement that

I’m not going to put my lot in with economists, because I know if we get it right, if we actually did it right, if we had a president who used all the tools of the presidency, we would design it in such a way that it would be implemented effectively….You know, it’s really odd to me that arguing to give relief to the vast majority of Americans creates this incredible pushback…..

We’ve got to get out of this mindset where somehow elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans.

(You can check out the whole transcript here.)

There are two things that jump out of the quote. First, it is incredibly muddled or rather, actually more than a muddle. Clinton here depends on an obvious contradiction: she doesn’t trust elite opinion, but she will need elite-level policy design and implementation to give the idea even a remote chance of working.

Sorry — it’s one or the other; expertise or failed policy…but not both.

That’s one. The other, broader implication is that we actually just held the long hoped for science debate — and the winner is clear.

I’m going to blog this week on what John McCain’s publicly announced budget plans mean for science (nothing good, and actually worse than that) — and I’ve already taken whacks at a few of his more obvious gaps and loopiness on more or less scientific topics. There is nothing in his record or in the statements McCain has made on the campaign trail that suggests that he has made the connection between scientific research or the critical thinking scientific training inculcates and the economic health and national security of the United States. He lost the science debate long ago.

But what of Hilary? Up until recently, she hadn’t been doing too badly. She, like McCain and Obama, have wavered on some things – all three have fallen into the peculiar trap of waffling on the autism/vaccine issue, for example — and all the criticism I and many others showered on McCain on this one falls to the other two as well.

But broadly speaking, judging by the issues papers on her website, Clinton has maintained a fairly sophisticated approach to global warming and applied research, with the implication that the policies near and dear to scientists’ hearts — more money, and even more important, respect for the real knowledge developed within by scientific process, would flow under a Clinton presidency. What Clinton provided for public consumption may be boilerplate, but it has been good boilerplate.

But now, what she said at the Indiana interview this morning changes the game. She said, in effect, if the smart boys and girls don’t agree with her, then to hell with them.

That is, of course, precisely the anti-rational madness that has dominated the George Bush years. It is inimical to science or a scientific world view. If we are to pick and choose the facts we like, it is a very short step, quickly taken, to making them up. And that way lies an ever more rapid collapse of the American republic.

Science won’t care. Nature doesn’t care. People will still do the work, because it is interesting; it is useful; it satisfies personal needs and passions and responds to a seemingly universal human eagerness for knowledge.

It’s just that there is no natural law that requires that the leading edge work be done here. Even if it does, if we can coast on the accumulated intellectual capital we still possess, there is no guarantee that it will be allowed to inform the way we live here. We can lose the extraordinary benefits of generations of world scientific leadership surprisingly quickly — and announcing that you will ignore the advice of experts when it pleases you is a pretty good way to grease the skids for such a decline.

Barack Obama is no perfect paragon — the vaccine stuff is a relatively minor demonstration that he can pander too, soothing a passionate pressure group despite overwhelming expert advice. He is, after all, a politician, a very good, a very compelling one. I’m willing to bet that he’ll find times when the inherent uncertainty in science gives him useful cover for the lesser but more popular choice.

But on the gas tax holiday he has been exemplary. He recognized the flaws in the idea — from the fact that it won’t work, to the realization that even if it did work precisely as designed it’s still the wrong policy to pursue if you take the issues of energy independence and global warming seriously.

He’s said so in a range of ways and places, and he has taken the trouble to explain the subtleties of his position.

That’s the way a president who can hear advice talks. And that capacity is what American science needs more than any particular policy stance.

We may not have had our science debate in any formal sense — but on the gas tax issue, our candidates have managed to perform a reasonable simulation of one. And as I said at the beginning, there is one clear winner.

Image: Nar Singh, “Jesuits at Akbar’s Court” illustration for the Akbarnama, c. 1605. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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Explore posts in the same categories: bad ideas, climate, Climate follies, Clinton, Economic follies, Energy follies, McCain, Obama, Politics, Science Policy, Sharp thinking, Stupidity, Uncategorized, Who thought that was a good idea?

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8 Comments on “The Science Primary is…”


  1. […] campaign’s fourth-quarter full court press with no goalie, and then I see Tom Levenson wrote it […]


  2. Well, no, not all bloggers missed this story. I, for one, wrote about it. Though admittedly, I’m well off the beaten path of the blogosphere.


  3. We’re arguing over a gimmick that will save you half-a-tank of gas.

    Thanks, Tom – I had missed this. Unfortunately, even the 24-hour news cycle fails to devote the required 2 1/2 minutes to air this video. I, too, am very disappointed in Obama’s anti-vax pandering but you’ve really got to appreciate a candidate who can break down an issue like this and show how political posturing will actually do more harm than good.

  4. Tom Says:

    Sorry Misfit — you’re right; you got there first. I should know better than to make categorical statements about the blogosphere.

    But more is better on an issue, so no harm, I guess, and, I hope, no foul.


  5. I’m late to the party, but here’s my take. I parse “We’ve got to get out of this mindset where somehow elite opinion is always on the side of doing things that really disadvantage the vast majority of Americans.” as contradicting herself.

    One caveat: Expert opinion can be wrong even in consensus, to wit, over Iraq, though there were a few noble dissenters.

    But, hell, make an argument. Don’t take the Agnew path.

  6. Downpuppy Says:

    Disagreeing with economists is more like discounting a 2 week weather forecast than rejecting climate science. You can think her gas tax plan is silly (OK, you can hardly avoid that) but pretending that it somehow means she’ll become a Creationist or Einstein-denier is more than a bit disingenuous.


  7. […] Referring to this idea, originally from McCain, Obama makes a considered response. (via Inverse Square) […]


  8. […] (Acute readers will notice the depressing similarity between Duncan’s statement and the one discussed here.) […]


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