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9/27/15

USA: Ignoring science isn't a Republican problem. It's an American problem.- by Dan Rather

How many times have you heard that lately from politicians who are trying to duck questions about important scientific topics like climate change and vaccines?  So many times that it's even become a Wikipedia entry.

But what does that phrase even mean? I'm not a cardiologist.

So I go to one to have my heart checked. I'm not an electrician, so I hire one to rewire my house. I trust people who have training in those fields to give me advice on important things. You're right, Mr. or Ms. Presidential Candidate, you are not a scientist. So, why won't you listen to the men and women who are?

I grew up in an age where children were crippled and died from diseases like polio and measles, and now we have Donald Trump irresponsibly repeating long-discredited links between vaccines and autism. It's an offense to reason. Equally, so was the reaction of the two doctors on stage, Rand Paul and Ben Carson.

Sure, if you read their words, they support vaccines, yet raise questions about the timing of giving vaccines that is without scientific merit. Moreover, their tone is apologetic and equivocal. About vaccines! These are medical advances that have done more to alleviate human suffering than anything ever conjured by the ingenuity of the human mind.

The stated position of almost every Republican candidate flies in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. The only "debate" over climate change in essentially the entire world occurs in the United States. I can hear some Democrats I know thinking this anti-science farce is a Republican problem.

But when I talk to scientists about this frightening trend, they don't just mention climate change. They bring up things like Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs); most of the anti-GMO heat comes from the political left.

If you excoriate climate change deniers along the lines that there is overwhelming scientific evidence for manmade climate change, you can't ignore the fact that that same scientific consensus exists on the safety of GMOs. You can argue that GMOs aren't as important a problem as climate change. And that may be true. But the anti-science spirit remains the same, and that is dangerous. This isn't to say we can't have a debate about how we use GMOs or how we respond to climate change. We just can’t ignore the science.

Vaccines, climate change, GMOs. If you are a Republican reading this you are likely to criticize me for at least one of these issues; if you are a Democrat, maybe another.

Why has science become political? Many intelligent people have written about this issue and surely there are many factors — loss of faith in authority, suspicion of big corporations, a general political balkanization. I am in no position to judge the relative influence of these components. But let me add another on which I feel qualified to weigh in on: my own profession, the press.

It's not just that we don't understand the facts, or that we hype certain "advances" that are more PR than science, or that we shy away from covering important stories because they're "too complicated." It's that we don't even do a good job explaining how scientific research works. We don't understand how data should be analyzed or what a scientific consensus actually means. And with cuts to newsrooms and "specialized beats," it's only getting worse. There are some science news outlets and individual reporters at media companies big and small that do a great job.  If I were to generously grade the "mainstream media" on science coverage, I would give us a C -..

Read more: Ignoring science isn't a Republican problem. It's an American problem.

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